This post was inspired by a friend of mine who’s just starting out on her entrepreneurial journey. Recently, this friend had to deal with a difficult client. And when I say ‘difficult’, I mean a client who made a number of abusive calls to her on a Sunday night that culminated in this client yelling and calling my friend (and now, this is a word I haven’t whipped out before on the blog, so steady yourself…) a cunt.
I know, I know. It’s so outrageous it’s laughable, isn’t it?
It got me thinking. You see, these days I’m pretty clear that I hold firm my boundaries and don’t take any shit. But my position and conviction is the result of years of taking far too much shit, sometimes in fact, not even realizing I was actually taking shit until after the fact when I’d in passing mention the rubbish that’d been going down to a mentor.
Things started changing for me one day back when I was a consultant eagerly working my way up the ladder to senior consultant. I knew a portfolio of happy clients would help me get ahead sooner rather than later.
A colleague and I were working with a demanding client when the client rushed out of a meeting with her boss – clearly freaking out – yelling that Bruce (the senior consultant on site) and I had to do this, tell her boss that, and make him do the other.
Immediately my stress levels started climbing. What the client was asking us was out-of-scope, extremely awkward (!!), downright inappropriate, and entirely no Bueno. While I was panicking and wondering how the hell we were gonna meet these ridiculous demands, Bruce calmly replied, ‘No, we don’t’.
His response stopped our frenzied client in her tracks.
That tiny/monumental exchange was the beginning of the end for me when it came to taking shit and working with terrible clients. It was a revelation. I didn’t need to be at the whim of this (or any other) difficult client. And neither do you.
If you’re struggling with a challenging client now, here’s 8 strategies that have helped me all but eradicate (or at least better manage) difficult clients. I hope they work for you too!
1. Agree scope
Clearly articulating and agreeing on the scope of any work you’ll be doing for/with your client upfront will save you (both!) a world of pain and confusion down the track.
Pro Tip: Cover your ass by including a clause in your contract agreement that any work required that’s outside of scope will be undertaken at an additional hourly rate of X.
2. Communicate boundaries
It’s great to detail specific boundaries in your client contract, but don’t stop there. Ask yourself how else you could communicate expectations and action your ideas.
For example, perhaps you could:
- clearly state your ‘office hours’ and upcoming days away in your email signature block;
- send reminders of when you’ll be away;
- set up your out of office email autoresponder with expectations around response times;
- let the client know in advance that you apply rush fees for urgent work (if you do: include that in the contract).
You get the idea!
3. Pre-arrange check-ins and deadlines
Honestly, I’m not a huge fan of email mainly because I don’t like engaging in unproductive never-ending back and forths with clients. I’d much prefer to use that time to be actually working on their project. So, these days, I set and document specific agreed deadlines, due dates, and check-ins with my private clients. Having and communicating a plan increases client confidence, cuts down on those time-sucking ad-hoc email threads, and means clients are more likely to be clear on and available for key milestones.
4. Streamline client input (Especially for consultants and experts)
I love working collaboratively with clients, but sometimes the smartest thing to do is streamline your processes by reducing client input requirements so success relies on your efforts more than the clients. (For example, perhaps you might interview clients directly rather than asking them to complete a questionnaire.)
5. Use shared spaces
It can be beyond frustrating when a client habitually ‘loses’ important project info. Shared team working spaces and tools (like, shared Dropbox folders, Trello boards, Basecamp, Google Docs, and electronic meeting invites) are game changers when it comes to dramatically cutting down your clients searching for misplaced info.
6. Keep records
Whether you’re dealing with a difficult client or not, make a habit of keeping records of all your client corro, including call logs, time-stamped emails, courier delivery and other order numbers, and text messages. The once or twice a year you need to refer to your records, you’ll be so SO happy you kept them. Trust me on this.
This should never be your first point of call, but when you’re just not getting a response from your client, or they are consistently missing agreed check-in and deadlines, escalating your communication efforts can be very effective.
For example, if you normally communicate via email, you might try phoning them. In a corporate or business setting, escalating might include contacting your client’s assistant and/or immediate boss.
(Heads up: This strategy is only possible if you gather contact details for other team members or significant others as part of your client onboarding process.)
8. Let them go
Let’s be clear: you’re the boss, so you’re responsible for the working environment you create for yourself, your team and your clients. And if you’re interested in building a happy, profitable, sustainable business, it’s important to create and maintain a safe, productive, healthy work environment for you and your team.
If a client is in any way toxic, bullying or anti-social to you or any of your team/other clients, ending the relationship is the most responsible thing to do.
Pro Tip: When you’re letting go of a client, keep it professional and succinct. Don’t enter into a negotiation or multiple communications. Never threaten or name call or accuse. Be graceful and firm. And seriously, don’t hesitate to seek legal advice if you think you need it.
I hope you find these strategies useful! I’d love to know: are there any other strategies or tactics you use to deal with difficult clients?
I’d love you to share so we can all learn together!