How to Deal With Difficult Clients

Set up ground rules and do your homework to avoid headaches down the line.
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Even if you have been in business for only one day, you have probably dealt with unpleasant and possibly dishonest clients or prospective clients. Over the past quarter-century, I have dealt with ogres, trolls and witches of all shapes and sizes, from lowlife bottom-fishers to Ivy League con men.

The first time you deal with someone dishonest, you're in a state of shock, as if someone slapped you across the face. When you work with impossible-to-please people, you feel as though their displeasure is your fault, and you work twice as hard to please, because you have a sense of inadequacy.

When I first started my consulting practice and a client voiced his or her displeasure, I would become so despondent that I couldn't work the rest of the day. My life, as I viewed it, was coming to an end. I wasn't worth a sack of year-old beans.

No question, there are times you will make mistakes, but you won't do yourself or the client any good by flogging yourself. You need to rein in your emotions and look at the situation objectively. You know in your gut if you have given your best effort, which is all you can do at the end of the day. Sometimes your best effort isn't good enough, because you don't have the right experience or knowledge, and you often won't be able to make your client happy -- for reasons that are out of your control.

I have developed a few rules when dealing with potential clients that I tell them up front.

No screaming

: I tell every prospective client that I expect to be spoken to in a calm, professional manner. If the client gives the lame excuse that they are "high-strung" and don't mean anything by it, I tell them the relationship won't work out. If, for strategic or monetary reasons, you have to take on such a client, then you have to fight bad behavior in kind.

One time a major accounting firm asked me to write a business plan for one of its best clients. The client was running a new venture. When I presented my draft, his face turned red, and he called me an idiot.

I had given the same draft to his executive vice president, and the prospective client called the EVP and asked him what he thought. The EVP was impressed with my work, and this set off a stream of profanities from my client, capped by him slamming down the telephone. I was summarily dismissed.

Two weeks later, he called me back to work, saying he was unhappy with two other writers. He promised to control his temper. I believed him, and again the same incident happened, but this time I calmly turned the tables on him and called him a variety of names. He laughed and said he deserved it, and I never had another problem. Did I feel better? Not really. When I was asked to work with him again, I declined.

No charlatans

: These are the prospective clients who oversell themselves to you. They tell you how great you are and suggest that if you work for less than your asking price and twice as hard, they will make it up to you with more work, referrals, stock and other goodies. More than likely, your gut is turning like a washing machine on spin cycle. You just know deep down that this person can't be trusted.

You have two choices. If you need the money, which has happened to everyone, get half up front, or at least enough to cover your costs in the event they elect not to pay you after you do the work.

No cheapskates

: There is

frugal

and then there is

cheap

. I admire people who respect the dollar, but I hate working with people who are cheap -- they are usually very demanding and don't spend money intelligently.

Before taking on any client, conduct your own due diligence, because the client isn't doing you a favor by hiring you. You are entering a business relationship, so make sure you do the following:

  • Internet intelligence: Go on the Internet and see whether the person has any lawsuits against them or if there are any sites dedicated to telling the world your prospect is a crook. Twice I dug deeply on the Internet and found old lawsuits and arrest records about potential clients.
  • Vendor feedback: I tell the prospect that I like to speak with past vendors so I can learn how best to work with them. When I speak to the vendors, I ask about the prospect's communication skills, integrity and morals. I can tell you that when I have ignored negative vendor feedback, I have regretted it.
  • Contacts: Contact accountants, lawyers and consultants to find anyone who may have worked for or with the company. If the company or individual is great to work with, people you will provide glowing reviews. If they are not, people will say they can't comment.

Life is short, and bad clients will take more energy, time and money than good clients. Do your homework and trust your gut!

Kramer is the author of five business books on topics related to venture capital, management and consulting. He is a faculty member at the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania and the veteran of more than 20 startups and four turnarounds.