How To Train And Retrain Demanding Clients

May 02, 2023 6 Min Read
Client relationship management
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Vector image is from freepik.com by @storyset.

Retrain Your Demanding Clients: How to Set Boundaries and Improve Relationships

“Yes, but . . .” is something the people we train and consult for often say when we talk about taking back the reins of their time and focus. “Yes, but . . . even though you are going to teach us new and easier ways of working and being less reactive to each other internally at our company, we still have to deal with our ever-more demanding clients.”

The people we train tell me about clients who call at all hours, clients who send enormous projects to begin on Friday afternoons, and clients who are infuriated by the slightest delays in response times. The constant pressure from without can make you feel like it’s not worth changing things within. But that’s not true.

Just like painting a whole house on a limited budget, you begin where you can and paint one room at a time. If you want new behaviours to contribute new shading to your ways of working, you can begin by painting your own room first, then the family room (team), then the kitchen (division or department), and so on. Only when those changes have been made and solidified is it time to turn your attention to the outside.

A humble way to begin is by accepting the person who trained your clients to have such demands in the first place—you. You, with the best of professional intentions, gave and gave and gave until your own boundaries evaporated. But it wasn’t your fault. You were fighting for business and fighting for professional relationships during a pandemic period, an inflation-rattling time, a recession-woe era. Like a game of professional Ping-Pong, you and your colleagues set the cadence, your clients grabbed their paddles, and they dove into the blistering pace—ker-ping, ker-pong, ker-ping, ker-pong—back and forth, faster and faster.

This awareness can help you begin a new cadence with clients going forward, perhaps by thinking of this process as throwing a football instead of trading shots in Ping-Pong. When you imagine sending long, slow passes back and forth, you can establish a pace of play that better serves you—and your clients too.

But I hear you. Even if there is hope for your fresh and future relationships, there’s still the “Yes, but . . .” in your mind. How do you retrain your demanding clients and external people? Slowly, very slowly.

Imagine a different metaphor this time: sleep training an older child. First, you sit on the bed as the child dozes off, then you stand by the doorway, and then you wait in the hall. You remove your availability slowly, imperceptibly, but with purpose. Likewise, if you have a client who expects you to respond to every email in one second, stretch the time to three seconds, then ten seconds, and then a few minutes. By doing so, you retrain the client while bringing fabulous service and your full attention to that client each time you return.

Discover: How Do You Manage A Really Difficult Client?

To make these shifts gently while keeping the relationship intact, you may try some of the  techniques that follow:

Explain the schedule: Researchers studied nurses and found that when hospital patients knew when nurses would visit their room, they pressed the help button much less often. The patients became much more easy-going when they had a dependable schedule. This outlook can work well with your clients too as long as you frame it as a service to them. Say, for example, “I’m starting a new email protocol so that you know when I’m available to you. I’m going to check my email at the top of every hour” (or at meal times or any other interval that feels freeing to you). Explain you’re doing this to be more reliable and responsive to them. Again, always frame a self-caring act in the light of how it serves your customer.

Have an escalation policy: With your current clients, in a moment when they are receptive, and with all new clients, explain the steps they should take when there’s an emergency. Give them the progression they should follow when they must reach you via email, texting, or phoning or calling your EA (or whatever fits your situation). That way they will not be peppering you from every possible communication angle when they are stressed.

Understand true urgency: This one is just for you. Do not explain it to your clients, or it may insult them. Much of what they consider urgent really is not. Like many people, they can fall victim to the altered mental state of “hallucinated urgency,” a chronic condition in which the default timeframe is always now. In truth, there are three categories of timing, and you should understand them to filter requests appropriately. Some examples follow:

  • NOT TIME SENSITIVE. Yes, this is sometimes true. 
  • TACTICALLY TIME SENSITIVE. When speed is tied to a business result.
  • EMOTIONALLY TIME SENSITIVE. When needs masquerade as tactically time sensitive but really aren’t. The compulsion to prioritise them comes from elsewhere—curiosity, anxiety, worry, discomfort.

Explain and use the 2D vs. 3D method: This one you can share externally, and doing so may go a long way to putting your communication into a more controllable flow. Every single message we exchange can be more effective if the right medium is chosen. 2D content is usually simple, yes/no, or fact-driven and can include texts, emails, printouts, online chats, reports, and presentation decks. Conversely, 3D content has nuance, emotion, or the opportunity for creative thinking. In 3D communication, we exchange critical cues through our tone, pace, and gestures. 3D modes of communication require a live element, such as a phone call, meeting, video chat, or face-to-face conversation.

Using this well-defined structure, you will soon understand why trying to build consensus for an important decision through a sputtering email thread probably should have been a 3D conversation. When you’re in a meeting, playing hangman on your mini legal pad, desperately thinking, “Why am I here?” it’s likely because the agenda is packed with 2D report-outs.

By sharing 3D content in a 2D medium, you compromise richness. By sharing 2D content in a 3D medium, you waste time. Your goal is to match the message with the medium.

This whole process of resetting expectations with clients (and yourself) does not happen in one attempt. Do not shift your availability to clients quickly and without explanation. I don’t want any of you to ever lose a business relationship because someone sees you fall off the availability cliff. But moving in that direction for future clients and slowly retraining existing clients is a brilliant idea. It frees you from the constant oppression of real-time responsiveness so you may better apply your talents every day.

This article was also published on Juliet Funt's LinkedIn

This article is also available in Chinese.

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Edited by: Kiran Tuljaram

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Juliet Funt is the founder and CEO at JFG (Juliet Funt Group), which is a consulting and training firm built upon the popular teaching of CEO Juliet Funt, author of A Minute to Think.
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