How Do You Manage A Really Difficult Client?

Nov 11, 2016 5 Min Read
discussing about client issues
One Wrong Move And You Could Lose That Client Forever

Five tips to stay sane and REMAIN in business

Do you find yourself almost losing your cool when faced with a client who is consistently throwing criticisms at you and your organisation?

Are you finding it increasingly challenging to follow through with the client’s demands? Are you beginning to question the worthiness of the partnership between the client and your organisation?

If your answer is “yes”, you’re not alone. Difficult clients are easily the most common headaches for those in client-facing roles.

Unfortunately for many of us, when clients behave badly, our own primal instincts kick in and we’re tempted to respond with even worse behaviours of our own.

According to Aryanne Oade, author of Managing Challenging Clients: “Your client remains the client whatever the situation between you, and the need to take responsibility for handling your client effectively whatever the circumstances sits with you.”

So stay calm, and carry on with your job. After all, difficult clients can be managed, but only if you resist the temptation to fight fire with fire.

Read More: When Words Get In Our Way- How to Hang On To Your Equanimity

To help you manage your client and stay in focus, here is what you can do:

1. Understand your role

Some clients like to tell you how to do your job. There’s a favourite client-related expression for consultants: “Why hire a dog and bark yourself?”

You will be surprised to learn that there are clients who like to stand in your shoes, put your expertise down and even perform the task(s) they hired you to do. In this case, your role is to analyse a given situation and offer a solution without any coercion whatsoever.

Resist any temptation to enter into a contest of one-upmanship. Instead, deliver and let your talent speak for itself. Trying to control the situation any other way would result in a pissing contest.

2. Manage expectations

Often clients are difficult because they have unrealistic expectations about the services they will be provided, or the outcomes they hope to achieve. Some clients’ expectations are so completely off the mark, and yet they are not made aware of it.

If you are in a client engagement role, managing expectations should be part of your risk management process. It is important to identify, as early as possible, what the client wants and make clear which areas you will be owning and what level of service you are willing to provide.

Practising your negotiation skills can help a great deal when devising solutions, by not causing damage or harm in a situation, but resulting in a positive result.

3. Clear communication from the outset

It is very important to build a good relationship with a client, especially if he or she is potentially a difficult client. The first step to a healthy relationship with such a client is to establish clear communication both ways. When the client feels comfortable, he or she will be inclined to be more open and transparent to speak his or her mind instead of beating around the bush, thereby causing frustration on both sides.

4. Answer the question that is not asked

Often, you may find that people may ask a different question to the one they had in mind. For instance, the client might question the agenda of Project A, but what he or she essentially wants to talk about are the milestones that can be achieved at the different checkpoints.

Behind many such simple questions is often a larger question at the back of the client’s mind.

Thus, pay close attention and dig deeper into what the client is really saying, by establishing honest conversations so potential issues can be resolved.

5. Learn and adapt from conflict

Once you’ve dealt with a conflict, it becomes a learning experience. That experience would be even more valuable when you see conflicts in a new light – as opportunities for improvement.

This could point toward areas that you need to work on, and it could be something as simple as improving communication. Misunderstandings (or conflicts) happen when there is a lack of clarity in the way you relay your message. Conflicts thus provide an opportunity to re-look the problem and gain insight and information that may not have been obvious previously. Consciously practising good and clear communication between both parties can also serve to improve communication in the future.

In a nutshell

Dealing with difficult clients can make your toes curl, but the best part is that you will both get a chance to learn and improve from the experience. As a matter of fact, there is an argument that holds that disruption and difficulty can bring positive outcomes and new opportunities.

Every difficult engagement is an opportunity to develop better ways to collaborate, communicate and engage. Because the worst clients are the ones we remember the most, they are also the ones who are most likely to affect the way we behave in future.

How to spot a difficult client

How do you know when you’re dealing with someone who’s got the wrong attitude for business?

Here are nine common categories of a difficult client:

  1. Angry/hostile
  2. Vengeful/on a mission
  3. Over-involved/obsessive
  4. Dependent
  5. Secretive/deceitful
  6. Depressed
  7. Mentally ill
  8. The difficult client with the difficult case
  9. Credit-grabbing/blame-assigning


These life lessons don't have to be something you go through on your own. Check out Necole for more articles that could benefit your professional life. Necole is a state of the art learning platform that curates personalised learning just for you.


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Nina Ti is part of the team that manages social media and distribution of digital content for Leaderonomics. She writes on HR and management topics. All views and opinions expressed here are her own.

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