Dealing With Difficult Clients

Dealing With Difficult Clients: 7 Approaches To Transform Challenging Client Relationships

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If you’re in a client service business (lawyer, consultant or in-house services), you’ve met them: difficult clients. These clients are demanding. They may be anxious and need a lot of hand-holding. Or they habitually lob in urgent requests at the last minute. Some nit-pick your work. Some are rude or behave badly. Others try to micromanage you or are very hard to please. You see them as “difficult” because they demand special attention or effort and they often make your life harder. In extreme cases, they may seem like the enemy.

However, sometimes difficult clients also push you to do your very best work. They question your ideas and assumptions. They require you to explain what you’re doing and not operate on autopilot. They push you to meet tough deadlines. They require that you apply your skills and expertise and also your emotional intelligence. They can make you better.

A colleague and I facilitated a retreat for a client who challenged us in both positive and negative ways. They asked a lot of us and pushed our thinking. At times, their demands and oversight verged on micro-management, and we felt defensive and annoyed. A big ah-hah came for us when we realized that behind their requests and demands lay the fact that this retreat was important to them and that our approach felt risky to them. Once we started to empathize with them, our own frustration eased (somewhat). We realized that we were on the same side and responded with greater equanimity and good humor to their requests. The result was a retreat that surpassed all our expectations and a deeper and stronger relationship with a client who is likely to generate repeat business.

One definition of “difficult” is “needing much effort or skill to accomplish, deal with or understand.” We also apply this word to describe conversations that are important but challenging or scary in some way. Difficult conversations (also sometimes called crucial conversations) arise frequently in the workplace: giving and receiving tough feedback, addressing conflict or negotiating a salary. They require effort and skill and they are important. There are numerous articles, books and trainings on how to build these skills.

Both difficult conversations and difficult clients can trigger emotions and require a high degree of self-awareness and skill to manage well. And like conversations, when managed well, difficult clients can become deeper, stronger relationships. When you are confronted by a “difficult” client relationship, re-frame it as a challenge that will require your skill, and use it as an opportunity to deepen the relationship and build trust. Here are some approaches to transforming difficult client relationships.

  • Talk about the relationship. Set aside time to ask your client what they need for the relationship to succeed and let them know how you work best. Set expectations for communication cadence. Discuss and align about shared objectives. Periodically check in with them to get feedback.
  • Get curious. Seek to understand what is behind your client’s demands. If you understand your client’s drivers you will be better able to meet their needs. When they are questioning or critical, be aware of your own reaction and if you start feeling defensive, ask questions instead. Focus on making sure they feel heard to build relationship trust. Understanding their “affect heuristic”—the emotional driver for a decision—can help unlock a resistant client. If you sense a client is holding back because of fear, ask “What would help make you more comfortable with this approach?”  
  • Make a personal connection. Get to know your more about your client’s world outside of work and share about yourself and your interests. Developing a personal relationship helps build trust and understanding.
  • Up your communications game. Most clients like to know what’s going on, so it is better to be proactive and over-communicate than wait for them to bug you and be reactive. Even though you may want to avoid them, keep them updated on progress. Practice active listening and play back to them what they say to reassure them that their concerns are being heard.
  • Set boundaries. Modern client service business can become 24/7 if you let them. While responsiveness is essential to building strong client relationships, you need to calibrate. Set a target response time that is appropriate for the business and the type of request. Distinguish between emergencies and non-emergencies. Even if you choose to work late, don’t send emails at all hours of the night, which signals that you are available during those hours. Instead, if you do go online after hours, queue your emails to send the next morning at 6 a.m. or 7:00 a.m.
  • Practice compassion (for the client and yourself). Often people’s worst behaviors are an indication that they are suffering. It doesn’t help them if you get caught up in their suffering. Compassion calls us to recognize suffering, connect to our shared humanity and wish the other person well, but not take responsibility for their emotions. Deep breathing helps.
  • Give yourself credit. If your client never shows appreciation, it is important that you acknowledge and celebrate your own successes and milestones. This is especially important for a highly critical client. Team morale will suffer if the only feedback is criticism by the client. Recognize your team’s wins and appreciate their hard work.