The First 3 Steps in Dealing with Difficult Clients

Dealing with difficult clients is a key business service skill.  You spend a lot of time, after all, building up relationships with these clients, getting them to trust you enough to work with you and you do not want that to go to waste.

What is more, how you respond to your clients can convert a seemingly dissatisfied client badmouthing you in the marketplace into one of your most avid supporters telling everybody that they have got to use you and nobody else.

These three steps will help you to deal with those clients better.

  1. Think for a second.  That thing your client just did, you know, thatthing that just pushed your button, stop and think about it.  Was it their intention to wind you up?  Did they mean to trigger off that emotion inside you that you are feeling right now and that is threatening to trigger off your inappropriate reaction?  Chances are they had no idea about how you were going to react and had no consideration for your response at all. Ask yourself this instead; what needs and interests might be driving my client’s behaviour right now?  Are they anxious, scared, upset, confused, ashamed, guilty, disappointed, embarrassed? What can I do that will meet those needs and, in doing so, honour and respect my client and help them to behave in ways that are more constructive?  If you do not know, think about asking them.
  2. Be more assertive. Many of us can afford to be more assertive.  Being assertive does not mean locking horns or getting into a fight with the client. That is aggression. Assertiveness simply means communicating your own needs, wants and beliefs in ways that do not impact those of the other person.  When we are assertive with our clients then we give them the opportunity, perhaps for the first time, to understand what we need in order to help them.  Getting the balance right is difficult so here are some examples that you might try;
    • Responding to aggressive behaviour – “John, I want to help you and your wife with this matter and when you shout and swear in our meetings then that gets in the way of me being able to do so. I want to make sure that you have your say but I cannot sit back and let you insult me or your wife while you are doing so. If it continues then I will have to consider bringing these sessions to an end. I hope you understand.”
    • Responding to demanding behaviour – “Okay, Karen, I am sorry but I have to stop this conversation for now.  I have another appointment that I need to go and prepare for and I would like to carry on talking when that is done.  Can I call you back at 3, or would 4.30 be better?”
    • Responding to know-it-all behaviour – “I hear what you say Mr. Brown. Can you help me with something?  You mentioned the Klansky report and that you’re surprised I haven’t read it.  You’re right, I have not come across it. Can you get a copy of it emailed across to me or let me have the link and then if I have any questions on it I can get back to you?”
    • Responding to pessimistic or despairing behaviour – “I think you’re right.  I don’t think it is fair and it must be very difficult for you. At the same time we have to  deal with the questions that it presents. I cannot extend the deadline on this any longer and so we only have the next 48 hours.  Tell me this; How can you get those documents to me by tomorrow morning?”
  3. Stop labelling your clients.  A key problem with a lot of the conventional training on difficult clients is the labelling of `Difficult clients.’  When this happens we make the mistake of assuming that somebody’s behaviour is an intrinsic part of their personality. That is rarely the case.  If you have children then you might want to think about them; if your child does something bad you have a choice.  You either see your child as being a `Bad child’ or simply the same child you always had who just happens to have done something bad.  If we go with the former then the risk is that we see everything that child does through the `Bad child’ lens. In short, when we label clients as difficult clients we make it more likely that we will continue to perceive them as being difficult.  That can, in turn, drive us to act in ways that perpetuate that client’s difficulty in our eyes – we might start avoiding them, being cautious and evasive when we are dealing with them or become overly defensive or aggressive.

Difficult clients are not difficult clients at all. They are the same great clients we always wanted to serve who inadvertently do things that we sometimes find it difficult to cope with.



4 thoughts on “The First 3 Steps in Dealing with Difficult Clients

  • Neil. Elementary stuff here. But life’s too short in one or two cases. See my article: “Devil Clients”.

  • Your article certainly presents the alternative view.

    Demonising (ex) clients can be an entirely natural reaction to a client relationship that does not work out for whatever reason. Therapeutic and satisfying, even.

    I get that and at the same time find the idea to be unattractive.

    You say you have got your “Devil radar” permanantly switched on and will avoid all such clients at any cost. How will your radar detect them? What signals would it use for identification?

    I wonder if perhaps we do not have one cabinet for good clients and and another for bad. If we did we could have different reception areas as well with different coffee and biscuits.

    All we have are clients – those people we reach out to, offer our services and hope to be able to serve well and get paid for it. Our experience of working with them, of being in that formal relationship with them fluctuates; it might be easy at one time, difficult the next. Once we label clients then we risk fixing them into position and our labels can become self-fulfilling prophecies. (see Halo Effect and Pygmalion Effect on Wikipedia)

    • Hi Neil,

      I and a few others gave examples of warning signs. “I will sue you if you get it wrong!” was one example of an aggressive client statement from which one might conclude that steering away could be a good move.

      The use of metophorical language in my post is just that. It is also clear that the occurence of a “Devil Client” (as opposed to a “difficult” client) is a very rare occurence. In my career, I have fired only one client. I have threatened it with another many years back, who subsequently turned over a new leaf and has been a joy to deal with ever since. This experience backs up your suggestions about being assertive.

      The point I try to drive home is that we have a relatively short amount of time on this planet, and a wealth of lovely clients whose affairs range to highly complex to straightforward. Yes, these clients can be difficult at times, but “difficult” is very different to “rude”. As I say, a client/adviser relationship works by mutual understanding and respect. Because there are a limited number of working hours, and no shortage of lovely clients, we can afford to be selective and in so doing, more profitable both financially and in terms of quality of life.

      Sometimes in life and work, relationships simply do not work out. When they don’t, sometimes it’s right to resign.

      Interesting debate.



  • I agree. Best advice I ever got was probably “Dare to get sacked” When we are brave in this regard then it becomes easier to be clear with clients which behaviours are problematic AND easier to say “I’ve tried my hardest and this is not going to work,”

    Having made a decision to withdraw, however, let us keep hold of the decision we made – the choice to withdraw was ours – when we label the client as being dysfunctional in some way then we place the responsibility, and blame, onto them.

    Thanks for kicking this about with me. Regards, Neil


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