How to Deal With Difficult Clients
Whether you own the company or do the groundwork, it’s impossible to make any headway in your career without butting heads with a few clients first. It stinks, it’s a pain in the you-know-where, and often it doesn’t end well. But just because you have a difficult client doesn’t mean you have to be difficult in return. We’ll look at several techniques you can apply to diffuse bad situations.
Keeping Clients and Putting Up With Them
If we’re being honest, few clients are ever easy! Often you find yourself working with people who know nothing about concrete. Or, even worse, your client does know one or two things (probably thanks to Google), and suddenly they’re the expert. They’re demanding, think they know better and want to design with flawed information.
Suddenly everything is your problem. You should do this, why didn’t you do that, why did you let me wear a frilly leisure suit to senior prom all those years ago? Okay, hopefully not that last one …
But the fact of the matter is, that’s the score when dealing with clients. As professionals it’s our duty to “tough it out” and deal with these clients, help them, and send them merrily on their way. It’s something everyone deals with, and an important rite of passage as far as maintaining your professional reputation.
Rest easy knowing all your competitors, all your associates, and millions of workers you’ll never know are dealing with it. Same stuff, different day!
But that doesn’t mean a client should be allowed or able to walk all over you. And there are always those outlier clients who simply cannot be dealt with.
Recognizing Your Own Weaknesses
We all have weaknesses or blind spots. We have to admit that. And it’s important to be aware of them when we’re dealing with others, too.
Our expertise in our trade isn’t a weakness in itself, but if we forget that the client most likely doesn’t know as much as we do. Sometimes we can start using jargon and they’re not going to understand. We can talk about waiting for the concrete to cure, and they’ll say they didn’t know it was sick. Even terms as simple as that, which are so natural for us, may be beyond the client’s level of understanding.
Also, we’re often working out in the hot sun lugging around heavy bags and equipment. That can leave us impatient and maybe a bit surly. And without intending it, that sometimes carries over into how we talk to our clients.
Of course there are all kinds of individual personal traits too. We just need to be aware of our circumstances and meet the client at their level as well as not taking out our own stresses on them.
Tips for Putting Up With Difficult Clients
As a professional it can be easy to forget where a client is coming from. In these client-contractor relationships, clients are giving total control of their dream project to an unknown party. It’s stressful, they’re nervous something could go wrong and hesitant to give up control. Before reading the rest of my advice, try to understand where a client is coming from.
You know what you’re talking about. And that can make it hard to remember that not everyone does. Take a step back from the difficult person and have some empathy for their side of things. This may ease things by making you more understanding, or it may help clarify what method you’ll need to help de-stress the situation. And remember: your professionalism is your shield. Stay calm, never escalate, and always be firm (but fair).
Communicate Clearly (Including Saying No)
In my experience, one of the biggest causes of friction between a contractor and a client is lack of communication. This may seem obvious, but it isn’t always. Communication doesn’t mean “letting the client know what you’re about to do.” It actually means opening up the dialogue.
Establish a plan early-on, let them know your expectations, and keep them updated as you follow through. You should also accept and respond to feedback during this process so your client knows their voice is being heard. Get communications in writing whenever possible so you have a log to reference.
Understanding Client Type
If your clients keep throwing you for a loop, it might be helpful to try a different method of engagement. All clients are unique and every project should get the level of attention it deserves. But most “bad” clients can fall into certain “categories.”
It may be helpful to think through your strategies based on a categorical approach. Is your client obsessed with the timetable? Too involved? Not involved enough? Constantly changing their mind? If this is your first time dealing with these “types” of clients, it won’t be your last. Keep notes on what strategies do or don’t work. Keeping track of how you’ve handled things so far (without any personal client info) will help you create stronger, more effective strategies in the future.
Psychological professionals have been using diffusion strategies for years. Using them to get into your clients (and your own) head can help a lot. These techniques range from “zen mind” and “chunking” to practices you may already participate in, like reflective listening.
Zen mind, for example, is approaching every situation as if it were completely new. In this way you engage with your customer without any ideas of “should” which cause you to judge the client. By removing this judgment, you may hear what they have to say more clearly. Then you can come up with a better strategy for addressing it.
“Chunking” is a great strategy for clients who are stressed out by large, multi-stage processes. It means taking large processes and breaking them down into smaller, more digestible chunks. Explaining large concepts in smaller ideas will help them see the bigger picture.
Another technique is to ask questions which help you understand the root of a customer’s dissatisfaction. Questions like “How can I help you feel comfortable as we move forward” or “Tell me more so I can understand where you’re coming from” put the conversation on the client’s terms without giving into their demands right away.
The last technique I find to be the most helpful: reflective listening. By reflecting what the client expresses back as a question–“What I hear you say is that this timetable does not reflect your needs for this project, is that correct?” Reflective listening demonstrates to your client that you’re hearing them. It also gives you both a second chance to consider the problem at hand.
A difficult customer is difficult for a reason, and sometimes we’re that reason. If you make a mistake, own up to it right away. You’re not going to make the situation less difficult with excuses or cover-ups. If you’re getting pushback from a client, ask yourself: am I doing something wrong? It’s actually a sign of professionalism to admit responsibility and address a bad situation head-on rather than skirt the issue, potentially alienating your client.
The Customer’s Not Always Right
“The Customer is Always Right” is an adage so embedded in our culture it’s not even part of “Contractor 101.” While it’s sometimes a helpful guideline for maintaining customer happiness, everyone knows it’s just not true. But problem customers love to lob this phrase at us. And sometimes hearing that line from an angry customer can open doors.
The first door is this: give in. If the demand isn’t too outrageous and your team can make it work, just say yes. The adjustments may mean a happier customer, but also may enable you to get out sooner with your reputation intact. Sometimes getting the project over with is worth the extra pain.
The second door is: walk away. A job isn’t worth putting your workers or your well-being at risk. Some customers can’t be reasoned with, and it is acceptable to cut ties with a customer in a professional, courteous, and thorough manner. The old “It’s not you, it’s me” speech is a good one to keep in your pocket – always polite, never blaming. And make sure that everything is done right: no open-ended contractual obligations or payments. Hell hath no fury like a client scorned, so keep everything tidy.
Don’t let one bad client sour your taste for working with people. A bad apple is, in the end, one bad apple. But that’s no reason not to be prepared for when these unfortunate circumstances do arise. And, of course, the better prepared you are, the less likely it is to happen! Funny how things work that way. Techniques like being patient and reflective listening will get you further ahead at the end of the day, whether the client is a breeze or a raging wind of hot air. Always be professional, and always strive to make your customers happy, and all will be well.