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Keep Calm and Manage Difficult Clients

Hard to deal with or manage defines “difficult” in the Merriam Webster Dictionary. If you are a Consultant in the service industry you will know from experience that managing Clients’ behavior and expectations is an art and ideally you want to set expectations from the beginning of the Client relationship so that you can develop a strong long-term working relationship.

Difficult Clients come in all shapes and sizes. Some Clients may keep moving project timetables, refuse to pay for services rendered, micromanage, frequently change the objectives set forth, assign blame and take credit, avoid responsibility for decision making that they need to make or strong arm you to doing tasks that are not in alignment with the project goals. All small business owners have come across one of these difficult Client situations at one time or another and even if you want to kick your Client to the curb, it is much better to take a deep breath, keep calm, resist the temptation of fighting fire with fire and instead focus on solutions that will assist you to manage the Client’s difficult behavior effectively.

Establishing Trust from the Get Go is a Must

Building trust from the beginning of your Client relationship will establish your credibility and let your Client know that you have their best interest in mind. Trust is built on performance, deliverables and strong communication.

Set forth a deliverable report for the Client:

  • Document the task to be accomplished.
  • What was actually accomplished?
  • Were there any variances from the original tasks and why?
  • What activities need to be accomplished the following week?
  • What issues need to be identified?
  • What corrective actions have been planned and /or preventative actions taken?
  • Questions that need to be addressed with the Client.
  • What concerns does the Client have?
  • Identify next steps

Set up a face to face follow up meeting and or schedule a conference call to discuss the deliverable report. Ask the Client how things are going from their perspective. If the Client comes up with issues and concerns, make sure you clearly document them in an email after the conversation. This way all is clarified and both you and the Client are on the same page. If the Client has a Project Manager or ‘right hand’ make sure that they are also kept in the loop so that you have someone else in your corner understanding ‘next steps’, due dates, responsibilities, corrective actions and any sign off documents that need to be executed by the Client. Responsive, communicative action will continually re-establish trust between you and the Client.

Keep Calm and Carry On

It is very important to never stoop to a Client’s level of hostility. Come to a consensus on what will work for both you and the Client. Always act in a clear and calm manner with them as the emotional intelligence you emit as a response to a situation will likely lead to the Client mirroring your behavior vs theirs. Having an assertive, professional and calm demeanor and tone to your voice will assist you to navigate the Client back on track when they are behaving badly. If they are being accusatory, there is no need to apologize. Instead, you can be proactive and say “It was unfortunate that such and such happened. We are aware of the situation and we thank you for your patience and understanding while we resolve the matter”. Then, send out an email to show you care, state all the buzzwords they are looking for and always under promise so that you can over-deliver and exceed the Client’s expectations. You will turn out to be the hero.

Transparency Has its’ Benefits

Difficult Clients are always concerned about the unknowns. So it is extremely beneficial to tone down Clients and work closely with them and their Project Manager and ensure that there are a clear scope and timeline planned for each project. Have regular Client meetings and share updates with the Client, resolve any issues at this time and get answers to any questions they may have. Now is the time to tweak the development plan so nothing remains a mystery to them. If there are project issues that have come up along the way, now is the time to share and discuss openly with the Client. Once a Client feels involved with the project, its’ processes, its’ ups, and downs, they trust you more and appreciate and respect this level of honesty and transparency.

Who’s the Boss?

One of the biggest mistakes you can make as a Consultant is letting the Client know that they can steer the relationship. Establish right from the beginning who’s the boss. Remember the Client hired you because of your expertise and they need you to guide them to the finish line. As the Consultant, you need to take control from the onset of the relationship. You need to show the Client that you are extremely capable, a leader in your industry, you are surrounded with veteran professionals and you know what you are doing. You have a far better chance of commanding the respect of the Client with this approach. It is important to keep the Client on their toes with an assertive, professional and calm demeanor. If the Client is pushing you against a wall with expectations and timelines that are unrealistic then you need to be forthright and tell the Client that this is jeopardizing the project and provide the Client with a schedule of tasks and deliverables that are realistic. Add extra cushioning on deadline dates, in the event of unforeseen issues. Be sure the Client knows what is and what is not included in the deliverable mandate and what the repercussions are with the deliverables and schedule if there are any change orders along the way. Provide reports to the Client that outline when a task has been completed and/or when a goal or milestone has been reached. Always communicate clearly to the Client and allow for collaborative feedback. Ultimately, your firm direction will result in a satisfied Client and a more rewarding and less stressful relationship.

Stay Away From Negative Timewasters

Know when it is time to say goodbye and cut ties with Clients. Sometimes it is best to stay away from negative programmed Clients who always see the glass half empty vs half full. These Clients will suck your blood and sabotage your business growth. Sometimes it is better for you to part ways and leaves on good terms so you don’t burn your bridges. With some Clients no matter how you try you can’t fix their problems or please them. Respect yourself and walk away. Positive energy is a precious commodity. It is far more productive to surround yourself with positive, productive Clients who appreciate your skills and talents, respect you and make you feel upbeat and task your efforts with positivity so you can perform to your fullest potential.

Value Your Services and Get Paid

While being your own boss as a Consultant provides many freedoms with having a flexible work schedule, there are pitfalls and immense stresses when it comes to having a Client who falls late on paying you. First, take a deep breath and act calmly and collect your thoughts so you don’t react out of emotion. On a positive note, this late payment may have just slipped the Client’s mind. Send out a ‘friendly’ invoice reminder and repeat if you hear no response within 3 (three) business days.

However, if this late payment becomes evident that it is purposeful and it turns into an extended non-payment upon re-submission of your invoice, then it is time to get tough and ‘put the pen down’ and stop doing any work for the Client. As difficult as this may be, it is extremely important that the Client takes you seriously and knows that you mean business. If you are the brains behind the project, the Client will quickly figure out that without your work execution they won’t be able to deliver the project expectations and parameters that they have committed to with their bankers and lending partners. Hence, they will start to sweat bullets and realize that they will have to pay you after all for fear of losing the project and being sued. If absolutely necessary, agree to accept the payment owed with installments including interest as per the invoice. 100% of nothing is nothing. So, at least this way you have monies coming in for work performed and if you do have to take the legal route the court will see that the Client has agreed to this format of payment and there will be no sidestepping later by the Client in submitting the balance due. No Consultant likes to take time away from what they are productively doing for a Client to chase down funds and play ‘tough guy’. But your service has value and you need to be treated respectfully and paid as your Client initially committed.

No One Said It Was Easy

Running a successful consulting company is not easy. It’s a lot of work and a blend of trust, communication and dealing with various Client personalities and navigating through some good times and some bumpy roads. At the end of the day, it’s like having 5 bosses when you have 5 different Clients. Although it can be very lucrative and rewarding at the same time it can be extremely stressful. However, like anything in life ‘stress is how you manage it’ and it is important to know your Client’s and focus on taking on the Client who won’t continually suck your blood and drain your resources and credibility.

From the beginning try and seek Clients’ who you can engage within a productive, respectful, rewarding and reciprocal relationship. At the end of the day, constantly disruptive and difficult Clients’ are like being in a bad marriage. Always remember that as a Consultant, you have the choice of who is your Client. You will be much more productive and resourceful when working with Clients’ who bring the best out in you and respect your leadership and expertise than working with a Client who constantly showcases difficult behavior. So it is better to really try and access the Client first and try not to get into a bad relationship if you know no matter how hard you try, it won’t work.

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