Dealing with Demanding Clients

Do any of these scenarios sound familiar to you?…

Kara’s client had her write extensive proposals and invariably changed his plans, often not purchasing anything. Jim’s customer took advantage of the company’s return policy, buying items on sale, exchanging them when prices went back up, and continuously calling to question charges or get fee adjustments. Diana’s client complained and insulted her and the customer service staff as a matter of course, and Justin’s client “forgot” to pay invoices, ignored contractual agreements, and re-negotiated terms whenever it was convenient.

Businesses need customers, and sometimes this idea creates one-sided relationships that can have you walking on eggshells or exhausted by the end of the day. But you don’t have to settle for challenging customer relationships.

Here are a few guidelines that some of my clients have used to shift the energy, especially with their most demanding clients.

1. Ask Yourself if the Client is Worth it
Sometimes we go into business assuming that anyone who is willing to pay for our product or service is a worthwhile client, but that assumption is worth questioning, especially as your organization becomes more established. Ask yourself what you would do if the customer suddenly went out of business or otherwise had to stop using you. Would your business survive? What would you do? Just knowing the answer to this question is helpful.

You are allowed to get rid of clients who are not worth it to you, and sometimes making this assessment can give you the courage to raise prices or set other boundaries that you otherwise wouldn’t. If you decide the customer is worth keeping despite their undesirable characteristics, it’s time to come up with a plan to manage them, so that you can still enjoy your job.

2. Write your Boundaries or Rules
Take out an imaginary magic wand for a minute and pretend that it will make all your clients behave exactly as you want them to, and happily. You just have to give them a set of rules, the more specific the better. Instead of “respect my time”, write “don’t call me after 6pm on weekdays or on the weekend”. It’s easy to dismiss this exercise as something that would never happen in reality. However, it’s amazing what happens once you have written your rules. When you are clear on what behavior you will and will not accept, you begin to communicate it to others automatically. For example, you might notice yourself saying to a client, “I’ll be here and available until 6pm most weekdays” or letting customers know to flag you when they have an urgent issue they want you to deal with outside of regular working hours. These subtle changes in how you interact show your client how you prefer to work, and you’ll find that most of them are completely comfortable with your parameters.

3. Change your Story
We all come up with stories, or interpretations, that explain the behaviors of others. When people behave in a way that impacts us negatively, those stories can get pretty ugly.

Kara felt used by the client who sent her on wild-goose chases, but when she changed her story to, “He doesn’t realize how long it takes to do this and assumes it’s a service we offer for free”, she felt more compassionate. It then became easier for her to push back and say, “This full proposal will take about three days to write, so it would help me to know how close you are to getting your budget approved. If you aren’t sure yet, I’d be happy to whip together a one page estimate – just to give you a general sense of what we do, and then I’d be happy to do the full proposal when you know you are moving forward”. She couldn’t have said this as kindly if she was still caught in her story of being used and feeling resentful about it.

Jim decided his client had chosen “beating the system” as his method to feeling smart, and his anger changed to compassion, as he marveled at all the energy he put into it. Jim still had to put new policies in place – but he was able to do it with a sense of humor as opposed to a fire of resentment.

With Diana, we decided that a good story about the abusive client was that he had been abused as a child and didn’t know how else to communicate. She advised her team to be silent during the tirades and to imagine the squalor he must have grown up in. The energy shifted immediately because her customer service team stopped taking the insults personally, and when the client stopped getting emotional reactions from them he didn’t complain as much.

Justin decided to assume his client was a little flighty with a low attention span, and simply didn’t pay attention to paperwork. This story enabled him to be more patient when following up and reinforcing the terms of his contract.

From my experience, client relationships can be strong and fulfilling on both sides when you take a few moments to walk through these three steps.

If you work for a larger organization, you may not always be able to control who your contact person is, but the mental paradigm and the emotional energy you bring to your interactions can make a difference and get you closer to the ideal of truly enjoying everyone you work with!


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