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Dealing with Difficult Clients: How to Know When Enough Is Enough

As a business owner, you strive to be professional at all times. You’re polite and courteous in all of your business dealings, always providing the best possible customer service. You do this because you take pride in your work and want to be known as someone who does a good job.

But occasionally, you run into a situation where a working relationship doesn’t flow smoothly. Maybe you’re dealing with someone who seems impossible to please. Or perhaps your personalities don’t mesh. Either way, when that happens, it’s important to know what you can do to either mitigate the situation or find your way out of it. Here are a few tips.

Types of Difficult Clients

There are several different types of difficult clients you’ll encounter in the course of doing business. Some are just a part of dealing with someone who is looking out for his business interests just as you are. Some, however, require that you either push back or terminate the relationship.

  • The Scope Creeper—When you start a project, you expect the client to disclose the full breadth of the project so that you can bid a reasonable amount. With scope creep, the client continuously adds items to the overall project “scope,” making it impossible for you to deliver the promised work within the specified timeline and budget.
  • The Reluctant Payer—The time you spend chasing after payments is time that could be better put toward making money with paying clients. Clients who consistently exceed the payment due date disrupt your cash flow and cause unnecessary stress.
  • The Critic—This person seems to always feel the need to offer feedback or request multiple rounds of changes. Critical people can drain your own productivity, since they’ll shake your confidence and waste your time by requiring multiple rounds of work for each project.
  • The Miscommunicator—This person seems to use the term, “I must not have communicated properly what I wanted.” This is usually followed by the need to go back to the beginning, undoing hours of work, and start over. The occasional miscommunication is understandable but over time, it can easily become clear that you’re dealing with someone who isn’t sure what they want until they see what they don’t
  • The Verbal Abuser—It often becomes clear soon into a working relationship that you’re dealing with someone who lacks professionalism in their dealings. When the feedback you’re getting is demoralizing and condescending, it’s important to recognize it for what it is. If a person’s communications are disrespectful, make it clear that you expect respectful language to be used and if not, you won’t be able to continue to work in this environment.

The best thing about running your own business is that you choose the types of clients you work with. When you compare difficult clients to your other clients, you’ll likely find you spend more time on their projects than any others without being compensated for it. Even if a difficult client pays more than the others, you have to figure out the hourly cost when compared to other clients and decide if you’re losing money. Lastly, the time you put toward recovering from one of the client’s emails or phone conversation is time you could redirect toward doing work for other clients, thereby bringing in more money than you would have by keeping that client on your roster.

Recognizing Difficult Clients

Over time, you’ll realize the importance of identifying this type of client early in order to avoid months of painful dealings. You’ll also eventually learn to recognize difficult clients earlier in the process. Unfortunately, often these lessons are learned the hard way. One way you can start to weed bad clients out is to pay close attention to early communications. Is the person extremely demanding when describing the job? Does he specifically mention having problems with vendors in the past? If so, you may be dealing with someone who doesn’t see himself as the common denominator in all of his business dealings.

Some business owners find that it’s always best to start with a small project before agreeing to a long-term working relationship. A graphic designer may offer to design a logo before moving to an entire website, for instance. Even if the client is dead set on finding a long-term business partner, you can easily make the person see that a small paid test project is a great option for both parties. At the very least, you should have a face-to-face consultation with the potential client, whether through a videoconference or an in-person meeting, before signing papers. You’d be amazed how much you can learn about a person’s work style by watching body language.

Understanding Difficult Clients

Getting in the head of someone who behaves this way is very difficult. The truth is, when you’re doing business you’ll be introduced to a wide variety of personalities, each of which has been shaped by the person’s background, upbringing, and previous business relationships. You have to learn to work with a certain amount of difficulty while also learning just where you’ll draw the line.

In some cases, difficult clients are dealing with pressures of their own. The consistently late payer could have internal cash flow problems and late payments occur because he’s waiting to be paid himself. The scope creeper could be dealing with a business partner, supervisor, or third-party client who is demanding these changes. Behaviors that are deeply embedded in a person’s personality likely won’t change, however, and you would only be wasting your own time if you tried.

If you’re dealing with a difficult client and you can’t afford to let him go, spend as much time as possible growing your business so that you can put yourself in a position to say goodbye. While your business’s survival may rely on having reliable monthly income, you also can stifle your own growth by continuing to work with demanding clients who take up a significant chunk of your daily workday.

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Technical Writer and Designer at Due
Franklin Manuel is a technical designer at Due with an eye for financial blogs. He aspires to help design Due to enable your early retirement.

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