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How to identify and deal with problem clients

Some clients are like stars; they shine and give out energy. A pleasure to work with, they are generous with positive feedback and praise.

Others are like black holes. You can deliver excellent service and outstanding results, but they suck everything in without ever giving anything out.

How do you cope with the bad guys?

Question: I’ve got a problem client who is making the assignment such a miserable experience that I can’t wait to see the back of him. But I can’t afford to walk away because there is too much at stake. It is obvious that he is giving himself a hard time as well as everyone else, but when I sympathise or try to help with well-intentioned advice, it either falls on deaf ears or meets with hostility.

Answer: When clients are difficult, never underestimate the investment they have in their world view and the energy they put into maintaining it. Like most people, they want to be well-regarded by others – even if they tell you otherwise. But instead of accepting themselves as they are, they seem driven to live up to completely unrealistic self-expectations.

Throughout their working and private lives, they repeat the drama over and again, almost as if they are acting out a script. While they seem perfectly at home in their self-appointed role, others can find it difficult to cope with the backwash. Does this make them life’s losers? Sometimes. But quite often success seems to be a by-product of their striving.

The problems start when you find yourself unintentionally playing a part in their personal drama. But if you can pick up the warning signs early enough you can take action to minimise the effects of their behaviour, and save the time and effort you would otherwise spend on trying to put things right later.

What should you look for? Here are five examples from everyday business life.

The ‘Perfect’ Client: The client seems to have very high standards of organisation. When you talk with them they are very careful to define their terms. It is almost as if they think in bullet points. They might even number them as they speak, and if you interrupt their train of thought, you will incur their displeasure. Having taken great care to make sure the project is perfectly planned, they will discover some flaw, usually when it is too late to do anything about it. Even if the flaw is minor, they make a big deal out of it, beating themselves up because they should have spotted the problem in advance. Their feeling of guilt is so strong that they become convinced that the whole thing is doomed. They can be so preoccupied with agonising about the minor problem that they take their eye off the ball and ensure a messy outcome.

What to do: If clients seem ultra organised, make sure they really are and don’t assume that you can leave the boring details to them. If things go wrong, don’t leave them to wallow in their guilt. Step in to make it clear to them that they are not responsible, even if it means taking the blame for something minor yourself. Compliment them on what they have got right and done well, and refocus them on what needs to be organised to bring the project in successfully. Make sure you agree observable and realistic criteria for success so that if things go wrong again you can point to the fact the desired outcomes have been achieved.

The ‘Strong’ client: The client gives the impression that the important thing in life is to overcome difficulties by toughing things out. They always seem to be in control of themselves and invulnerable. Being in their presence can make you feel a bit weak and wishy-washy and you get the impression they regard people who ask for help as being inferior. Because they seem so self-contained, you can be fooled into believing they really don’t need very much from you. They never seem to ask for anything, and therein lies the problem. When they want something, they are so busy beating themselves up for being feeble, that they can’t bring themselves to tell you what they need. They are so convinced their vulnerability will be obvious to everyone, that they interpret any lack of awareness as a deliberate act to withhold help.

What to do: Don’t be fooled by their apparent indifference to positive feedback. It’s not because they don’t want it; it’s because they feel they should not need it, even though it is what they crave. So make sure you express respect and appreciation of this client at an early opportunity. Continually ask yourself what you would need if you were in their position, and find face-saving ways to enable them to ask for it, or of delivering it as a matter of course. Their resilience can be an asset; just make sure it is not wasted on trivia.

The ‘Considerate’ client: The client gives the impression that thinking about the needs of others is very important. They go out of their way to ensure your comfort, offering you things that you don’t want or need and seem put out if you don’t accept them. They give the appearance of wanting to fit in. When they give information, there is sometimes a rising inflexion at the end of the sentence that makes it sound like a question, when it isn’t. People who are thought to be simply out for themselves are criticised heavily. When you are planning a project with them, you ask which options they would prefer and they say, ‘whichever works best for you’. You choose the option that works best for you, and only find out later that it is not the one they wanted and they see you as someone who is simply out for themselves.

What to do: This person’s ability to fit in with different people situations can be remarkable; just don’t expect them to tell you what they want. If you really cared, you would know, wouldn’t you? They will dine out on what they have done for you and how grateful you were. They need your gratitude. Make sure you show it at every opportunity. This can be embarrassing, particularly when it is for something for which you didn’t ask. But if you can see past that, some of the ‘help’ this client delivers might actually be helpful.

The client who ‘Tries Hard’: This client is driven by fear of failure rather than a positive desire for success. You get a sense of their anxiety to succeed but they make it hard for you to help them. They spend a lot of time looking puzzled but often ask you more than one question at once, making it difficult for you to give a clear answer. On the other hand, when you ask a question, they never manage to tell you what you really need to know. Their story is they never seem to achieve their full potential. They deserve success but bad fortune gets in the way to frustrate their ambition. When they have to meet a big challenge, you find yourself hooked into being supportive. Afterwards, you discover they ducked out and never followed through on your advice. If you question this, they will confidently tell you that they could have succeeded but it just didn’t seem to be worth the hassle.

What to do: Some people see failure as a learning experience; for these clients it just proves they are not as good as they think they are and you don’t want to be there when they find out. If you propel them into ‘learning situations’ they can’t handle they will blame you for their ‘bad luck’. Commiserate and say something like ‘you can’t win them all’, preferably before you have invested a lot of effort in helping them. Offer reassurance that you are confident they could achieve whatever it is they think they ought to be able to achieve, but help them invent an excuse for avoiding situations where anxiety about failure will result in a cop out. Whatever you do, don’t take their ambition at face value. Channel their persistence into situations they can handle.

The ‘Hurried’ client: This client is fidgety and always keen to get a move on. They seem to have a low tolerance for meetings where you need to think things through. They don’t want explanations; they want the answer. When they are briefing you, the sentences tumble over one another and they often start the second sentence before finishing the first. When you thought you had plenty of time to complete a project, they will somehow fit in several non-essential elements which they didn’t tell you about in advance, so that somehow everything ends in a rush. Their last minute tactics may make you anxious. They will tell you that your panic is in danger of spoiling the project, when in fact they have managed to offload their panic onto you. Every day for them is abnormally busy, and the pressure is always caused by other people. As they tell it, they never have control over how they spend their time, but somehow they prevent colleagues, including you, from having control over their own.

What to do: Because this client doesn’t like to hang about, their efficiency and directness can be a great asset for getting things done, as long as you can stop them from adding inessentials at the last-minute. If you want to get them to think something through, get them involved in an activity like drawing diagrams or mind maps and make sure you create a space free of interruptions for them to do it in. Don’t expect them to be pleased if you arrive somewhere early with time to kill to look at the view. Make sure they have something to do when they get there.Final