Handling Difficult Clients

Is it time to cut and run?

Some clients challenge us more than others, that’s life. But one day you’ll get one that will force you to re-think everything. This happened to me very recently. Without going into too much detail, here’s my experiences, and my suggestions for handling difficult clients!

What went wrong?

There are a few different kinds of clients you might encounter that could cause you trouble. In this case, I had a know-it-all client. She had a pre-conceived idea of how the process was going to go. She had already tried to help herself, but wasn’t satisfied with the results. So she turned to me, but was surprised when I did things differently to what she was expecting!

She had already questioned the price (and not because she couldn’t afford it, she just didn’t see the value) and my gut instinct had been on high alert from the start. We continued anyway. But, it became clear, less than 24 hours into the project, that she was not open minded to my suggestions. She didn’t trust me. I felt like I was being tested, and she was trying to catch me out, or something like that. She made me feel like anxious, stressed, and uncomfortable.

Handling Difficult Clients can be extremely stressful!

I was in another consultation when her email dropped in, so I didn’t see it straight away. But by the time I got to my phone, 50 minutes later, she had already chased it up with a text message. She was “clarifying” everything!

I took a deep breathe and responded to her text in the best way I could, reminding her that firstly, we’d barely started work and there was a process to be followed, and secondly, that I had been with another client and can’t always respond immediately. It was everything I could do to keep my cool, if I’m honest!

Maybe your problem client is one of these…

This is just one kind of difficult client, there are others!

How about the client that can only make decisions by committee. This guy needs to go away and discuss everything with his colleagues before making a decision. This can be frustrating when you need a decision quickly. There’s not much you can do about this type of client other than to work around them and leave plenty of time for decisions to be made. If this is not your style of working though, this will become frustrating, very quickly!

Some clients believe that everything they are asking you to do is simple or quick. These guys don’t mind adding quick jobs to the scope, but they often completely underestimate what goes into their job. They might also query the bill as they haven’t fully understood what needs to be done. These clients benefit from detailed contracts that specify timescales and the agreed work.

A clear contract solves most problems!

Perhaps you are dealing with the last-minuter! This client leaves everything until the last minute and needs everything needs done asap. Imagine the nightmare of being a last-minuter working on a project with the decision-by-committee guy! That would be a complete nightmare. If you identify with either of these client types then get good at identifying (and avoiding) the other, as no good can come of this business union!

Finally, you have the bad payer. This client will query the bill and regularly pays late. Adding payment deadlines and late payments clauses into your contract is the best way to handle this client. It might be wise to start taking large deposits and staggered payments so you’re not left chasing large sums at the end. And, before you even begin work clarify any unusual payment procedures your client might have. For example, some companies require you to register as a supplier and some won’t pay without a purchase order!

What do to?

When you hit a snag with your customer, as I did. The first step is to talk it out. But not with your customer. Having a rant really helps to lessen the emotion of the situation. Let the emotion out so you can approach your customer with a calm mind. Emotion is infectious! If you’re calm, your client will be calmer, but if you are defensive or angry, so will your client be.

For the best results you both need to be on the same side. So, start by looking for ways to help improve the situation. Be open minded to making adjustments to the way you work. Maybe you need to send invoices at different times, or be more communicative. It’s easy to get defensive when things start to go wrong but once you’re on that high horse it’s hard to get down. You don’t have to admit they are right, but it’ll really help you both if you can find a compromise.

Once you are back on the same side, your client will also be less defensive and more accepting of what you are doing to help them, rather than looking for ways you are blocking progress.

Maybe there is no going back and you are completely mis-matched. If this is the case, you might have to cut ties with them, but this should be a last resort.

In my case, having a rant and talking progress out really helped keep our working relationship professional and productive. But that didn’t stop me checking where I stood legally. I was very prepared to walk away and had a plan A, B and C ready to execute depending on the outcome of our consultation.

What did you agree to?

Check your contract

When you break a contract, or promise, mid project you should expect to receive backlash. They won’t be happy. And lets face it, if the tables were turned, you wouldn’t be either. So be sure you can’t just grit your teeth and ride out the contract. If you are sure there is no hope of completing the project with your nerves in tact, then your first step is to check your contract. If you don’t an have one, then check all written and verbal communication to see what promises you have made to your client.

You might have notice periods built into your contract, or break clauses, so look specifically for those. If your clients’ unreasonable behaviour has broken their side of the contract, then you might be able to walk away quite easily. But, if this is just a clash of personalities then it might be more difficult and you should consider compensating your client in full, even if you’ve done some of the work. If breaking the contract early could leave your client be out of pocket, you might also be expected to make things right.

Brace yourself for a full refund

In most cases you will have to refund some, or all of their money. You have to be more than fair in how you handle things. After all, you are breaking the deal. This will not be an easy situation, but if they don’t feel like they’ve been fairly treated, you risk bad publicity or even legal action. Six months down the line, you might end up looking back and thinking a full refund would have actually been a small price to pay.

If you aren’t sure, imagine explaining your actions to a judge. Can you clearly point to what went wrong, and was your customer entirely unreasonable and to blame? Look for any fault or ambiguity on your part, no matter how small. Unless you can genuinely fully absolve yourself, pay up and run!

Learn from it!

How could this have been avoided?

Handling difficult clients can often be avoided if you prepare well. So, when it’s all over, take some time to reflect on how the situation might have been avoided. Better contract terms, more frequent communication, and clearer boundaries can go a long way to avoiding these kinds of problems.

I had a gut feeling that I shouldn’t have ignored. So many people tell me they had a bad feeling, but they ignored it. Always trust your gut!

My client questioned the value I offered from the start and I should’ve know better. But, I had no process for backing out when I book customers over the phone. Now, I have a safety net to make it easier to turn down a client when I get “the tingle”. I also take more time to clearly set out boundaries and expectations.

If your contract has let you down, invest in a better one or if that’s too formal for you, create a social contract. A social contract is a set of promises that sets out expectations on both sides. A legal contract might be better suited to you though, depending on your business. It will protect you both in the event of conflict and ensures everyone knows where they stand from start to finish. It could save you quite the headache later on!


Have you experienced a “bad client”, how did you handle it?