7 Problem Clients and How to Win Them Over

Published: Jan 24, 2019
Modified: Mar 26, 2020

By Andrew Sobel

Although there may be the occasional need to fire a client, for the most part, you can salvage the relationship. It’s just a matter of mastering some basic relationship rules and putting them into practice.

Here are the seven most common types of tough clients, along with effective strategies for dealing with each:

1.The Insecure Client. These clients are unsure of themselves, which they manifest as being unsure of you because they are nervous about failing or looking bad. They are difficult to work for because they micromanage. They find it hard to trust outsiders and won’t let you build relationships with their boss or other executives in their organization. Insecure clients may also have difficulty trusting you to try new strategies for them. They will review your work over and over.

The Prescription: Build trust and reduce their perception of risk. This means investing in more face time, reassuring them about your product or service delivery, showing them what you’re doing at key stages of the project, increasing communications, and demonstrating utter reliability and consistency. In addition, convince the insecure client that you should go together to see their boss, so that you will also have a relationship with him or her. Explain how this will ultimately help them and the program you’re working on together.

2.The Boundary Pusher. Clients like this perceive no boundaries around you and your work. They will call and email you at all hours of the day and night, expecting an immediate response. They don’t distinguish between an issue that’s truly important or urgent and one that’s just a simple “to do.” They invade your personal life and leave you feeling swarmed and even overwhelmed.
The Prescription: Explain your boundaries at the very start of the relationship, especially if you suspect this may become an issue. Say (or write), “On workdays, we respond to emails within four hours unless it’s clearly urgent, in which case we’ll get back to you within the hour. If something comes up over the weekend, unless it’s an emergency, we’ll respond Monday morning." If you didn’t set clear boundaries early on—or if you did, but the client is ignoring them—you can still alter their behavior without direct confrontation. Simply answer the email you get on Saturday or Sunday night on Monday morning; or, write a one-liner back that says, “Steve, I’ll respond first thing Monday when I’m at my office.” Also, regularly prioritize with your client. Just say: “Mary, right now my priority is getting that analysis that we discussed in shape. Can this wait until Thursday?”

3.The Do Nothing Client. There are some clients who just never move forward and get things done. You meet with them, you talk, you agree on next steps, and so on—but then, nothing. This client is more frustrating than difficult. In fact, you might have a very good and pleasant relationship with a Do Nothing executive. Still, you need to produce, and that requires the client to act.
The Prescription: Explore what’s behind your client’s inaction. Is it insecurity and fear (see type #1)? Are they hemmed in by a boss or another executive who is blocking them from taking action? Do they work in an organizational culture that is risk averse and prizes survival above all? There are many different reasons why a client doesn’t act, and you need to diagnose why so that you know how to address the inaction. Ask yourself if you might be able to work with them to reassure them about your approach—perhaps even have them talk to another client. Can you help them manage the stakeholders that may be getting in the way? Can you increase their sense of urgency by illustrating the costs of not acting? Or maybe the client’s priorities have shifted. If so, you need to know that so you can help the client accomplish something that does provide value.

4.The Know-It-All. This client thinks they know more than you do and constantly tells you how to do your job. They give you way too many suggestions in areas that are really outside their expertise.
The Prescription: Reestablish your respective roles. If gentle rebukes don’t work (“Through many years of doing this, I’ve found this is the most effective approach…”), you have to put your foot down. Confront them. Tell them they have hired you because of your expertise and experience, and that they need to give you the proper berth to exercise it on their behalf. Twice I have had to say to clients, “When you buy a Mercedes-Benz car, do you tell the salesman that you want to travel to Germany to inspect the production line and make suggestions to them about how to assemble your car?” Then I’d say, “I didn’t think so, because you know Mercedes is a great brand and understands how to make cars. Similarly, you need to let me do my job for you and not advise me on my own expertise.” In both cases, the client laughed and backed off.

5. Mr. or Ms. Aloof. Some clients treat you like a vendor and resist all efforts to build a real relationship. They are often very professional and can be perfectly pleasant when you’re with them. But it’s a purely arm’s-length relationship, which seriously limits how much you’re able to help them achieve.
The Prescription: Learn more about the client’s agenda and help him/her accomplish it. You may not truly understand their priorities—their underlying needs and goals. What’s important to them right now? What are they trying to accomplish this year? Everyone has a hot button—have you discovered what it is for this executive? Once you do, you’ll be in a better position to help them and go “above and beyond” the letter of your contract. Try to find out how your client views the relationship. It may just be that he or she feels the relationship is perfectly fine and doesn’t need it to be anything more than what it is. And that may be good enough for now.

6. The Insatiable Client. This client feels the work is never, ever good enough. They also micromanage you—although for different reasons than the Insecure Client. Their behavior can absolutely wear you down. You never feel like you’re succeeding. These people have carping, critical personalities and aren’t able to give out compliments. Who knows, maybe they grew up with overly-demanding parents themselves!
The Prescription: Carefully calibrate expectations at the beginning of each engagement or transaction. IT firms have “service level agreements” (SLAs). Perhaps you need to go deeper into specifics around the type, quality, and format of your output for the client. Don’t become overly needy about getting compliments and positive feedback. This is a client, not your spouse. As long as you’re doing a good job and achieving the agreed-upon goals, you shouldn’t worry about the lack of praise.

7. The Tyrant. These folks have personality and emotional issues and treat their people—and perhaps you—terribly. Everyone who works for them hates them. Who knows why someone acts like this? There are many possible reasons. The Tyrant could be a good-hearted person who happens to have an anger management issue, or he could be genuinely mean.
The Prescription: If the client is nice to you, but tyrannical with his team, you may be able to coach him and influence him to change the behavior. However, unless you’re specifically in a coaching relationship, the person may not be open to that kind of personal feedback. If the client is treating you or your colleagues badly, consider moving on. Life is too short to spend time in abusive relationships, be they at work or in our personal lives. Occasionally you may be able to have a frank discussion with a Tyrant that results in improvement, but generally if bad behavior is that extreme, the person will not be able to hide their true colors forever.

In summary, when faced with a difficult client, take the following four steps:

  1. Assess. Diagnose why the person is acting that way. What’s behind the behavior?
  2. Make an action plan. Identify remedial actions you can take to address the underlying dynamic (e.g., if a client is micromanaging you because of insecurity, what steps can you take to build greater trust?).
  3. Confront. If appropriate, confront the client with their behavior (e.g., point out that they are second-guessing your expertise and experience and ask them to stop).
  4. Fish or cut bait. Decide what your boundaries are, and if you’ve really had enough, move on and focus on more fruitful relationships. You won’t need to fire a client often, but doing so can be extremely healthy, not only for your business but for your own sense of self-esteem and well-being.

Responding to Conflict 

How to Communicate with Diplomacy, Tact and Credibility

About the Author(s)

Andrew Sobel is coauthor, with Jerold Panas, of Power Relationships: 26 Irrefutable Laws for Building Extraordinary Relationships (Wiley, 2014) and the accompanying workbook, Power Relationships Personal Planning Guide (available at www.andrewsobel.com)