Illustration: Oscar Ramos Orozco

Dealing With Difficult Clients

Clients come in all stripes. But difficult clients come in archetypes: The Naysayer, The Answer Man, The Linebacker, The Xenophobe. If you can recognize them, you’ll be better equipped to create a rewarding, lasting, and headache-free client relationship.

Let’s put it simply. You were hired because your client needs something from you that they don’t already have. This puts you inherently in a position of influence; your goal should be to achieve a delicate balance between listening and acting. But sometimes clients can be contentious and act in mysterious ways.Here are a handful of typical difficult client archetypes I’ve identified, and thoughts on how to work with each:

The Naysayer

How to Spot Him:

The Naysayer is constantly pushing back on your ideas, imploring you to start over, making suggestions, and rejecting drafts. The Naysayer is easy to spot in the wild since he’s relentless in making sure you know he’s in charge. The Naysayer wants “just the facts” and will critique and monitor your work closely.

What’s Really Going on:

The Naysayer is defending himself. He does not want to shoulder the blame if things go wrong. He also wants the credit and glory and is not completely confident in his own skills.  He probably doesn’t trust you.

How to Disarm Him:

Define the terms. Create a project plan with specific windows for drafts and revisions. State clearly how you’d prefer to receive suggestions. Help to create a process for workflow that allows your client access to the details and legitimize his desire for control by being compliant and open to suggestions but firm in setting expectations.

The Naysayer is constantly pushing back on your ideas, imploring you to start over, making suggestions, and rejecting drafts.

The Answer Man

How to Spot Him:

The Answer Man is not impressed by your expertise; he has a problem and he wants it fixed. He doesn’t want to know why you’re doing what you’re doing, how long it will take, or your process. He wants answers.

What’s Really Going On:

Have some sympathy for the Answer Man for he is desperate. He probably got himself in a pickle and is getting pressure to deliver.

How to Disarm Him:

Clarify his position. “What I understand is that you want me to deliver on this project ASAP and are most interested in a quick solution. If that’s the case then I won’t bother you with updates or details and you’ll hear from me when I have something for your review. In the meantime, if you decide you need more information, the door’s open.”

The Answer Man is not impressed by your expertise; he has a problem and he wants it fixed.

The Linebacker

How to Spot Him:

The Linebacker stops the run. He blocks your access to important people on the project. He’s a middle man. All the information must run through him, even if it would be more efficient to go directly to the source. He will insist on doing you the favor of taking care of the politics or handling a situation.

What’s Really Going On:

The Linebacker doesn’t trust you. He might even be worried about losing his job (therefore hoarding information and deeming himself essential).

How to Disarm Him:

This is a tricky one. The solution is to earn the Linebacker’s trust. The process of building trust involves engaging the client, listening, reframing his problems or issues and demonstrating your commitment to the project by building a shared agenda. It takes work. Lay it on the line for him and it will pay off.

The Linebacker doesn’t trust you. He might even be worried about losing his job.

The Xenophobe

How to Spot Him:

The xenophobe thinks you’re from a different country. He doesn’t follow your social mores, he doesn’t understand you, and he doesn’t particularly like you. He insists, “That’s not how we do it over here,” and “You just don’t understand what we’re dealing with.”

What’s Really Going On:

The Xenophobe likes feeling special, like his business is unique and one-of-a-kind. He is not open to perceiving the similarities between his business and others.

How to Disarm Him:

Don’t argue. Tell him he’s right. “I’m not from around here. I can see there are a lot of differences.” Tell your client you hope that he can help you understand the lay of the land. Garner assistance. When you’re ready and he’s ready, you can begin to point out similarities between your client’s business and other businesses, which will make him more confident. Just wait until the time is right.

The Xenophobe likes feeling special, like his business is unique and one-of-a-kind.

In the end, the ability to deal with a difficult client stems from trust, your own confidence, and a capacity for giving. Remember, you were hired for a reason; you deserve to be in the room and your opinions are valid.Consider how you can best serve your client. If you constantly strive to act from a place of stewardship, difficult client relationships will dissipate.

What’s Your Take?

What difficult client archetypes have you experienced, and how did you deal with them?

More insights on: Clients

Scott McDowell

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Scott McDowell is a strategy consultant and a coach to new managers & first-time leaders. He wrote New Manager Handbook to help leaders in transition panic less. He also hosts a radio show called The Long Rally on WFMU.
load comments (44)
  • greener

    I worked for a Naysayer once and it is the worst . . . so defeating, such a waste of your time. Thanks for naming ’em and offering some advice, eh? 

  • Amanda

    If you’re not desperate for work/money, why settle for working for these types of clients at all? It’s not worth the headache, and there are plenty of clients out there. It’s not my duty to make myself miserable in my work life just to placate difficult clients.

  • Keith Snyder

    If you’re a Peacemaker/middle-child archetype, these suggestions are probably very useful.

  • K-eM

    If you work for an internal design agency, you can’t pick your clients. You’re stuck with whoever they are.

  • Kirsten Wright

    I think I have worked with each one of these…but only once. You learn to avoid the pain clients pretty quickly. Although, I think there is a little bit of all 4 of these in everyone (it’s just which one is most prevalent…)

  • Lauralaura Plural

    How come all the clients are presented as men…? Is there evidence to back this up, or is it just a hunch? I’m interested in whether this is purely anecdotal.

  • dyeyourcarpet

    I think its just a blow off steam article.
    I understand the writter.
    To be successful you must qualify your clients before engagements of businesslike affairs.
    In sales if you do not or can not adapt to suit your clients needs you may run the risk of rendering yourself obsolete. We adapt ourselfs to suit the need of the client under all instances.
    COMMUNICATION AND RAPPORT are my best tools.
    Worst case scenario:”Turn um before You burn um!”

  • Guest

    Add the “Micromanager from hell,” the “Took a design/art history 101 class in college,” the “Can you make it like the Powerpoint I did?,” the and the “My secretary/wife/nephew/dog didn’t ‘like’ it…,” categories, and the list would be getting closer to reality… sadly.

  • Pete R.

    What about those that freelancers need to avoid? 

  • NewOrbOrder

    ‘The adder’ Feels compelled to say something, add something – usually without any merit. These are the worst because they dont understand what we do, so they use external becnhmarks to try and understand and simulate. They add ideas because that way, the feel like they understand and it makes them feel like they are ‘creative’. ‘The adder’ is usually the one that interrupts you on slide no. 1

  • Scott McDowell

    Ah, good point! When I wrote the article I thought of actual specific clients and then tried to generalize… and they all happened to be men. I could have written it differently, though. Women can be bad clients, too!

  • Scott

    Good one!

  • Scott

    Yes, I know an Adder or two.

  • Detroit Mac

    After 35 years freelancing… I can offer a couple more types or clients not mentioned:
    1. The Mind Reader: This client always gives you incompletely thought out, or slightly incorrect specifications. They only way you can avoid problems is to be able to read their mind. Be prepared to redo 25 to 35% of the job.
    2. The Dog: Even if the delivered work is perfect to all specification and instructions, they will have to piss on it, to mark it as theirs. (Solution? When in doubt-put a Gorilla in the background – something wrong but easy to remove- so they can make changes and feel their input was justified)

  • RebelBuzz

    Interesting all difficult clients are “him”, obviously women are not clients or problematic :) 

  • Scott

    Love this!: “put a gorilla in the background.” 

  • resume writing service

    Very good! Interesting article!

  • Reymar Chua

    The worst type of client you’ll ever experience are the ones who tend to run, snatching your ideas/efforts/drafts without paying

  • flash template

    I have found here much useful information for yourself. Many thanks to the editors for the info

  • student

    We’re dealing with a client who constantly stresses that our goal is to help the environment and be good to it’s workers, while he continuously makes decisions that create the most profit but are the worst choices for the environment and cut out people who are actually doing good.  What would you call that?  (he’s also a naysayer/linebacker)

  • eric_shinn

    I thought so too. Which was your favorite part, Mr. Resume W. Service? Hmm?

  • julieodonn

    I agree with Detroit Mac…the Mind Reader is one of the worst!

  • resume

    whata  great post !!! like it! thanks for sharing! 

  • Carola

    I had a linebacker once – It is a pure pain in the ass. You have to do a design but you don’t get a concept, just some breadcrumbs. How the heck should I know what to design if I don’t know what the client wants? When I kindly asked to get more information directly from the source, he just freaked out. That was my shortest job.

  • Dan

    The worst ones for me are the ones I call “Absentees”. They want you to get a project off an running. You submit samples and they never get back to you and or give feed back. Then after a month passes you find out from other people that they say you took too long. When they were never present in the first place.

  • Info

    What bout The Needy One? The one who calls and emails you 50 times a day every time a thought or question pops into his head. He wants you to be available 24/7 and hold his hand during every decision process. Any idea how to cope with them?

  • Pier

    You are so right

    What about the “My cousin can make it for a lot less money” or the “I already gave you the hi res photos in that powerpoint/excel/word”

  • custom essays

    what a great post! thanks to the author or sharing this information with
    us! appreciate it! 

  • oregonbacon

    Great article… we use DISC profiling in real estate and you can also do it without them always knowing you are doing it but it really shows how people like to communicate as well as their true strengths and weaknesses.

  • Becka M

    Oh this article and comments made my day, I’m not alone!  I think My boss has difficult client multiple personality dissorder, alternating between 2-3 different archetypes at any given moment.

  • chef

    I absolutely have all these clients. thanks God, now I know that we all share the same difficulties. Thanks guys ;) great one!

  • jason jarvis

    It’s nice to profile key actors in theater this way, but often there isn’t time  and if you’re focussing too much on personalities your service delivery is at risk.
     I opt for transparency as the universal winner.  Lay out the issue you face, your approach, and the path to success.  Find one or 2 subsribers and rally with them.

    The people you decribe are most frequently NOT open to being pacified or having their attitude changed.  It’s who they are.  DOn’t focus on them because your goals lie elsewhere./

  • Lauren Brown

    Great article.  Thank you!

  • Aleš Kroutil


  • Logo Design

    Nice article, great to know some of the major points which i unaware
    about it. It really helpful to me to make possible to keep a trust of
    them on my specialties and skills..

  • Yasir

    There is a way to improve Your Struggling Sales Team: by Yasir Khan Faridi.… 

  • Joanna Dunk

    I’m interested to read this. I think that most of us can recognise some archetypes here. 
    However, I would add that I believe it is very important for the agency to lay the groundwork for great relationships with all clients. The point is made here that we are brought in because the client needs something from us. They do. But it’s not just our creativity. It’s our guidance through the whole process. Agencies often make assumptions of their clients. We take it for granted that they understand the creative process, and that they come into it with a comprehensive appreciation of what we need from them in order to deliver our work. Even if we are suspicious that this might not be the case, we are keen to get their business, and we fear getting their backs up by potentially patronising them by taking them through this step by step. Then, once the project is underway, we are too busy getting to the meat of the matter to address these very important points. I’ve been agency side for over 14 years now, and am now branching out to consult with clients for this very reason. I have seen the basic needs on both sides of the fence and am amazed at how often agencies fail to take the time at the beginning of a project to sit with the client and explain how our process works, what we need from the client, and set the boundaries for how and when we need that to happen. If we take the time to do this at the start (with documentation, which we all sign, so everyone is clear) then it’s possible to foster a feeling of trust and team work and a climate which welcomes frank communication (remember, the client might not want to look stupid by asking certain questions, and may feel that us “trendy creative types” will look down on them if they do) If we make this a regular practice at the very start of any project (I would recommend before any contract is signed even, so if the client is completely unwilling to play ball, then any and all pain is avoided) any unhelpful behaviour from the client down the line can be measured against these conversations and agreements, and if it is truly the case that the client is simply “a nightmare” and unmanageable, then we can bow out gracefully. My aim is to get agencies and clients in harmony, there is far too much “us and them” which I know can be broken down by putting ourselves in each others shoes a bit more, and being clear and firm on what we need to do our jobs to the standard the client is hoping for. joannadunk@gmail:disqus .com

  • Bethanynauert

    This is an excellent article. I just forwarded it to a friend of mine who was dealing with difficult clients. 

    I’m no expert but I wanted to share two things that have REALLY helped me pave the way to solid + respectful working relationships…as well as repeat loyal customers.

    1. Knowing when to deal with the client via email or phone. Many people hate email communication and want to get the project going by having creative phone call or coffee date for brainstorming. I say have the phone call and go to coffee. But when you’re ready to outline the bullet points of the terms and conditions of what to expect and what you’re offering– WRITE AN EMAIL. Usually I will speak to them on the phone then say “Okay I’ll get you an estimate” or “send you a contract w/ terms and conditions” and email it over to them. In that first email I answer all their questions, lay out a price, what they can expect from me, when they can can expect it…and also state politely that no work will be done until there is a signed contract. This is an excellent way to be firm and friendly altogether. After all this is a client based relationship and you want to be respected and trusted altogether. 

    This brings me to my second point

    2. ALWAYS use a contract. It’s a legal binding document and commitment that if both parties sign… will protect you both

    3. Addressing everything you are willing to provide for that declared price… will automatically set boundaries. Setting these boundaries is important if you want to avoid being bullied or taken advantage of. 

    4. Never be afraid to talk about money. The client is hiring you because you have something to offer them, that they can’t do themselves. You are empowered here with a skill set this valuable. They are hiring you (aka rewarding you) by offering money. So be upfront and ask for what you want, and always be sure to willing to politely negotiate to suit their budgets. If the budget is too low for you, and you feel you will be doing more work than is warranted, find out how to decline politely. I’ve also found that declining politely but offering a referrel to someone else can help. 

  • jing jang jong

    There is the monkey type of client. They constantly looking for what your competitors are doing and they want it done much better at half price.

  • Ali Jamar Taylor

    Just stop.

  • Mike

    What if I have a single client that is ALL of these….?

  • Wayne Smallman

    Placating these people with quick fixes is merely storing up problems for a later date. And since we’re the supplier, their problems become our problems.

    I’ve experienced these types — and many more — and I use it as an educational exercise.

    If they aren’t prepared to do things as they should be done, with the correct measures in place, such as the designation of specific roles, proper accountability, and deliverable phases, then I can’t trust them and I walk away, it’s that simple.

    The kind of client not mentioned here is by far and away the worst kind; the one who confuses want with need and is incapable of seeing that are perpetuating a cycle of self defeat because they are driven by ego, some vague personal agenda, and not the needs of their own customers.

  • John

    Thanks, this was both refreshing and reassuring…its not just
    me that suffers with these types. I work with Academics/Scientists and have
    seen all four of these types. Two other types that I encounter regularly though
    are the “Don’t Talk To Me About Theories (DTTMAT)” and “Grad School (GS)”.

    “Don’t Talk To Me About Theories” has the pompous view that his/her
    PhD. puts him/her in another perception zone above everyone else. He/She will
    dismiss anything you have to tell them about your own expertise, second guess
    any statements you make and patronize you with a chuckle when you offer advice
    on creative or technical issues to make the job work to their benefit. You can
    spot DTTMAT in advance because his website, publications and presentations look
    horrendous (not just bad but really really bad).

    What’s Really Going On? Ego, plain and simple. Big time!
    His/her publication material and website are so so poor firstly because DTTMAT doesn’t
    know it is as bad as it is due to lack of insight, taste, humility, understanding
    of anything that falls outside of his own profession, and secondly because anyone
    that is in a position to improve said material is shot down before they even
    start if they don’t have a PhD. in an unrelated subject.

    How To Disarm Him/Her? I wish I knew. After 16 years of
    suffering with this type in various guises the only thing I have managed to do
    is cover myself by saving all correspondence and recording all demands. So when
    material is delivered from the printers full of pixelated images I have the
    e-mail from him/her insisting, against any advice I tried to give, “…Use my PowerPoint
    slide on the cover. IT LOOK PERFECTLY FINE TO ME ON MY SCREEN!”

    “Grad School (GS)” is DTTMAT in the making. GS has a degree
    (e.g. science or maths) in a subject unrelated to the communications role they
    play for the academic institution that employs them. They have a working title
    like Science Editor, Communications Director or Publications Officer and their main
    function is to be the stop gap between DTTMAT and the creative consultant.
    DTTMAT doesn’t trust creative consultant because creative consultant doesn’t have
    a PhD. GS though has half a foot in the world of DTTMAT and aspires one day to
    be like DTTMAT when they get to grad school. So GS employs a practice of ‘kiss
    up/kick down’.

    What’s Really Going On? Insecurity. GS isn’t qualified to be
    an Academic yet, so any job in an Academic institution is as close as they can
    get. Sadly thought the night class in Dreamweaver or the lunch-time brownbag tutorial
    in PowerPoint they sat last semester doesn’t equip them to be a successful communicator,
    editor or creative contributor. Rather than admit to that though, GS does whatever
    he/she can to deflect any criticism or appearance of failure by overcompensating.
    Using, and often-misusing communications jargon, undermining any attempt by
    peers to succeed and blaming every failure on the external creative consultants
    that have the misfortune to be procured by him/her.

    How To Disarm Him/Her? I don’t know if it is possible. I
    have experienced so many of these and they can often be quite dangerous and
    destructive. Avoidance is probably the best strategy.

    Any advice from others is appreciated.

  • Adelina

    Dealing with a Naysayer at the moment. What makes him even more nuanced is the stupid and irrelevant questions I keep getting. The submission is stalled but I’m talking to a brick wall.

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