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.
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