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Illustration: Oscar Ramos Orozco


Dealing With Difficult Clients

Are you dealing with a Naysayer or a Linebacker? We show you how to identify difficult clients from the get-go, so you can manage for success.

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?

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.

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