How to Deal With Difficult Consulting Clients
I had a coaching client who (prior to our work together) would work with any type of client. If you wanted to buy services, he would sell them to you. Unfortunately, he would accept the money in the beginning only to be abused by the client in the end.
Does that sound familiar? We've all gone through this. You will offer any service to any client that will buy. (Even at the cost of your sanity and profitability).
Eventually, my client was honest with himself. He said, "There are clients that I just cannot support any more. It is draining. It's not fun. It's not working for me. I can't be in this business if I'm serving bad clients."
Are you worn out by keeping up with bad clients who monopolize your time, create pointless conflict, or undermine the work you are trying to do for them? Dealing with difficult consulting clients requires you to identify the bad client, pinpoint the undesired behavior, and respond with maximum professionalism. The trick is, some clients are “bad” where others are simply “misunderstood”. This article will help you differentiate a bad client from a great client, just waiting for some help from you.
How to Spot a Bad Client
Let’s discuss three major categories of bad clients.
- THE COMBATIVE CLIENT
These are people who are always beating you up on your pricing. The moment you tell them what the cost is, they immediately have comebacks. They want you to renegotiate and give them a discount. They’re pointlessly argumentative for the entire extent of the deal. They’re just combative people.
- THE UNDER-INFORMED CLIENT
When they signed on, everything was fine. But then six days later, six weeks later, six months later, they're throwing up their arms like they have no idea what’s happening or why. “What are we doing? Who said we were going to be doing this?” Worse, they're blaming it on you. They didn't know enough before they got started with the arrangement.
- THE UNDER-COMMITTED CLIENT
These are people that are waiting for one bad thing to happen, as an excuse to get out of the commitment. When that one bad thing does happen, they want it all to go away. They want their money back. They want to rewind and undo everything.
Each of these can be “fixed”. In certain situations, you can have a conversation with your client and improve your working relationship. Best case case scenario, you “design” this problem out of your business altogether.
Either way, You do not have to accept combative, under-informed, or under-committed clients. You should keep reading for actionable advice on how to remove bad clients from your business.
Still, there is one specific trade-off you must be willing to accept:
You will have to say “no” to possible business.
People will bring you a deal. It sounds so good up front. But you see the red flag of a bad client, because if you'll commit, if you'll focus, then you can hear that it’s not a good deal - you can hear the combative, the under-committed, or the under-informed client behind the deal, and you can say NO.
No yelling, no screaming. No bad talking. No crazy argument. You simply pass because you know this deal isn't the best fit for you. “Your project isn't the best project for us. We have to pass."
The risk of saying no to difficult clients
Now, all that sounds like good business talk. But when it's time to execute, it feels really risky. It feels safer to sell services to anybody that will buy. I mean, the point is to make money, right? Yet, on the backend, what happens? You get beaten up. If you say “yes” to these bad deals, and that deal stays bad for the next nine months, you're trying to figure out, “Why am I taking this little bitty money for this long confusing frustrating arrangement?”
That's saying yes to every single deal.
But it feels risky, when someone like me says, "You should make a decision. You should focus on doing this kind of work and doing it well." One part of you goes, "Yup, I should." And the other part goes, "But if I do that, I say no to this!"
That is 100% true. You're saying no to the bad deal. You're saying yes to the good deal.
Handling Your Difficult Clients
"Clients don't know what they want!"
Because clients so often don't seem to know what they want, you might use that frustration to justify a number of inefficient business practices. The pressure is on you to offer more and more types of services, to give your prospects more options to help them better understand and therefore better choose. You prepare yourself for very long conversations because you have to teach them what they don't know, step by step. If that's what you want to do, if you enjoy that, if that's working for you, stellar.
I'm talking to the person who finds that to be frustrating and wants it to stop!
Let's think through this issue. Clients don't know what they want? Sometimes that's true. Sometimes clients literally do not know what they want. Sometimes, they just don't know what questions to ask. They don't know what conversation they should have.
SHORT STORY: SOMETIMES CLIENTS ACT WEIRD BECAUSE THEY DON’T KNOW HOW THEY SHOULD ACT
Imagine your car breaks down. There's a noise coming underneath the hood. Now, you're an expert in your area, but you don't fix cars. You put gas in it, you turn the key. It's about what you understand about cars. But now your car has some challenges. It's making a noise under the hood. What do you do? You pop the hood - that’s something you know how to do - and you look for where the noise comes from. You can't tell - somewhere from the right side of the car?
If you're going to search for this on Google, what do you type in the search box? “Noise under hood?” “Noise in car?” That noise could be anything. It could be the alternator, the transmission, the engine block, any part of the fuel injection system. You are stuck because you don't know what to ask.
So what do you do? You give your car to an expert. A car mechanic opens the hood and because they have a general expertise of how a car functions they can more quickly assess where the problem may be. They may even have to hook your car up to a diagnostic machine to understand more about the inner workings of the car to better diagnose what the problem is and how to resolve it. The expert can find what the real issue is and then recommend a solution.
Your expertise is required to influence better client behavior
Someone's got an issue that falls under your expertise - but they know as much about your expertise as you know about that noise under the hood. What do you think they're typing into Google? Some version of “noise under hood.” A very blocky, archaic, non-savvy search. These may be the words they use when they sit down for a meeting with you. They don't know what the problem is. They're not experts.
In order to have a better conversation, you've got to have empathy for your client. What do you do as the expert in these exchanges?
- Acknowledge that your prospect may not know how to describe their challenge. Use some patience and open the door for understanding by asking questions. "So tell me more about the issue that you're experiencing." "Is that knock more like a boom or is it more like a door knock?" "Is that issue more on the right hand side of your business, right hand side of your thinking, or is it more on the left hand side?" "Do you always have that problem or does that problem only happen when ‘x’ happens?" Let me better understand the issue.
- Once you understand, make a DECISION TO RESOLVE. If conventional wisdom is to offer a client 100 choices, we must agree that this person doesn't know what all those choices mean. All you're going to do is overwhelm them. Therefore, it is up to you to choose, showing them a straightforward path to resolving what they described. Not options of services but rather a DECISION TO RESOLVE. “Are we going to fix this problem or not? Because I'm putting the choice right in front of you now.”
"My Client Wont' Do the Work!"
Sometimes clients just don't do the work, and that sucks. They don't turn in the form like you asked, they don't follow up the way you want. Sometimes they're late to meetings. They can hold up your projects. Clients don’t perform optimally, and you end up irritated and frustrated.
Why might these delays happen?
- Your client might not have the skills to do what you ask. One of the classic things that clients don't do is data entry. You're asking the client to give you a summary of their problem, or to list out the top 10 reasons why “x” is happening, or to communicate within their own company and then give you the summary of the data. All of those things require a certain level of skill that the client might not have.
- They are inefficient because this isn't a task they're used to doing. You might do it every day, but they only do this task once a year, or once every three years when they work with a company like yours.
- They don’t value the information the same way you do. Without the skills or efficiency, they don’t see what’s important about your request.
- They avoid the work because they know they can’t do it well. Do you actually think that the client wants to hold up their own project and hold up their own success? Of course they don't. Do you think the client is aware of how slow they're moving? Of course they are. You may even find that the client is feeling shame, or blame, because they know they're holding up this important project.
That's the issue on your plate, and you have an opportunity to unravel those emotions for them.
Let Your Client Off the Hook
Here’s the opportunity for a better conversation. "I understand you haven't turned that form in. let's just go ahead and figure out why we haven't completed the form yet. What's holding us up? Is it some clarity you don't have? Is it a step that you're missing? What resource do you need from us? How can we help you complete this form, finish that task, so we can push the project forward?"
The bottom line here is that you can either:
- Get mad at the client for not doing what you think they should do, or
- Help that client finish that goal and push that project forward.
Where do you think your premium is?
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