Do you remember a client that ruined your weekend? 

You look forward to your free time, when all of a sudden, your client tells you that what you thought was done needs more hours.

Goodbye leisure, rest, and personal time.

Difficult people are everywhere. We have all met rude people who don’t follow through, disrespect deadlines and are unaware of how their actions impact other people.

You can simply — avoid them.

But when it comes to handling difficult people at work, the story is somewhat different. You are bound by a contract and it is a big game for your business. A contract may not have the same meaning for all parties, even if it is spelled out to the dot. 

No one wants to have their weekends ruined, even less, having a client screwing the whole week and other projects. So how do you handle difficult clients to avoid that?

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How to Handle Difficult Clients and Enjoy Work

There is no one blueprint for dealing with difficult clients. Everyone is a unique story. 

But most client-related issues are either personality-related or process-related. And let’s face it: you cannot do much about someone’s personality. It is best if you let those clients go. What you can do is set up an example according to your strategy and be relentless in implementing it with clients who are misaligned with you regarding the process.  

1. Figure out the real issue.

Often, there is something else behind the problem that is pointed out. Make sure you know the real issue by asking questions about a surprising unpleasant development. Client difficulties are more often than not a result of misunderstandings and misinterpretations. 

2. Do not react, respond.

Reacting is about taking the issue personally. Even if it seems so, it is not so in 99% of the cases. Reactivity is offensive. Responding accounts for the other person, too, taking care of the shared goals and what you have in common.

3. Acknowledge but don’t be apologetic.

There is a vast difference between responsibility and fault. Acknowledge if you have made a mistake and take responsibility, but don’t dwell on it. If someone finds fault with you constantly, it is time to remove them from your perfect client list.

4. Pause.

When you are left with no clue about how to handle a difficult client, take a break. Acting quickly can worsen the situation because you can act instinctively without having all the facts. It is not easy to relax when the issue is brought to you at a crucial moment. But acting recklessly can ruin more than a weekend.  

5. Choose language mindfully.

Avoid using charged words if you can help it. Bring the issue back to the common ground and don’t point fingers. Use words that describe the issue regarding the project and the process. 

6. Be curious, not judgmental. 

Ask questions, don’t panic. When you hear unexpected bad news from a client, it is easy to think about the worst. Even if the client doesn’t want to give you more details, you will learn more about what went wrong and try to avoid it next time. 

7. The devil is in the detail.

Ah, details. Details are subject to misinterpretation, especially in different work cultures. You can avoid detail mishaps by creating as precise and as thorough project workflows as to reduce poorly understood details to the minimum. 

8. Do not complain.

“But, but, but…” If you have to point out a difference in opinions that led to working weekends, do so after you acknowledge your client’s stance. Starting with shifting blame may put the other person in a defensive, uncooperative mode. 

9. Send reminders close to the event.

Sometimes, people forget to complete their part of the contract. In long steady projects, this can happen more often. Life happens. Instead of getting a headache because your client didn’t send the files on time, send them a reminder as close to the event as possible.  

10. Double-check understanding.

For example, ask for confirmation that someone has received. Ask clarifying questions, use examples, and rephrase. Ask whether the other party has some questions and confirm you are on the same page.  

11. Set firm boundaries about key goals.

If you are rigid about every project, you will be the difficult one. But it is important to be firm about contract goals of great value. You can play with flexibility when it comes to certain less important objectives or working methods that are important to the client and not so important to you.    

12. Take control and write new rules.

Taking command of the situation is when you are dealing with difficult clients because of uncertainty. Your client may struggle wiht the best way forward because of a lack of information. Since you are the expert, deal with a difficult client by providing enough assurance about the best deliveries. 

13. Overcome fear of conflict before it accumulates.

Fostering lingering issues is unwise. If something bothers you, express it and encourage your client to do so. For example, feedback or a review questionnaire can give you an idea about buried conflicting issues and the best ways to resolve them. 

14. Write goal-oriented outcomes.

Ensure you are in sync about project goals by writing them. You can be unspecific with the tools you use but not so with what you want to achieve. The sauce details can be vague but the meat and potatoes of a project must be spelled out in a detailed recipe. 

15. Use the agile approach.

Work iteratively in sprints and implement feedback as you go. It is important that your client understands what it means to work in iterations and that you are co-creators of a product that want what is the best for both parties 

16. Use measurables and document everything. 

One area where you are not allowed to make mistakes is numbers. Develop measurables such as OKRs and KPIs to evaluate project success. It is a breeze to handle a difficult client when you show them metrics. It is another story if you use descriptive language for goals because not everyone agrees on qualitative goals. And — document everything in digital tools or otherwise.   

17. Offer solutions. 

When a problem occurs, focus on the solutions. This is the most important step you can take to deal with a difficult client. Solutions demonstrate proactive positive behavior and a willingness on your part to remove an obstacle.   

18. Say goodbye and recommend someone else.

Be ready to cut ties with certain clients. Fighting for more clients without paying attention to the fit of the client is not always the best approach. It can drain you without providing sufficient value for both you and your client. 

19. Integrate the lesson into the next client experience.

Reflect on what happened and how can you avoid the same next time by making mistakes a valuable learning tool.

Summary: How to Handle Difficult Clients

The shortest strategy about dealing with difficult clients is the following one: Don’t:

  • Choose one
  • Create a difficult client yourself or 
  • Nurture one. 

Simple, but effective. To bring these three to fruition, work on the above. 



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