How to deal with difficult clients in your business

How to deal with difficult clients in your business

Even though you may be fortunate to work with wonderful clients, your business has likely not been free of challenging interactions. Here's how to deal with difficult clients without jeopardizing your work.

Relationship management has its ups and downs and learning how to manage the good, bad and ugly is a sign of a skilled business owner. 

It's quite comical to reflect on some of the nonsensical situations I could have avoided as a new entrepreneur had I been forewarned of the inevitability of difficult clients.

You may have also experienced a few situations that left you reeling and wondering how to avoid ever going through something like that again. And you are not alone.

I've had friends start their own service-based businesses only to stop a few months into it because tending to clients was wearing on their patience.

And I’ve personally lost time and money dealing with difficult clients and wish someone would have told me what to look out for.

A consensus is that you should bend over backwards for clients and do whatever is necessary to please them.

Unfortunately, this type philosophy isn't sustainable. It will stress you out or even drive you out of business. Mastering the art of service is crucial but you should demand mutual respect and see yourself as a partner not a minion.

One of the best lessons I learned from my dad (who is hilarious but the most consistent person I know and a successful business owner himself) is to set a precedent in life, love, and business.

It is critical that you lay out your own ground rules and establish the parameters of the working relationship you will have with clients upfront. In this article I’ll share how.

Types of clients to avoid

There are certain individuals or institutions that you should actively avoid if you can. Even if you subscribe to the “don't leave money on the table” motto, steer free of these types of clients as they will cost you more than their worth.

Unless your business specializes in serving hard cases, then you will probably be ill-equipped to take on the drama that these clients are sure to bring your way.

An important caveat is that a client being difficult doesn't automatically make them a bad person. I know I’ve been a difficult client before and you probably has to.

It just means that they aren't in the right place at the moment to fully appreciate and benefit from your offerings.

To vet clients and determine whether they are a good fit, always incorporate noncommittal touch points (such as free consultations) at the beginning of the process.

Scattered

A client needs to come to the table with an understanding of their own needs. They may not be able to articulate them perfectly, but if a client is completely confused about what they want and how you can help, then be wary of entering into a business arrangement with them.  

For example, if you are assisting in the development of a business plan for a client and they have put zero thought into their market or product, then you can't them. How can you build a plan without an actual idea?

Don’t be afraid to ask a potential client to come back to you after thinking through their needs a bit more.

Wavering back and forth in the midst of a project severely impacts the scope of work, turn around time, and costs. This type of unpredictability also makes it impossible to manage your capacity.

Cheap

I've found there are two categories of "no money" clients:

  • those who value and desperately need your work but honesty can't afford (a)

  • and everybody else (b)

I always feel sorry for category (a) clients and in a couple of cases allowed that soft spot in my heart to translate into pro bono work which was not wise.

I ended up putting way too much time and energy into these free projects which started interfering with my ability to deliver on my paid projects.

It's tempting to do free work as a favor or because you really like the client, but I advise against this unless there's some charitable component integrated into your business.

At Everesse, we decided that we sincerely want to support smart and talented individuals who aren’t able to afford our offerings.

So we worked this into our mission and business model as a social enterprise in a way that is sustainable.

However, for many businesses this may not practical so you will have to pass on clients who can’t afford you or refer them to helpful free resources.

Category (b) clients are those who can afford you but don’t value you (or perhaps themselves) enough to invest in your offerings.

We’ve written an entire article on how to deal with clients who say they can't afford you that outlines more tips on what to do about category (b) clients.

Arrogant

If they know it all then they don't need you. Next.

Emotional

Try not to mess around with low EQ individuals who have poor social skills or show signs of emotional instability, narcissistic traits or sociopathic tendencies.

I am not trying to be facetious and this is not a joke. There are individuals who will ruin you and I’ve heard a few sad stories about business owners being stalked, blackmailed and more.

Odds are you won’t deal with anything that extreme, but even the less extreme emotional clients can still wear you down.

These are the types of clients that will sing your praises in one breath then snap on you and blame you for all their woes in the next.

All throughout the project they will be enthusiastic about your excellent work then when you send the final product they'll act like they've never seen any of it before.

If you run a therapy practice then never mind, they need you. If not, avoid.

Needy

If a potential client starts talking about twice daily check-ins, 2-hour conference calls, and weekly onsite visits ... flee! Likewise if they are looking for freebies, extras, and side perks ... run!

Now I am being funny, but you get my point. I love gifting my clients and customers and doing extra little things that will delight them. But some clients demand so much that it will drain you dry.

If you get any indication that working with a client will drastically impede on your time or require you to go way outside of scope to please them, then just be sure you have the resources to take them on.

You want to surprise and delight your clients with high-quality work not useless face time or favors that drain your time, energy, and budget. 

Swamped

If a client is overwhelmed with their own stuff then your project will only add to the pool of mess they are drowning in.

This will likely lead to dozens of unanswered emails and going months with unfinished work and outstanding invoices.

Swamped is synonymous with "you are not important enough to pay attention to right now."

It may not be the client’s intention to put you on the back burner, but they will be forced to if they start working with you when they already have too much going on.

How to deal with difficult clients in your business

How to handle difficult situations

Trying to avoid clients is only half the battle, what do you with difficult clients you are already engaged with? Here’s how to approach a few typical situations.

Ringing the alarm

Sometimes you will have situations in which the client throws a fire drill at you. Suddenly they are all over you about deadlines, are demanding work at a faster pace, or are assigning you tasks and action items with impossible turn around times.

My stance on that is: shut it down. Try not to respond to fire drills unless there was a critical error in your assessment of the project timelines or you are the reason why the project is running significantly behind schedule.

If a client approaches you — with respect for your time — to assist with an urgent matter absolutely try to help. But don't get frazzled because of someone else's drama.

Let me tell you why this is so important. First, fire drills will throw your whole game off. Your daily routine and entire agenda will be screwed, you'll fall behind on other projects, and you'll lose money.

Second, most of the time when people scream fire there is none. If you believe every Chicken Little predicting that the sky is falling you'll go crazy and your work will suffer.

Playing the blame game

Finger-pointing can be a real pain in any business relationship and even outside of corporate settings you'll experience a fair share of it.

In situations where clients unfairly place blame I find it is typically due to a lack of awareness (including self-awareness) and a clear understanding of the nature of the work.

So, as a client service professional it is your job to educate them. You have to be willing to talk candidly with a client so they can see the error of their ways.

For instance, if a project is running behind because they weren't responsive for a week, call it out. If you aren't making traction on work because the client is being super picky or indecisive, call it out.

Leave the passive-aggressive behavior aside and be open and honest.

Of course, if you are in the wrong then own up, take full responsibility and correct the issue. The best way to avoid getting stuck in a finger-pointing match is to be solution-oriented.

Onboarding a new team

When a client onboards a new employee or new team that is, in essence, supposed to do what you are doing then I would start phasing that relationship out.

Why? Eventually everything that you worked on prior to that person or team joining will be questioned if not undermined.

That person or team needs to prove their worth and might do so by attempting to show that they know more than you (even if they don't).

It's not worth the effort to go head-to-head with internal hires so save yourself the drama, let them do their thing, and move on.

Dissatisfied with work

In most cases you should be able to resolve this by talking it out and identifying the source of the client's concern. Where this becomes an issue is when a client is asking for unlimited revisions or when they are refusing to pay.

It’s important to have a method for dealing with this upfront by baking certain parameters into your contract especially terms about deposits, revisions, refunds and what happens if you can't resolve a dispute.


Running your own business is not a game or side hobby. It's a venture that directly impacts your livelihood.

There are certain clients that will be smart, sharp, and incredibly inspiring. There are others that will wreck havoc on your life and business if you let them.

You don't have to be disrespectful but you do need to be firm. Remember that in life, love, and business you must set a precedent.