How to handle difficult clients


You have ‘em. Clients who nit-pick, micromanage, and demand things that aren’t part of the deal. They’re perfectionists, malcontents, or just a perpetual pain in the backside. What can you do?

Get rid of them. 

Well, that’s one option. But there are other things you can try before you show anyone the door. You probably already know everything on this list but, if you’re like me, just because you know something doesn’t mean you’re doing it and a reminder from time to time could be just what you (we) need.

  1. Put it all in writing. The nature and scope of the work, dates, goals, lists of steps, what they need to send you, and your authority with respect to making decisions, should be discussed, clarified, put in writing, and initialed. Because the best way to avoid problems later on is to spell out everything from the start. 
  2. Document everything. Every time you speak with the client, write down what was said by each of you (even if you’re not billing for that conversation). You don’t always have to follow-up with a written memo, but it can’t hurt. 
  3. Regular updates. You can avoid many issues by giving clients regular, detailed updates about what you’re doing, what happened, and what’s next. Keeping clients informed (and inviting their feedback) is one of the simplest and most effective ways to keep clients happy. And if they’re not happy, bring the issue to a head sooner (when you can fix it) rather than later (when it might be too late).  
  4. Listen. Sometimes, clients are having a bad day and take it out on you. Before you respond to a complaint or demand, repeat it back to them. When they hear what they’re saying, they might see the unreasonableness of their concerns and back off. And, if not, they’ll tell you more you can use to fix the problem.
  5. Validate. If they have a legitimate concern, before you respond, tell them you appreciate them for calling this to your attention (because you do; it helps you do a better job for them and your other clients). Also, let them know you take the issue seriously and will do what you can to make improvements. 
  6. Give them the benefit of the doubt. Take the blame for small things as a tradeoff for keeping the client happy. If it’s a billing dispute, eat the difference. If it happens again, have a talk with them, make sure both of you are on the same page, and be prepared to modify your retainer agreement and/or your office procedures. 
  7. Build a good relationship. The best way to avert issues and amicably resolve them if they occur is to do everything you can to get your clients to like and trust you. When they do, they’ll give you the benefit of the doubt and work with you to fix anything that seems broken. 

If you consistently do everything on this list, you should see fewer misunderstandings and complaints. But remember, it’s the complaints you don’t hear that cause clients to leave, or for things to get so bad you have to ask them to leave, so always encourage your clients to tell you what’s on their mind.