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For those of us out there who run businesses, we all know how stressful that can be. Ensuring steady revenue, dealing with the taxman, managing employees expectations, satisfying clients, etc., entrepreneurs are always pulled in a million different directions, which can be exhausting and in the worst of cases, very stressful. In the course of running a business, one will inevitably face challenges that need to be resolved. One challenge that I think is worth addressing, because in my opinion, not talked about enough, is how to deal with shitty, dishonest and unreasonable clients.
The first thing that may come to your mind when dealing with this topic is the old adage “the client is always right”. While this may be applicable to transactional businesses, say retail stores, where clients opinions and behaviours don’t really affect the transaction and where it’s beneficial for the retail outlet in the long term to have repeat clients, I think it doesn’t apply at all where professional services are concerned. When what we sell is intellectual capital and exponentially valuable solutions to our clients, where our best thinking will directly contribute to the client’s long term success in impactful ways, treating that provider-client relationship in a transactional fashion is at best wrong-headed. Clients are not always right and when they’re unreasonably giving us hell, we are perfectly justified to put them in their place. More on that below.
My experience tells me that most clients will be reasonable or at least open to exploring mutually satisfying solutions when problems arise. Once in a blue moon, however, a client may appear to exist solely to make our lives difficult and nothing can be done to satisfy them. Similar situations sometimes pop up in our lives. We encounter people for whom a peaceful co-existence is not possible and whose every action is meant to cause grief. I’m not going to expand on the reasons why this is, but simply base my argument on the fact that it is a reality and spell out what can be done to get out of a pickle when it arises.
I written before about the value of good positioning and how vetting clients helps us avoid the bad ones. Sometimes, though, we just get hired to do a job and don’t have the luxury to position ourselves or vet the client properly. Heck, sometimes we just need the cash. It’s a reality that we’ve all faced at one point or another, but I think it’s worth addressing because even though we would all love to operate in ideal conditions 100% of the time, the reality is different and it’s best to be prepared for disasters, even though they may never occur.
A good client is someone who understands what you do, its value and how it’s going to benefit them. These clients require little hand-holding and will largely leave you alone to do your work once enough trust has been established. They might occasionally call you out on a mistake, shortcoming or failure, but will do so by always being open to finding solutions to these problems. They are generally well-balanced individuals, adept at interpersonal relationships who understand that mutual gains are better in the long term than self-centered, selfish behaviours.
Bad clients, conversely, are the ones who complain all the time, blame others blindly and will consider you guilty until proven innocent. They cut you off in the conversation and never even give anyone a chance to rectify whatever it is that they see as a problem. Not to mention that they often act like a hammer in search of a nail, every little thing that doesn’t go their way becomes a problem or worse, they create problems out of thin air. In short, there is no reasonable dialogue possible because no matter what one does, they see others as adversaries who are in the wrong. The worst of them will use deception, dishonest tactics to gain the upper hand, often resorting to threats to get their point across. In other terms, they’ll act like elementary school bullies.
Dealing with bad clients requires that one becomes a bit of a psychologist in order to understand the motivations behind their bad behaviour. In the worst of cases, some clients are just out for blood and will not stop until they cause serious damage or are met with fearless determination, showing them that their behaviour will be met by a worthy opponent that will not back down at the first sight of them showing their teeth.
The best defence against this is to be irreproachable in behaviour. Honouring our word and fulfilling obligations is the best way to cover one’s ass, as it will leave clients with few things to latch on in order to make life miserable. Sometimes, no amount of contracts, written record of all interactions or any other form of accountability is sufficient. When a mutually agreeable solution is not workable, we have to resort to more radical solutions. Detaching oneself from the outcome and acting like we don’t give a fuck is a powerful tool in our arsenal. When one doesn’t worry about what others will think about them, it allows for an unprecedented amount of freedom as we are now mentally free to tackle the problem with a cool head and think of a solution in terms of doing the right thing, as opposed to bending over backwards in order to try and defuse a time bomb that will go boom no matter what and lose our shirts in the process.
How to not lose sleep.
Doing the right thing will look different for everyone according to our own view of the world and moral compass. But the most important thing to keep in mind when trying to do the right thing is to think of it in terms of what solution will allow us to fix the issue and still be able to sleep at night. I believe it’s more important to find peace of mind than to try and satisfy everyone, which is by definition, simply impossible. For me, doing the right thing is ensuring that I respect and uphold my personal values, as these are extremely important to me and the foundation of my business. That means that sometimes, clients will be pissed off, but that is not really my concern, as I have no control over how people react to a given situation. We can certainly influence how people react in the way we conduct ourselves, but that influence is limited as I mentioned above, some people, no matter how much we try to make it right by them, will never be satisfied.
Understanding that is key to coming out of these interactions unscathed. I’d like to get a little more specific in how to deal with certain clients’ behaviours that you may encounter. Whenever a problem arises, and I am faced with someone who’s not willing to have a reasonable adult conversation, I paint them in my mind as an unruly child who doesn’t know better and still needs to learn how to socialize in a peaceful manner. I don’t look at it from the assumption that I’m better than them, but rather as a reminder that I can choose to lead by example, like a good parent, through my actions and that my actions will both signal to them what my intentions are and with luck, perhaps bring them back to reality.
Here are a few suggestions that often go a long way to resolving issues with bad clients:
Empathize and sympathize: I always give the other person the opportunity to express themselves, it both gives them space to state the problem and gives me a chance to look at the problem from their perspective. It is also a powerful tool to defuse tense situations. Very few people would respond negatively to someone who’s openly and willingly giving them the opportunity to express themselves. If you’re lucky, it may work in your favour towards finding a solution.
Never respond in kind: When facing insults and personal attacks, it can be very tempting to respond in kind and escalate the situation. However, a lifetime of interpersonal relationships shows us that it only ever makes things worse. When people launch into personal attacks, it is to get the best out of us and trigger a reaction. No reaction at all is more jarring than a response in kind as most people do not know how to respond to that. If you don’t respond to the abuse, a client escalating insults when there is no reaction on your side only contributes to make them look unhinged.
Politely call them out on their bad behaviour: without resorting to verbal violence, insults or threats, it is OK to tell people that their behaviour is unacceptable. If they truly misbehave, you are perfectly within you rights to say so and explain why their behaviour is not warranted. It also helps managing expectations, especially if your expectations have not been made clear in the first place.
Always remember that it’s just business. It’s very difficult to deal with an unreasonable family member, because most of us cannot just walk away from a shitty sibling or in-law. We’re often tied to them for the long haul and have to work towards long-term peace by making small sacrifices today. A client, conversely, is just that and once the relationship ends, we likely will never have to deal with them again. It means that as long as we come up with a satisfactory solution that enables us to sleep peacefully and soundly at night, we can go on with our lives and never think about them again.
Always offer a way out: By taking the initiative to offer one or multiple alternative solutions that allow the client to save face while providing both parties with a mutually agreeable solution, clients are robbed of the ability to complain about not being satisfied as they will portray themselves as completely hermetic to negotiating.
Always stay positive: keep your head and learn how to dissociate your personal self from the situation.
Always have your contractual obligations on paper: Mike Monteiro explained it very clearly. Contracts are most of the time very little use as most client relationships will go without a hitch and contracts never have to be enforced. But the irony is that they become necessary only when problems arise, however without them, we’d be fucked. With them, there are a clear set of expectations from both parties laid out on paper, which can include how to deal with the most common of clients misbehaviours and call them out when they try to back out of their obligations. Don’t be afraid to stand your ground.
Meditate: When life stresses us out, taking a metaphorical step back and learning to detach ourselves from day to day problems is a very valuable skill to have. I have been meditating for a while and I cannot recommend it enough, particularly to people that are generally stressed out. It definitely takes effort and time, but the return on investment is huge. It helps put things into perspective make us realize that a lot of the things we fret over don’t matter in the long term and that most problems eventually go away on their own.
Know when to say goodbye: If the relationship is destined to end, say thank you, wish them well and never look back.
I am fully cognizant of the fact that this may seem like a piece of writing with negative overtones, but I think it’s important to address, as these situations sometimes arise and we have no choice but to deal with them. Like you, I’ve been burnt before by terrible, dishonest clients and it took a lot of energy to get rid of them while ensuring my own well-being. Sharing this knowledge is important as we can all learn from other past experiences, so this is my modest contribution.
Remember to always stay positive!
Arnaud Marthouret is the founder of rvltr and leads their strategy, visual communications and media efforts. He has helped numerous architects and interior designers promote themselves in their best light - pun intended - in order to help them run more effective practices and grow in a meaningful way.
If you have questions about this article or rvltr, or want to chat about your strategy and communications, you can leave a comment, share with a friend, or reach him at arnaudrvltr.studio.