The key is to master basic relationship rules and put them into practice for your business, says Sobel, who is co-author (with Jerold Panas) of the book “Power Relationships” (Wiley, 2014).
Here are six types of tough customers and ways to deal with them.
1. Insecure Client: Although these clients are unsure of themselves, this often comes through as being unsure of you and your business. They are nervous about failing or looking bad. They have trouble trusting you to do new and different things, and will incessantly review your work.
Solution: Build more trust and reduce their perception of risk. Invest in more face time; reassure them about your product or service delivery. Increase communication and show them what you’re doing at key stages. Above all, demonstrate complete reliability and consistency.
2. Boundary Pusher: Clients like this perceive no boundaries around you and your work. They call, email or text you at all hours of the day and night, expecting an immediate response. They don’t distinguish between something that’s truly important and an issue that’s a simple “to do.” They can leave you feeling overwhelmed.
Solution: Explain your boundaries at the start of a relationship, especially if you suspect this might become an issue, says Sobel. For example, you could say, “On workdays, we respond to emails within four hours unless it’s clearly urgent, in which case we’ll get back to you within the hour. If something comes up over the weekend, unless it’s an emergency, we’ll respond Monday morning.”
3. Know-it-All: This client thinks they know more about your business than you do and is constantly telling you how to do your job. They give excessive suggestions in areas well outside their expertise and give too much direction.
Solution: Reestablish your respective roles. If gentle rebukes don’t work, put your foot down. Remind them that they’ve hired you because of your expertise and experience, and they need to give you the space to exercise it on their behalf.
4. Aloof Client: Some clients treat you only like a vendor and resist all efforts to build a real relationship. They are often very professional and can be perfectly pleasant when you’re with them. But it’s a purely arm’s-length relationship, which limits how much you’re able to help them achieve.
Solution: Learn more about the client’s agenda and help them accomplish it. Try to more deeply understand their priorities —their underlying needs and goals. What’s important to them right now? What are they trying to accomplish this year?
5. Insatiable Client: This client feels the work is never, ever good enough, and they also micromanage you — although for different reasons than the insecure client. Their behavior can wear you down. You never feel like you’re succeeding. These people have carping, critical personalities and can’t give out compliments.
Solution: Carefully calibrate expectations at the beginning of each engagement or transaction. For example, IT firms have “service level agreements” (SLAs) — maybe you need to go deeper into specifics around the type, quality and format of your output for the client. “Don’t become overly needy about getting positive feedback,” says Sobel. “This is a client, not your spouse, and as long as you’re doing a good job and achieving the agreed-upon goals, you shouldn’t worry about getting praise.”
6. Tyrant: They have personality and emotional issues and treat their people — and perhaps you — poorly. Most people who works for them dislike them. The Tyrant could be a good-hearted person who happens to have an anger management issue, or might be genuinely mean. The reasons may be unknowable.
Solution: If the client is nice to you, but tyrannical with their team, you may be able to influence them to change. Unless you’re specifically in a coaching relationship, however, they may not be open to that kind of personal feedback. If the client is treating you or your colleagues badly, consider moving on.
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