How to (or not to) deal with difficult clients

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Whoever works with customers knows what a headache it can be to deal with a difficult client. Perceptions of difficulty vary, and what one person considers a challenge might be manageable for another. However, below are some of the typical traits that make it hard to do business with an individual:

  1. Unrealistic Expectations (impractical, unattainable expectations or inconsistent with the agreed-upon scope of work)
  2. Poor Communication (unclear, provides incomplete information, or doesn’t respond quickly)
  3. Constant Changes or Revisions (frequently changes their minds, requests numerous revisions, or makes last-minute alterations to projects)
  4. Lack of Cooperation (resists collaboration, fails to provide necessary input)
  5. Negativity or Hostility (rude, exhibits consistently negative attitudes or expresses dissatisfaction without constructive feedback)
  6. Scope Creep (pushes for additional work or features beyond the agreed-upon scope without being willing to adjust timelines or budgets accordingly)
  7. Payment Issues (consistently late with payments, disputes invoices without valid reasons, or expresses dissatisfaction with pricing after the fact)
  8. Resistance to Advice (doesn’t accept professional advice or recommendations, insisting on their own ideas even when it may not be in the best interest of the project)

If you are dealing with someone with one or more of the above characteristics, I hear you! However, every challenge is a learning opportunity. With some tips from this article and your own lessons learned, you'll soon become a pro at detecting and managing problematic clients.

I know this is going to be a difficult client. Should I even sign the contract?
You may have heard a small voice in your head — cautioning you and causing unease about that potential new customer. Yet, you decide to move forward with the deal. No judgment—perhaps you're in a tight spot, struggling to cover employee wages, and a multimillion-dollar contract is the lifeline you've been hoping for.

However, remember that not everything that shines is gold, and it's sometimes better to decline a challenging client to avoid bigger issues. So, next time your intuition detects signs of a potentially tricky relationship, pause and analyze the situation from multiple perspectives.

As Oprah Winfrey said, "Follow your instincts. That's where true wisdom manifests itself."

I am already working with a challenging customer; now what?
If you are already working with a problematic client, there is a way to make the path easier. Below is valuable advice from people with extensive experience in the business world.

Rebeca Olavarieta, FIU Business alumna , CEO and President, Roco 4X4

Rebeca Olavarieta

Ask for help.
Olavarieta’s approach has worked for her most of the time in a business-to-business (B2B) setting: When her business counterpart is not engaged, communication is ineffective with that person, and the project gets stuck, she emails all the people she knows from that company, asking for help and expressing frustration with the situation. Her request is to bring a new person from that company to take over the project. "99.9% of the time, that works, and the new person takes over, and we are able to achieve our goals," Olavarieta said.

First, seek to understand.
Her approach changes in business-to-consumer (B2C) situations. If a client has unrealistic expectations, she repeats them back and makes them feel heard. Often, when clients feel listened to and understood, problems tend to deescalate. The key is to tackle difficult conversations with a calm and polite attitude. If you start to feel anxious, defensive, or frustrated, it is time to pause and calm down before you "explode."

A universally applicable premise is that people want to be understood and accepted. So, listening becomes indispensable during difficult conversations.

Here are some questions designed to deepen your understanding of your customers, grasp their perspectives, and empower them to contribute to finding solutions. Asking these questions will place you in control of the conversation while promoting collaboration:

  • What's the biggest challenge you face?
  • How can I help to make this better for us?
  • How can we solve this problem?
  • What are we trying to accomplish here?
  • How am I supposed to do that?

Yanyn San Luis, FIU MBA alumna, CEO and Founder, The Win Woman

Yanyn San Luis

Set clear expectations.
"It is so important to set clear expectations with your clients from the beginning. If you go to a Louis Vuitton store, prices are clearly displayed, and even if you want to pay six dollars for a pair of shoes, that's not an option,” San Luis highlights.

For business owners starting a relationship with a new client, it is crucial to communicate what the client can expect regarding products, services, timelines, and outcomes. This process helps avoid misunderstandings, manage client expectations, and build trust.

Stick to the contract.
San Luis also suggests investing in good legal advice when signing a contract and particularly focusing on the exit clauses; "How many didn't have that ‘force majeure clause’ and ended up losing a lot of money during COVID-19?” she says. Contracts are powerful documents, so when other methods fail to deal with difficult clients, stick to the contract!

Angel Burgos, Executive Director, Graduate Programs, FIU Business

Angel Burgos

Don't be afraid to move on.
Burgos advices, "Not all partnerships are destined to succeed. Make sure that the values of the client(s) align with the values of the organization. It is exactly what I say to students when selecting a graduate program. Make sure the environment is a fit with your expectations. Don't be afraid to move on."

People often talk about values and guiding principles, but do you know what you truly value? Also, do you know what are your client's values? If not, take the time to do that exercise, which will prepare you to understand what matters the most to both sides.

Final words of wisdom

As mentioned earlier, the concept of a "difficult client" is subjective and tied to our viewpoints and expectations. Therefore, when faced with someone you perceive as challenging, pause (take a deep breath if necessary), and try to understand that individual—consider their culture, past negative experiences, and background. By stepping into their shoes, you can approach the situation with empathy and understanding, enabling you to respond rather than react. Ultimately, try not to take the issue personally and focus on the solution that aligns with what you value.