How do you Handle Difficult Clients?

SOB FacultyPractice Development6 Comments

I’ve talked about “difficult clients” before, but what happens when the client becomes down right disrespectful? At what point do you cut them loose? When do you tell them how you feel, and when do you just let it go?

Not long ago as of the time I am writing this I received an email from a client with some questions about how to set up and handle his inventory. In my initial response I didn’t answer all of his questions. I was going too fast and fired off a response without reading his entire email carefully. If I had been more careful I would have said something like, “hey here’s what I can answer quickly right away and I’ll get back to you on the rest later.”

Then his response came. It was something like, “hey that’s great but how about answering my other [expletive removed] questions?”

My reply (mind you this was not the first time he went sideways on me) was essentially, “hey I’m always happy to help you with any questions you have, but once again I’m sure I don’t like you’re tone. Accordingly I think it’s time you found someone else.”

In his email to me with all of his colorful language he had included an employee of his as well as his CPA, so I was happy to hit reply all in my response above. I wanted the message to be out there (and since he opened that door) for his employee to see that it was not ok for him to treat people this way. I can only imagine how he treats his employees.

Here’s what I’ve learned most recently about dealing with clients like this. I’m dealing with one right now.

Even when I make a sloppy mistake (and I do make them) it’s not ok for a client to be abusive. It’s only okay for them to point it out and ask me to fix it. Then it’s my responsibility to act promptly and fix my mistakes without charging for them of course.

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Last year I was going through a period where I was extremely overwhelmed. It was like being on a speeding train and not knowing how to stop it. I was making a lot of mistakes, especially on this one client who was adding significantly to my stress. His own clients are big companies who are difficult to work with and they just don’t care. When they want something you have to deliver and they don’t care whom it inconveniences our how. When I have a set schedule with many different clients and one of them comes to me with a request for me to get something done outside of that schedule it’s extremely disruptive. Do you think the client is willing to pay for the extra attention? Off course not. He figures it’s included in his flat rate which i’m sure he negotiates for that reason. So he can take advantage when he needs to. My part? I never should have agreed to a flat rate. When a client is insisting on that, there is a reason for it – they know they want to pile on the work without having to pay for it. It should be a red flag to the consultant.

So I rush, and mistakes follow. My part in this, and we ALL ALWAYS need to be willing to look at our part, was that I did need to slow down and triple check my work, especially knowing the stress I was under and the lack of focus that can lead to. By the end of the year I took measures to change things.

Meanwhile the client was going beyond calling out my mistakes and was becoming downright abusive. I would react. Arguments would ensue, and I know that we both wanted to part company. In fact the only reason I didn’t was that I was somewhat dependent on the income, although that’s up for debate which I’ll discuss in another post.

When I apologize for my mistake and ensure someone that I’ll fix it right away, and then I do, that’s the end of it. When someone continues to press about the mistake you made and why you made it and how unacceptable it is and on and on and on and on?.. Not ok.

His choice is to either accept my apology and move on, or decide he is so unhappy with my work that he needs to find someone else. He doesn’t get to be abusive. My choice is to decide when I’ve had enough and move on. What I don’t get to do is make his life more difficult. In the end he is paying me and I agreed to it.

What has changed is that while at one point I was certain I would keep this client forever no matter how busy I get with schoolofbookkeeping.com, I am now certain that at my earliest opportunity this client will no longer be a client. I’d rather lose my home than allow myself to be treated like that.

When is it time to let a client like this go? As soon as your discontent with being treated poorly outweighs any benefits of working with that client, especially money. No amount of money is worth being abused for. Many of us, maybe all of us have fallen into that trap at one time or another.

Don’t!

What is the right reaction when you are on the receiving end of the abuse from a client?

The way I see it, you have 3 choices and before I lay these out let’s say you just got an e-mail from a client that says, “what do you want a medal for doing it right?” (true story – I got that e-mail last week);

  • Give a comical response – e.g. “No but you may send me the cash that equals the value of the medal and you won’t even have to shop for it!” (compliments of Eric Greenspan)
  • Tell them how you feel – e.g. “I really don’t appreciate your comments.” Here, you may or may not get a constructive response.
  • The strictly professional response – e.g. “I was just letting you know I followed up.” Void of any emotion, this was my actual response.

I like to think that the last choice is the best way to go, although I do also like Eric’s approach, but why don’t you tell us what you think? How would you have responded? Please comment below…

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6 Comments on “How do you Handle Difficult Clients?”

  1. Thanks for this post Seth. Although I’d like to say that I would come up with a witty comment that would disperse the energy, those comments usually come to me after the fact (and then they’re the perfect response, of course!). Most likely, I would react similarly to the third response with something like, “I was just following up and letting you know that XX has been corrected.” My response would be impartial and unemotional but I would probably think about it afterwards and it would bother me. Ultimately I’d like to get to a point where I’m not pretending to be unaffected but I actually AM unaffected. I’d like to be able to say that I don’t appreciate those comments. If it continued, then I would let the client go. I’ve had a rough time financially for the past few years and I do have a client that pays my bill right away without questions. However the flip side is she’s passive-aggressive and makes this type of comment regularly. Whenever I see an email from her or a call, I feel sick in my stomach. I’ve finally decided that no amount of money is worth the feeling she invokes in me, and when I recently sent her an email saying that I would no longer be providing bookkeeping services for her, I felt the most amazing feeling of relief. In the future, I’ve made a commitment to myself to not let it go for so long, and have faith that the space that opens up from letting a client go for this reason will be filled by someone more aligned with how I believe people should treat one another.

  2. Seth, I agree. I would also pick response #3, be neutral, and not add to the negativity. But if someone really replies with, “What do you want a medal for doing it right?” then that guy is a jerk. I do allow a little space for someone just having a really bad day, which happens to us all. But if it’s recurring, I give him/her the old heave-ho. I just let a larger client go two days ago actually. It was more of a flat-rate-pricing-and-then-take-advantage-of-Ken thing. And I have to tell you, I felt a tremendous sense of RELIEF after letting him go — in a most polite way, of course. After someone has shown you their true colors, if it doesn’t work for you, you should say goodbye. Life’s too short to work with jerks IMO.

  3. I couldn’t degree more Jody. Tents often are mister Rogers.

    I mean, so true. Email and text arguments often get mangled and the meaning misunderstood.

    Face to face communication or at least a phone call is the solution.

  4. Nice insight on why someone with narcissistic tendencies will pay right away! I never thought about that and it makes total sense. Realizing that what other people think of me is none of my business and truly living from that belief is an ongoing practice. I realized this weekend that I’ve been totally caught up in financial worry, and I made a decision that I’m not going to do that anymore. Seems simple, but you can’t get to that place until you’re there. Putting up with difficult clients was part of my living in that old paradigm and reading your comments and the others makes me realize that it’s a choice, and that setting those boundaries of what’s okay and what’s not is a learned skill for some of us. Thanks Seth and other people who left comments!

  5. Absolutely! So many things can be misinterpreted because it’s email rather than phone. And phone call makes it less tempting to have a back and forth back and forth message exchange. People will make comments in email that they wouldn’t make face to face or on the phone.

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