Dealing with difficult clients

Despite your courtesy, respect, careful explanations and good listening skills, some clients can be difficult. Most professionals have had to deal with difficult and demanding clients during their careers. In some cases, the aggravation and stress may have caused you and the client to go your separate ways.

Many times, however, you may have no alternative but to grit your teeth and do your best in a less-than-friendly environment. Certainly, some clients will always be difficult to deal with and despite all your efforts these relationships will never improve. But others are in this category because they have personalities that are markedly different from the professional providing the service. Failure to recognise and respond to these personality differences can be the source of much of the conflict in a client relationship.

In the book Discover the Four Basic Personalities — and How They Can Lead You to Success, the authors state that business personalities can be grouped into four categories and that the key to minimising conflict with difficult clients is to understand which category they fall into and adjust your approach accordingly.

The following is a brief summary of these four basic business personalities and some strategies for dealing with them. Keep in mind that these four categories are somewhat general, so some individuals will fall into more than one type.

The director

Directors usually exhibit the following characteristics:

  • Fast-paced, big picture person that needs to be in charge
  • A risk-taker that is not primarily concerned with the impact of a decision on others
  • Not interested in details
  • Wants a clear victory and can be easily annoyed by unmotivated or weak people

Strategies for dealing with directors

  • Stress your organisational and big-picture skills — “I’ll get started right away”
  • Do not beat around the bush (no time wasting)
  • Do not disclose feelings of uncertainty or upset
  • Never compete with a director

The socialiser

The characteristics of the socialiser include:

  • Quick decision-maker
  • Wants the big-picture, not details, and is willing to take risks
  • Prefers win-win situations, and doesn’t like to be perceived as sharp or overreaching

Strategies for dealing with socialisers

  • Be upbeat about their suggestions
  • Include their suggestions when setting out options
  • Tolerate digressions — these are the times when they have their best ideas
  • Limit details to “needs to know”

The relater

Generally the relater is:

  • A low-pressure type that worries about the effects of decisions on others
  • Has little tolerance for risk and makes decisions cautiously, after time-consuming and tedious discussions

Strategies for dealing with relaters

  • Give these clients time to trust you
  • Keep these clients informed about how things are going; they need details, even the minimal ones
  • Talk about your “gut” feeling when discussing strategies
  • Do not shrug off this client’s concerns — trust in you is at stake

The thinker

The thinker has:

  • Little tolerance for risk and makes decisions only after time-consuming and tedious discussions that include extraneous facts and insignificant details
  • Methodical and fact-oriented, and wants lots of information

Strategies for dealing with thinkers

  • Stick to business and use lots of details to demonstrate the logic of your proposals and strategy
  • Take time for the client to become comfortable with your recommended course of action
  • Give lots of pros and cons when making suggestions
  • Keep on top of the facts and expect this client to test your knowledge of the facts as the client sees them and to judge your grasp of the facts as proof of your commitment

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