How to Tell Your Bullying Client to Politely (and Professionally) Get Lost
Succumbing to a client's unreasonable demands and tantrums is an easy mistake for business owners to make.
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It's late in the evening, and while watching a sports game, the news, a movie or spending time with the family, a client suddenly calls, demanding their full attention. They call repeatedly and send endless texts, emails and even voicemails. They want something done — now.
Then they claim you are not paying full attention to them for their last-minute deadline. They question your teamwork and dedication as a ploy to get their way. They say: "Hey, are you not part of the team? When did you stop caring?"
These are all ploys. Counterpoint: Why did they not call you during business hours if it was that important? This scenario and many like it are familiar to public relations firm owners.
In fact, business owners of any kind will encounter the same narcissistic bullying tactics repeatedly. Bullies and narcissists aren't just career obstacles; they permeate all walks of life. You'll have met them as early as the schoolyard. And just like how acquiescing to a schoolyard bully's every demand would do you no favors back then, it's the wrong decision now. You have to stand up for yourself.
Succumbing to clients' unreasonable demands and tantrums is an easy mistake for business owners. After all, they have the money. And we've all heard the adage, "The customer is always right." But taking a stand against narcissistic behavior will help your business in the long run. And the best part is you can tell them to back off — politely and professionally — to ensure that you keep their business while ditching the toxic power dynamics festered by meek surrender.
Related: 3 Lessons a Toxic Client Taught Me About Entrepreneurship
What to do when a client is too demanding at the last minute
In a perfect world, there is a strong line of communication between yourself and the client from the get-go. Managing client expectations and establishing an agreed-upon project timeline is integral to an amicable relationship. But, no matter how clear you have been on what can and cannot be done, you will have an unreasonable client who is too demanding at the last minute. Bending to accommodate last-minute excessive demands will shift the relationship dynamics into an unsustainable place — they are presumably not your only client, and they will feel entitled to be treated as such if you are too accommodative. This will hurt your business in the long run.
Instead, remain firm on your previously established boundaries. Don't simply ignore the request; instead, listen to it and propose an alternative timeline. Gently remind them of the agreed-upon terms, and explain why their request will not work in the form in which it's been proposed. Ensuring the client feels heard and establishing a workable timeline to fulfill their wants will go a long way in retaining their business.
How to take back control when a client is bullying or manipulating you
As tempting as it may be lose your cool with a bully client, confrontation and arguing will only exacerbate tensions and likely lead to losing their business altogether. But this doesn't mean you can't take control of the situation with a more measured response.
To take control of the situation, you must remain laser-focused on the situation. A bully will likely cast aspersions and blame and pitch a fit involving all kinds of unpleasantries. Remain calm and cut through the noise. Focus on the business end of their concern and what they want. Ignore everything else.
You will lose if you get into a mudslinging contest with a bully. They've got too much practice; they've been slinging mud since the schoolyard. You regain control by steering the conversation toward what they want and how you will achieve it.
Related: Why Empathy Is One of the Most Overlooked Skills in Business
Best approaches in collecting payments for invoices on time
The best way to ensure payments are received in a timely manner is to communicate expectations at the start of the client-business relationship. Offer the client a personalized invoice schedule and follow up with polite reminders if they lag on payments.
If the client fails to pay or escalates the situation, you may be forced to withhold services until a resolution is reached. A contract with terms and boundaries is a great place to start. Follow a uniform approach and stick to it. Also, include a termination clause in your contract, like a 30-day notice of termination.
Related: 6 Strategies for Dealing With Unpaid Invoices That Get You Paid Sooner
So, how do you really deal with unreasonable and even narcissistic clients?
Narcissistic clients are a handful from day one. But other times, clients become unreasonable simply because they have lost track of the process and become overwhelmed. In either case, reminding them you are on their side is essential.
Use inclusive words like "us" and "we" when addressing their concerns. Remind them you are all on the same team. Reply to their concerns promptly and develop a plan with action items to resolve their concerns. This doesn't mean dropping everything and giving in. Stand your ground, stick to your principles and the terms of your agreement but remind them you are on their side and willing to take reasonable steps to address their concerns.
The client is not always right, and there is a nice way to call them out on their behavior
Whether the client is making unreasonable demands or being an outright bully, it's important to let them know their behavior is unacceptable. While you may fear losing their business, their problematic behavior creates a toxic environment for you and your team. This ultimately hurts your reputation and business in the long run.
Be specific about the inappropriate behaviors when it comes time to put your foot down. Many people defer to generalized and accusatory language in the heat of an argument. For example, an unconstructive reply may be, "you always make last-minute demands." Instead, isolate and address exactly what happened in a specific instance and explain why this will not work.
Related: Customers Are Not Always Right. They Are Just Never Wrong.
Act like you don't care: The best tips on dealing with bullies and narcissistic clients
The temptation to argue with bullies will always be there, but it is unlikely to pay dividends. Act like you don't care when a client like this throws a tantrum. Focus on actionable items to address their genuine business concerns. What's good for them is good for you.
Rather than argue, reflect your client's words to them without vocalizing support for their point of view if it is unreasonable. Let them know they are heard. Don't be afraid to put your foot down on toxic behavior. You can also spend time ignoring them all together for a few days, as playing silent with a narcissist or bully drives them crazy and drives your point home. It's all about respect, right?
Stand up for yourself no matter what and watch your business grow to new heights
Be yourself, call people out, own conversations and projects and don't wear your clients' emotions. Sure, you may lose their business, but it's better for your health and business operations in the long run. Stand your ground, and you will be richer on every level. Remember that when you call out bullies, you will gain a firm reputation, and most start-ups and businesses will admire this now and in the long run.