Beware the Client from Hell — 4 Strategies to Salvage Your Client Relationships When your clients make your life miserable, you have to decide if it's worth redirecting the relationship or just cutting ties and moving on.

By Emily Reynolds Bergh

Key Takeaways

  • Not all clients are worth keeping.
  • That said, to salvage a client relationship you'd like to retain, there are strategies you can implement to redefine the parameters of your partnership.
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In the dynamic world of entrepreneurship, client relationships are the lifeblood of success, especially at a small firm like mine. However, not every client interaction is smooth sailing, and dealing with difficult clients can test any business owner's patience and resilience.

Striking a balance between satisfying client expectations and maintaining your professional well-being is crucial. Also essential is spotting the pink flags before they become red flags in the hopes of nipping developing issues in the bud.

If you have a client to whom you're ready to show the door, consider some steps you can take to clear roadblocks by redirecting your relationship.

Related: 3 Red Flags You Have a Nightmare Client — and How to Cut Ties

First things first: What defines 'difficult'?

It usually doesn't take long at all for the alarm bells to go off. And that's a good thing — the earlier you can identify a challenging client, the better. Here are some signs that a particular customer is likely going to detour the harmony and efficiency of your daily operations:

  • They call, text, or email all the time, not waiting until your appointed meeting times to ask questions, voice concerns or share ideas.
  • They have unrealistic expectations of what you'll be able to accomplish for them.
  • Even when you squarely hit the mark, they're already pressuring you for the "next thing" before acknowledging and celebrating the last achievement.
  • They seem dissatisfied most (if not all) of the time.
  • They regularly doubt your expertise or resist your recommendations.
  • They're short on positive feedback but long on negative feedback.
  • Your staff groans at their name and starts avoiding contact with them.

Got a client like that? If so, you know that they can really throw off your balance. To get back on equal footing, try this four-part strategy with a four-step follow-up redirection plan. These strategies can be approached in any order, at whatever pace.

Strategy #1: Clear the communication channels

Communication should be an easy process, right? Well, I'm in the communication business, and I can tell you it's one of the biggest stumbling blocks in client relations. So the first thing to do to remedy stressful client relationships is to talk things out openly and professionally:

  • Initiate a transparent dialogue about expectations — explain to your client that you'd like to get more clarity on precisely what they're looking for from you; prompt them especially to identify any deficits they perceive in your deliverables.
  • Once a clear and firm set of expectations (specific job functions) have been listed, specify milestones for each function and propose a project timeline or deadline for each that you think is realistic and manageable.
  • The content of this dialogue should be recorded in black-and-white; when you share this list with your client and they don't push back, you have their implicit approval/buy-in.

Related: Why It's Important to Protect Your Team From Difficult Clients

Strategy #2: Offer constructive feedback

The interesting thing about red-flag clients who are always dishing out feedback is that they're lousy at taking feedback about themselves. But if you give them the platform of an open dialogue to express their concerns, then it's only fair that you get an opportunity to express yours in turn.

As you do so, it's vital to provide your input diplomatically. Be honest, but be gentle in your candidness, keeping things as general as possible. For example, instead of "When you call on a Thursday afternoon and expect something completed by Friday, my team goes into panic mode," try something like: "In my experience over the years, clients who give my team ample notice and lead time to fulfill a time-sensitive objective see better-quality output."

Strategy #3: Realign expectations

This sometimes occurs on both sides, not just the client's, but the goal is to "return to the drawing table," so to speak, to hash out new project parameters if and when original expectations are falling short on either end. Sometimes, a deal is made or a contract is signed, and the actual execution of the agreed-upon transaction translates differently than anticipated.

When this happens, my firm schedules a sit-down with the client to talk about obstacles encountered, reasons for delays or justifications for disappointing results. As CEO, I consider it part of my job to regularly educate my clients on industry norms, trends and standard turnaround times.

Strategy #4: Empower the client

There's nothing a bossy or controlling client likes more than being in charge! So make a point of seeking your client's direction on tasks before they commence. Ask them about their preferences; have them weigh in on decisions and procedures undertaken on their behalf. I've found that things start moving along much better when I share the wheel with a client who likes to be in the driver's seat.

Related: Don't Let Your Biggest Client Become Your Biggest Nightmare — You Should Fire Them Instead. Here's Why.

4-step redirection plan

Not all measures you take to redress the situation will entail your client's involvement. You'll also want to conduct an internal assessment of what you and your team can do behind the scenes to ease tensions and improve workflow. This four-step redirection roadmap can help:

  1. Assess the severity of challenges. Gauge the negative impact this client is having on your business and your team. Based on commentary and anecdotal evidence, determine if the issues can be resolved through coaching.
  2. Create a tailored action plan. If things seem salvageable, map out specific strategies to address client concerns individually, brainstorming to find alternative solutions to meet client requests better. To be fair to yourself and not dig the hole any deeper, ensure the internal goals you set are achievable and the benchmarks worthwhile.
  3. Implement the changes and track progress. Enact the alternative strategies systematically so that you can track and monitor to evaluate effectiveness (for example, a social media plan with more frequent posts or differing content formats). Don't just check in on results of the intervention tactics once; do so regularly.
  4. Reassess the client relationship. Examine the client's responsiveness to actions taken and coaching efforts. Based on this, make an informed decision about the partnership's future.

If all else fails, recognize the breaking point

If none of the above gets you where you want to be with your problem client, it's time to consider ending the relationship. No single source of income is worth your mental health, the soundness of your business and seriously degraded staff morale. When the toll this client is taking outweighs any benefits their business might bring, you know you've reached the point of no return.

Some people will never lower their outlandish expectations or lessen their demands. Though you do need to weigh the consequences of losing this client or the hit your business or brand may take from parting ways, it's highly likely that you won't be affected in any other way than breathing a huge sigh of relief.

Exit as you entered: Communicate the decision tactfully, lay out a smooth transition plan for both parties … then go looking for your next client from heaven instead!

Emily Reynolds Bergh

Entrepreneur Leadership Network® Contributor

Founder at R Public Relations Firm

Emily Reynolds Bergh — vintage-shoe hoarder, cycling junkie, & lover of pink drinks — is a marketing & PR pro with 15+ years of experience under her belt. Now the founder & owner of the award-winning R Public Relations based in New York, she’s been featured in numerous publications & podcasts.

Want to be an Entrepreneur Leadership Network contributor? Apply now to join.

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