Difficult clients are a fact of life in the IT industry – especially when you’re working on projects where everything must be done to tight deadlines and exacting specifications. Some clients can make your life harder by simply not knowing what they want. Others can completely derail a project.
These people are rarely conscious of their behaviour and the negative effect it has on those around them. They tend to see themselves as efficient, organised and determined to get a good result at the best possible price. If you can start to see things from their perspective, you should be able to improve your working relationship.
Business coach Pam Bryan of Future Results Now believes changing your own behaviour is the best way forward. "You can't change someone else's behaviour," she says. "You can only change your own. If things are going to get better you need to take the responsibility to change first. The good news is, once you understand the other person's underlying needs, you can change your behaviour in a way that encourages them to change theirs. The end result is a better business relationship."
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Difficult clients fall into four distinct types. They are:
1. The Worrier
Fundamentally, a decent person, even though you may think differently when they call at 10pm asking for a detailed breakdown of everything you’ve done that day.
How to deal with them: Reassure them right from the start that you’ll be providing regular progress updates. Stick to an agreed timetable; specify when you will call or email, and make it clear you won’t be responding to requests outside of this time. As time passes and you stick to your promise, they will learn to trust you and those panicky late-night phone calls will stop.
2. The Controller
The controller sees it as their job to take personal charge of the project. They present you with their plans early on and expect you to follow them to the letter.
How to deal with them: Ask regular questions you suspect they don’t know the answer to. When you’re able to provide the answers, they'll start respecting and trusting you.
3. The Selectively Deaf
They don’t come to meetings because they’re too busy, but then get angry when they don’t know what’s going on. They don’t respond to your requests for information, but feel compelled to ring you at the most inconvenient times.
How to deal with them: Set up a regular meeting time that’s convenient for them, so you can answer all their questions. If they don’t stick to it, they have to shoulder the responsibility.
4. The Undecided
This client is incapable of making important decisions, preferring to balance on every fence rather than committing themselves one way or the other.
How to deal with them: Don’t be tempted to make their decisions for them. Flag up any issues in advance and make sure they (and everyone else on the project) are made aware of them in plenty of time.
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Top tips for dealing with difficult clients:
- You may have to learn some new communication skills. Keeping calm and quiet when people shout at you, asking what they want/need and listening carefully to their answers, always behaving in a concerned and courteous way – all these will help you build better relationships with even the most bone-headed clients.
- Nearly all negative behaviour is rooted in fear. It could be your client fears the job will not be done well or to budget, or that they may lose face with colleagues, or that they are being poorly managed or under extreme pressure from their superiors. Always be aware of the pressures your client is facing when you’re communicating with them.
- Ask questions. These could be about the progress of a project, what the client wants to achieve or how they feel about their working relationship with you. This will make them feel in control and will help you better understand what they want.
- Keep a record of all your dealings and communications with difficult clients, noting what you both said, what you agreed to do, and any dates or agreed timescales. You can use this as a backup if things really do go down the pan.
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