In the rough and tumble of business, we all deal with people that push our buttons, grind our gears and go too far. To our colleagues we might call them crazy, bonkers or mad. In these situations, rationality seems to leave the building and communication can disintegrate very quickly into a slanging match. This week has been a reminder that such species are always lurking and will pop up to do your head in when you least expect it. After working on a project for three weeks, the final product was ripped to shreds in less than kind language, even though the client stated that he had not read the return brief. “I don’t mean to be rude” featured twice in the feedback. A prior nightmare client threatened to slander my business and me personally all over social media, because I pushed (gently I thought) for final payment, which was overdue by more than 90 days. Another refused to pay under the guise of substandard work – even though he happily approved the content in person over multiple conversations.

These situations don’t happen very often for us but when they do they are very challenging and really test your confidence in your business and values. It would be easy to just write them off as *!&holes (which they mostly are) but they highlight a lot of competing priorities that have to be worked through. Firstly, there is an attack on the quality of your work, which creates an uncertainty for a short time while the accusations are assessed. Then there is the money side with contracts to be filled, clients to be kept satisfied (at times through gritted teeth) and financial losses, which can be significant. Such pressures can easily lead you to compromise on what you stand for, also eroding your own credibility and financial return in the long term.

When navigating these issues, there are constant changes, competing priorities and uncertainty about the outcome; rapid fire communications change the game in seconds. The exact point that you arrive at in the juggling of these issues is totally subjective; some business owners will sell their soul for a sale, others have zero tolerance for bad behaviour at the expense of the revenue. There is no right and wrong, but here are some considerations and tips to manage this complicated swamp of emotions.

  • Plan ahead. Irrational clients will happen to you at some point. You need to behave well to maintain your brand in the long term.
  • Know the limit for your own values and don’t be afraid to stick to them; being true to yourself is important.
  • Know your financial limits. Juggling the financial value of the client against your brand values, integrity and personal values is at the crux of the challenge and only you can decide where that line is.
  • Be aware of the long-term effects of any decision. Will you lose a long-term client? Will it affect your reputation? I recently had a client who had a big client badger them into changing their methodology. As a result, they lost their industry reputation.
  • Stay professional. If your anger boils up, have a strategy to manage the communications in advance. Don’t get into a slanging match because you are fired up at that time. Staying calm is not always possible, especially if they are unreasonable, hostile or make personal attacks. Talk to your team first, cool off and don’t reply until you are calm. Write your response then leave it for a while.
  • Have clear systems for what is to be delivered for every client and make sure it is fully documented and agreed to. Get as much payment up front as you can to avoid the arguments later. It’s much easier to get paid whilst the client still wants something from you.
  • Accept that sometimes you have to fire clients. If they are so steadfast in their opinion, there are times that it’s not worth arguing.
  • Don’t take it personally. Certainly, there is merit in reviewing the way you do things, seeing if the attacker has any valid points and reviewing your processes. But it’s usually their perspective that is warped. Check with your other clients and if most of them are satisfied then take the pressure off yourself.

The upshot of my hostile client this week is that I took the higher ground, terminated the project and took the further step of offering his money back. Whilst I found it hard to calm my emotions and not slug it out, I would end up in the gutter; I could see that there was no chance of having a reasonable discussion. In my reply, I reiterated that collaboration was our method of working and hostility is not accepted. The offer of a refund left me with a clearer conscience and the knowledge we had stuck to our values and would not be bullied.

By: Dr. Warren Harmer