Project Management

Working with clients you dislike

Chip Camden presents five options for dealing with the problem of working with clients whom you dislike. Let us know how you handle these delicate situations.

Have you ever had a client with whom you couldn't stand to interact? Something about their personality always ticks you off, and you find yourself harboring ugly fantasies of retribution. Even though you know yourself to be civilized enough to never act out those fantasies, if you let the problem fester, your resentment will likely lead to some minor incarnation of them that could still get you into trouble. You need to deal with the problem in some deliberate fashion, rather than having it deal with you. What are your options?

Get rid of them. Life is too short to work with difficult people. If you can afford to let them go, do it. If you think you can't afford it, make sure you're placing an appropriate value on your own happiness. When you allow yourself to work with people you can't stand just for the money, you're an IT prostitute. But as they say, everyone has their price -- the question is how much is enough. In tough economic times, you might find yourself welcoming work from someone about whom you previously vowed "never again!" Stay businesslike. If you must work with the client, then you must be even more vigilant about your behavior. It's easy in these circumstances to care less about your quality of work, because you may feel under-appreciated, or you simply don't care to impress a person whom you don't respect. Visualize your tasks as if that person were not involved and address them accordingly. As the old saying goes, "this too shall pass," but what comes afterward may depend on how well you handle the situation today. Look within. As Confucius said, "When the archer misses the center of the target, he turns round and seeks for the cause of his failure in himself." He doesn't blame the bow, the arrow, or the wind. These may all exert an influence, but it's up to the archer to account for them and use them appropriately. When someone bothers us greatly, it pays to ask ourselves why we find the person so objectionable. Do they exhibit some characteristic that we hate within ourselves? Do they stand for some principle with which we strongly disagree? Do they merely repeat some behavior that we find distasteful? In all of those cases, the perturbance comes from within ourselves. If we are capable of supreme serenity, this person will not be able to disturb it. I personally have not reached the level of inner peace at which nothing upsets me, but it helps to realize that allowing myself to be bothered by someone else is my own decision to grant them power over me. Address it openly. Perhaps you can fix your problem with this person. If you bring it up to them, do so in a way that doesn't make it into a big deal -- unless you really want that to be a decisive moment in your relationship. A bit of tasteful humor can help, but you have to be careful. If it's taken as ridicule, then it will certainly make the situation worse. Ideally, you want your client to perceive you as a friend who is trying to help them get on better with their own situation, rather than as a plaintiff who is seeking redress of grievances. Another approach that sometimes works is to ask for their help with the situation, thus granting them ostensible power while separating their personality from the problem. Get someone else to fix it. I'm only listing this alternative because you will inevitably consider it. You could try to get the offending person fired, or have things rearranged so you don't have to deal with them, but this approach always comes with a high price tag. The person in charge whom you have pushed into the inconvenient role of arbiter or peacemaker will resent that imposition. Expect your own dismissal at their next convenient opportunity.

The idea for this topic came, like so many recent articles, from Bob Eisenhardt (reisen55). I didn't relate Bob's associated story, for fear of having his client stumble across it and recognize themselves.


Chip Camden has been programming since 1978, and he's still not done. An independent consultant since 1991, Chip specializes in software development tools, languages, and migration to new technology. Besides writing for TechRepublic's IT Consultant b...

SamFrench a time when the "client" wasn't ours at all; it was our boss' client, or a client of the service provider we were working for. There was no way to be 'honest' with ANYONE. If you were honest with the client about their annoying ways, they complained to the boss. If you were TOO honest with the boss, you weren't a "team player," which trickled down to either being sanctioned or fired. Let's face it, guys, there was a time when we HAD NO CHOICE. Nowdays, yes they are MY clients. But I still don't have too many options. With the economy where it is, I need every whiny, ignorant, couldn't-install-a-printer-to-save-their-own-life client that gets referred in my direction. If I told half of them what I really think about them, they'd soon be somebody else's client.

robinfgoldsmith 1 Like

While none of us likes to acknowledge it, clients probably dislike consultants more than the other way around. I do not claim to be great, or even good, at overcoming disliking from either direction; and it is easier to give advice here than in the heat of an engagement. I suggest first considering candidly whether it is me or the role/situation that is the issue and then approaching it as best I can as an additional consulting challenge. Remember, much as we may not like it, our own behavior is the only one we can change directly. Often the hardest part is getting good feedback to understand especially from the other person's perspective what is happening and what is causing it. Timely voiced complaints, rather than silent seething, can be invaluable.

Shadeburst 1 Like

...because it's a chance to test my people-handling skills. It can take up to a year of their hostility while you keep being your normal friendly self. They WILL swing around. Anyway who decides your attitude, you or somebody else? And like a lot of army vets I've made friends with people I tried to kill and they shot back.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

... to succeed where others may fail. Only two questions: (1) are you up to the task, and (2) is it worth it?

Jim Johnson
Jim Johnson 1 Like

Then they have to decide if you are worth paying, or they should seek a new victim. If they stay, at least you are getting something for the aggravation and if they go you are losing aggravation without creating negatives they will report to a potential client. Few clients will admit what they paid for service to another client except in generalities. (inexpensive, good, too costly) And you can quote the potential client your 'normal' pricing.

trajamohan 1 Like

I had faced few clients who don't have any consideration of our situation, I used to quote high price than usual and also demand for an advance which is the actual cost for the work.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

I've used it a few times. Usually it results in their business tapering off, which isn't necessarily a bad thing.

Alpha_Dog 1 Like

If the client is merely annoying, buck up and deal with it like an adult. Their money spends well. If they are abusive, they get one warning by the tech, then the tech can pack up and leave, and this does not count against our SLA. Another tech may be assigned after management talks to them. If not, we'll cancel their service contract. The language explaining this was read and initialed when they signed the agreement. If they abuse the company with consistent slow pay, no pay, attempting to force the company to give them freebies without merit, outright theft, or sexual harassment of our techs, the client will go into a blacklist. Once you make it there, you are done. My friendly competition and I share the blacklist as well as criteria, so you're done there too. Locally, there is only one other choice, and they can't do anything right (we call him the dolt)... it's a fate worst than death. Half the time he doesn't even open his doors anymore, even though he has diversified into cell phones. Oh, and he's on the blacklist too for fraud and theft.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

In an "Oh what the hell" kind of way that helps to clear out all the unimportant constraints -- but it can also create a lot of collateral damage, so I save it for special cases.

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