Dealing with difficult clients, whether internal or external, can be a trying experience at best. In the worst-case scenario, difficult clients can put your project at risk. There are a number of reasons why the client may be behaving badly. The contention could be due to the client’s history of dissatisfaction with your company, a clash of personalities between you and the client, or other less obvious reasons.

The following customer types represent a composite of the people I regularly encounter. I’ve added my suggestions for how to manage each type.

  • The Negotiator: This is a fairly common behavior pattern among clients. They want lots of unbudgeted extras included in the work, and they’ll use almost any technique to get more delivered. These clients usually don’t want a long-term business relationship and may even be blatantly rude. How to respond: Stay cool and ensure the client sticks to the rules. If the client doesn’t, arrange a high-level company representative to occasionally facilitate the liaison process. Negotiators will stop being difficult when they reach the best possible deal.
  • The Worrier: This type is often a fundamentally nice person, but is also prone to calling you at 10 P.M. every night for a detailed analysis of project events over the previous 24 hours. How to respond: Reassure the client that you’ll apprise him or her of all updates. Then gradually delay responding to the daily calls and e-mails until you can establish the appropriate frequency of communication. That is when worriers typically learn to trust you.
  • The Remote Controller: These characters believe that it’s their job to run the project. In my experience, they turn up on day one with an amateur project plan, assuming that it’s your job to follow it verbatim. How to respond: Ask them five polite questions to which they won’t know the answer in order to help them develop confidence in you.
  • The Royal Visitor: This is a seriously difficult individual who is frequently friendly but status-aware. These characters know that they hold enormous corporate-level influence both over the project and possibly over your career. How to respond: Focus on professional delivery, despite the temptation to overdeliver or knuckle under.
  • The Listening-impaired: Often, these people don’t attend progress meetings or can’t find time to read your progress reports. Yet they complain indignantly when they can no longer avoid emergent issues. How to respond: I try to get them to visit with me regularly, one-to-one, for approximately 10 minutes. It gets their attention and proves you’re keen to help.
  • The Decision-averse: When clients won’t make a decision that’s clearly theirs to make—particularly one that indicates a major change in the direction of the project—don’t make it for them. How to respond: Flag the problem in your reports and work around it as best you can. If you make the wrong decision on the behalf of the client, you might not get paid.
  • The Pedant: This type of client will hold you to the details of the contract or the project specification, even after you have uncovered a better solution. How to respond: Even if they won’t listen to you, they’re paying for it, so deliver what they want with grace—pedants are quick to litigate.

Every time you deal with one of these types of customers, ask yourself: “Why are they being difficult?” “Are they just being unpleasant?” “Do they have a valid point?” Then consider that the challenging customers who punctuate your project management career will actually help you hone skills that are valuable for your job, such as professionalism, compromise, and attention to detail.


What do you do?

Do you find these suggestions on handling difficult clients helpful? What other suggestions would you add to this list? Post a message in the discussion board below or send us an e-mail.