One thing all consultants seem to have in common is an experience with a difficult client. We’ve presented articles about dealing with the troublesome lot and how to improve or get out of the situation. Beth Lowgren, owner of Product 9 Design, has been in that situation more than once and has more advice for salvaging relationships with difficult clients. As an independent consultant since 1995, she’s learned how to recognize, analyze, and communicate effectively with difficult, sometimes infuriating, clients.

Circumvent the nightmare scenario: Learn the warning signs
Lowgren said she finds her clients largely through referrals from friends and associates, and the results have been 50/50.

“It’s not that people are intentionally passing on deadbeat, disorganized, dysfunctional clients,” she said. “They often come with subtle warnings like ‘Oh, he gets a little upset sometimes, but it’s no big deal.’“

Sometimes “a little upset” can mean the client has a raging temper and uses it to intimidate everyone around him, she said. To help her avoid becoming entangled in these nowhere-bound relationships, Lowgren has developed a list of warning signs.

Don’t do business with:

  • Start-ups that will ‘”pay you once they are funded.”
  • Clients who don’t want to sign a contract.
  • Clients who are “in a rush.”
  • Clients who have a large project scope that they want in a too-short time period with limited resources: “We need this up and running in two weeks, but don’t bother with an estimate because we know how long it should take.”
  • Companies that are looking for the cheapest rate: “The market is so saturated, you should be glad I’m willing to pay $500 for a 50-page Web site.”
  • Organizations that have a limited understanding of why they want a project done.
  • Clients who don’t have a business plan.
  • Disorganized clients.
  • Clients who come with subtle warnings from friends, as in, “Her temper is really nothing to worry about.”
  • Clients who overestimate the strength of their business (for example, start-ups without a business plan).
  • Clients who rule by committee decisions.
  • Relatives.

Sometimes, it’s unavoidable
Lowgren said clients’ objectionable behaviors often don’t emerge until they have already engaged you. If you’re in too deep to drop the project, you have to uncover the reasons behind the behavior and find a way to circumvent it. To help her identify problems with clients she hopes to continue doing business with, Lowgren has developed a list of behaviors she’s experienced that have affected her productivity, including:

  • Client yells or loses his temper on the phone, unnecessarily and without being provoked.
  • Client doesn’t understand the project and makes arbitrary changes based on conjecture.
  • Client changes the project frequently, creating “brush fires” that take you away from the “controlled burn.”
  • Client is slow to pay at agreed milestones or when the project is complete.
  • Client is slow to communicate.
  • Client says one thing, means another, and blames you for not understanding.
  • Client calls on Friday afternoons asking for last-minute changes over the weekend.

Uncover what’s behind clients’ behavior
Lowgren said that while a situation may seem hopeless, nightmare client relationships are not beyond turning around. The key to correcting a bad situation is communication. If you observe unproductive behaviors in your client, Lowgren recommends that you step away from the conflict for a moment and imagine the situation from the client’s perspective.

“Do some analysis and play psychologist,” she said. “Find out what is going on from the client’s point of view.”

She said consultants should ask themselves:

  • Why are they changing things at the last minute?
  • Are they rushed?
  • Are they disorganized?
  • Are there problems with the business that are affecting the project?
  • Are they under pressure from other people in their company?

“Reminding the client of the terms of the contract sometimes helps,” she said. “A section on your Web site that clearly states your company’s policy will help redirect misunderstandings and help manage client expectations.”

Lowgren also recommends posting a “quick-click contract” for standard jobs on your Web site. To help keep the client informed, she suggests using a proprietary section of your site to post correspondence, product previews, and records of approvals, or any information about the project’s progress. It can alleviate those after-hours messages left for you, she said.

The more you educate your clients up front, the easier your relationship will be, Lowgren said. It’s important to repeat yourself, explaining your plans and expectations in different ways to be sure the client understands what you’re saying.

“Repetition is very important because most of us have different conversational styles,” she said. “The client may read something into what was said that you didn’t intend and vice versa.”

Read any good books lately?

To learn more about communication styles, Lowgren recommends That’s Not What I Meant!: How Conversational Style Makes or Breaks Relationships, by Deborah Tannen, Ph.D. Have you read any interesting books that have helped you form better client relationships? Send us the title and a description by e-mail.