Your hands are sweating; your stomach is in knots. Once again, you have a client who has become truly obnoxious. Somehow, he is driving you crazy. If you say left, he says right. The hiring honeymoon is over, and now you see that your client is—believe it or not—a difficult person.
Part of your challenge is that your attachment to your client is both financial- and relationship-based. Oh, and it is tied to money. Wait, did I already say that? Well, which one of you is NOT in business to make money?
What about being respected for your knowledge and your expertise? And—dare I say it—what about your ego? How can this person, this client, hire you to do something and then turn around and disregard your advice? Or, even worse, ask for your input and then do the exact opposite? I mean really, what is up with that?
You know that your reputation either attracts or repels prospective clients. You also know that your ability to get along well with your clients is a strong component of your professional reputation. I would suggest that most of the burden of resolving a difficult situation resides with you. As a consultant, you are hired to be the best of the best, and frequently you serve as a role model to your client and their team. There are expectations that come with being hired for your skills and experience; you are expected to represent professional behavior at its very best.
It is not likely that your difficult client will change for you, but you can change the way the two of you interact. You can take more control of the situation and work towards a positive outcome. In order to do that, I must ask you to do two things: let go of your attachment to finances and, if applicable, set your ego aside. When you let money and ego drive the situation, it shows. I recently overheard a consultant speaking about one of his clients in this manner. “I do not have time for their problems; I have money to make,” the consultant said. I'll bet that his client thinks of HIM as the difficult person. Unless this consultant has some very rare expertise, this may not be a long-term assignment and this client will probably not look to him for future engagements. However, this does not mean that if you have rare expertise, it's okay to be difficult. No one enjoys dealing with difficult people.
If you can let your concern for building an effective working relationship take charge, you are well on your way to a positive outcome. Once you are ready to speak to your difficult client about the friction points, consider the following approach:
- Prepare for the conversation in advance. Identify what you hope to gain from the interaction and begin with this end in mind.
- Be flexible. Do not be so focused on your end goal that you can't take a detour in the conversation. This detour may help you understand the perspective of your difficult client.
- Select a time that is convenient to both of you. Pick a time when both of you can listen and exchange ideas.
- Listen; really listen to what your difficult client has to say. If your difficult client says something like, “I cannot do that” or “That won’t work,” ask why. Whatever issue he has might not be about you. Try to get the real problem out in the open.
- Consider letting your difficult client speak first. If he seems comfortable taking the lead in the conversation, then let him take the lead.
- Maintain emotional objectivity. Remember, whatever drives him to be difficult is about him, not about you. Again, try to turn off your ego and stop thinking about your checkbook.
- Stay calm. An individual who is upset may become defensive and verbally attack you. Take a deep breath and pause before responding.
No matter how challenging, you need to deal with the situation. Create an agreement between you and your client to stick with the situation until you have both been able to understand one another. You want to create a relationship where you and your difficult client can respect each other as individuals and professionals.
(If you found this article helpful, please consider making a donation to the Norm Kerth Benefit Fund to help a consultant who has been disabled since 1999 with a traumatic brain injury from a car accident. You can read Norm's story or donate here. Thanks!)