By Alan Ramias

If you have been in the HPT field awhile, sooner or later you encountered customers who turn out to be, um, challenging. If you are a member of an internal support group, you might believe you cannot say no to a difficult client but that independent consultants are free to walk away. But the truth is consultants can’t say no too often and avoid starvation. So regardless of role, HPT practitioners have to learn how to cope with less than ideal clients. (Actually it’s often because those clients are difficult that they need our help.) So here are some coping strategies to consider:

Figure out why the client is being difficult
This approach requires you to be patient, to listen, to probe, but that’s part of the job anyway. Concentrate on what they seem to be experiencing rather than your own discomfort. Clients being difficult because they don’t understand the situation they’re in, or what they need, or what you can do for them are hidden gems. As long as you don’t lose patience, they can be educated.

Separate minor dysfunction from serious issues
Clients that are hard to handle because of idiosyncrasies or annoying but benign behaviors are also worth your while but it may require from you some graciousness and willingness to ignore what irritates you in order to get the job done.

Provide yourself an out
Because you don’t always know at the outset of a new client relationship what someone is like, you can pose the probability of an exit up front. I tend to say something like, “You are buying my advice. If at some point you decide not to follow it, then I reserve the right to back out of this deal. Just want to be sure we are clear about that.” You might lose some opportunities with such bluntness but clients who are serious about getting help tend not to be dissuaded, and it signals to them you want a relationship of mutual respect rather than subordination.

Avoid the high-risk clients
An altogether different strategy may be necessary with clients who do serious misbehaving–lying, abusing your time, playing politics, never keeping their promises. These are the ones you want to separate yourself from, because in the long run your own reputation, and sanity, can be at risk.

Ultimately, the best strategy is to be so busy and successful  you have a waiting list of people seeking your assistance. You can afford to be a little choosy if you have earned that level of respect. And, in addition to offering good products or services, the way to gain such a reputation is to display the opposite behaviors of those high-risk clients. That is, always keep your promises, don’t lie, don’t play politics, don’t take advantage. Then, you can afford to be a little idiosyncratic, strange, hard to work with sometimes…

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About the Author
Alan Ramias is a partner with the Performance Design Lab and the co-author of Rediscovering Value and White Space Revisited.