Who’s to Blame When Your Client Is a Jerk?

Let’s face it, in professional services, difficult clients come with the territory. You’ve probably encountered at least one:

  • A client who refuses to share information, explore ideas, or otherwise engage in making the project a success.
  • A client who cannot make a decision, no matter how much information and analysis you provide.
  • A client who is immobilized by fear or ignorance or office politics, who is not willing to address critical issues.
  • A client who is, well, just difficult, who always argues, or rejects your ideas, or is disrespectful to you and your team, yet who is perfectly wonderful with others.

When we deal with difficult clients, it’s easy to point the finger at them. But a deep, hard look might tell another story.

It turns out there’s a common thread among the clients that make you curse, and it has nothing to do with the clients. That common thread is you.

The Client Situation

Let’s create some perspective about the client.

Most of the people in a position to hire an outside professional are successful. They have people in their lives who love and appreciate them. A boss has likely promoted them. It is wise to assume that, even if their behavior is bad, they have some ability to get by in life. True psychotics/sociopaths are pretty rare in business.

Proclaiming your client is a jerk (even just to yourself) is a terrible problem statement. It’s highly subjective, unverifiable, and your client likely won’t agree that it is the problem. So where do you go from there?

Truly bad behavior usually comes from decent people who are stressed out, and thus not coping well. If someone is acting like a real jerk, it’s likely that they are afraid of losing something they have, or not getting what they need.

When you identify that fear, you can replace demonization with a real problem statement, which is a far more productive approach. This allows you to talk about that fear with your client and create a lasting bond that can serve you both well.

Our Own Situation

The truth about clients’ fear and bad behavior is equally true for us.

We are loaded with fear: fear of losing the sale, missing the deadline, blowing the project. But even deeper than the fear of failure is our fear of judgement. If I fail, will my boss view me as incompetent? Will my co-workers cease to value my work? Will my client think less of me?

As much as we fear being judged by others, judgment primarily resides in our own heads. We allow ourselves to be hijacked and held hostage by our own ideas of what constitutes success, based on value judgments instilled from our past.

One of the most emotionally attractive ways out of self-judgment is to blame others. “It was not my fault,” we want to say. “I’m late because of traffic,” or “that just wasn’t a realistic goal.” More to the point, we might say, “This project was doomed because I got stuck with a difficult client. If you’d had my client, you couldn’t have done much either. It wasn’t my fault – it was the client’s.”

But blame is useless, and it can all too easily become self-destructive. When blame flares up, people at first might commiserate with you, encouraging it. Then, as it metastasizes into resentment, people begin to move away from you. Misery may love company, but company doesn’t return the favor.

Blaming a client never got you the win, and it never will; but it may keep you from getting the next one. People don’t like blame-throwers. Clients especially don’t.

Recognizing When You Are to Blame  

To get to the root of the problem, we have to articulate the real problem.

The first thing to do is to notice our thoughts. Ask yourself, “What is the problem here?” If your mental snapshot answer starts with, “My client won’t…” or “My client doesn’t…” or “I can’t get my client to…” or “My client never…” then you need to step back and reframe your thinking. You are stuck in the blame game, spinning your wheels, and going nowhere.

  • A good problem statement is objective and verifiable. Changing what someone does is a lot easier than changing who someone is.
  • A good problem statement has you in it. If it’s all about the client, you are helpless to change the situation.
  • And almost always it should be a problem statement that is joint. If you and your client can’t even agree about why you’re not getting along, you’re certainly not going to make much progress on the substantive issues you want to work on.

If you have a “difficult” client, find a “we” statement you can both agree to that gets to the heart of the disagreement.

How to Fix a “Difficult” Client

Sometimes, all we need to do is jointly reframe an issue and–voila–our client no longer seems so difficult.

If that isn’t enough, and you decide the relationship is worth saving, go back to basics. Really listen. Deeply. Just for the sake of understanding. Don’t react with suggestions or action steps. Empathy and true understanding often end up being the catalysts that change everything.

But sometimes, we need to do more advanced work – on ourselves – to see what we’ve become attached to that holds us hostage. There’s a saying, “You’ll worry less about what people think of you when you realize how seldom they do.”

Here are three ways to move beyond fear and self-judgement:

  1. Let go of your desired outcome. This isn’t to say you shouldn’t have a strong opinion or argue committedly for what you know is right. But we are not responsible for our client’s actions, only for informing their actions as best we can. Holding ourselves accountable for changing others is a losing proposition. Do the right thing, then detach from the results. You don’t own the outcome.
  2. Check your ego at the door. The best way to lose an argument is to try too hard to win the argument. It is not about you. The only one who thinks it is about you is you. Focus on the client, not yourself.
  3. Be curious. Is your client “difficult?” Be curious as to why. What are they afraid of? What is at stake? What is your role in the situation? What are you afraid of? What problem are you both trying to solve?

There aren’t any difficult clients. Not really. There are only relationships that aren’t working well. And nearly all of those can be fixed. But it must start with us.