Whether you're a consultant or employee, sooner or later you'll have a run-in with a difficult client. It may be an employer who wants something clearly different than what your contract specified, or an indecisive project manager who doesn't know what she wants, or even an end-user who's just plain abrasive.
As tempting as it might be to tell them all off and storm out the door, that response isn't going to serve your reputation or bottom line well. You have a job to do, regardless of the barriers others put in your way. With a little patience and a little discipline you can take charge of the situation. While you might not be able change the people you work for, you can definitely get the job done with your professionalism intact.
Be a Good Listener
Many conflicts arise from simple misunderstandings, and the key avoiding such problems is active listening. Pay close attention to instructions and complaints to make sure you understand clearly what the problem is that you're being asked to solve and ask lots of questions.
An especially powerful technique to make sure there is no room for vague instructions is to repeat back what you've been told in the form of a question. This gives someone who is unclear about what they want a chance to clarify their concerns, without leaving room for debate, and ensures you achieve the desired result every time.
Keep a Log
Develop the habit of keeping a log of technical decisions and instructions to back up your work. The fact is, eventually you're going to run into a client who likes to change his mind without letting anyone else in on the new plan. Being able to show that you're following the instructions given you by that client at an exact date and can go a long way towards disarming those indecisive clients.
Establish Clear Boundaries
Make a point of never doing anything once that you're unwilling to do on a regular basis. While your best clients will recognize a favor for what it is—an occasional extra—the difficult ones will expect the favor as a matter of course.
Suck It Up
Never argue or get defensive with an irate or fuming client. Two people yelling at each other never solved anything. People who act aggressively towards others will take any aggravated response as proof that their own aggression was merited. Instead, stay clam until they've yelled themselves out, then ask them if they'd like to schedule some time to discuss the matter or assure them that you'll take care of the problem (and do so) and return to work.
Just Say No
If a client pushes for new tasks that were not part of the original deal, you can simply refuse. Accommodating a demanding client to be "the good guy" might seem like a good idea, but to a client who makes demands out of their own insecurity, you'll just be opening the door for more and more demands. If you're on a contract, offer to draw up an addendum for the new work, and bill accordingly. If you're a long-term or permanent hire, suggest they rewrite your job description to accommodate the new duties and eliminate existing tasks to allow time to focus on the new responsibilities.
Disarm Your Client
The micromanaging client who knows how to do everything better than you (or so he thinks) can be disarmed quite effectively by politely asking a few difficult technical questions that he wouldn't know how to answer. Kept casual and friendly, this can act as a subtle reminder to the client that you were hired because you have specialized knowledge that he does not. The better you can deliver the questions without coming off as antagonistic, the greater your chances are of appealing to the client without upsetting him.
Be Authoritative Without Arrogance
The most annoying clients are the ones who simply enjoy bullying people who seem vulnerable. You know your stuff—that's why you were hired (or at least it should be). Carry yourself with calm assurance, but don't be arrogant. Arrogance triggers defensiveness, and that can only make your job harder.
Remember, difficult clients are driven by factors that have nothing to do with you. Their own fears and insecurities, or even incompetence, pushes them and makes those around them miserable. You just happen to be the closest target for the satisfaction of their own needs. Often, a little extra attention and reassurance is all it takes to calm a difficult client. If not, try the tips above to make it possible to get the job done while retaining your dignity.
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