3 Types of Nightmare Clients and How to Manage Them

These kind of clients can raise your hackles, make your skin crawl and hurt your bottom line. Here's how to cope with them.
September 10, 2012

Stay in business long enough and you’re bound to take on a client who pushes you too far—someone who seemed pleasant enough at first but now causes you to lose sleep. Maybe this person has gotten sexually aggressive, been verbally abusive or tried to shoehorn massive additions into a contract without paying for them.

Working with people like this can be torture—but after four years of a slow economy, it can be hard to know when and how to push back in situations like this—and when it makes sense to end the relationship altogether. Here are some tips from experts on dealing with three common types of aggressive clients.

The Creep

You don’t have to be a woman to find yourself subject to unwanted amorous attention from a client. And unfortunately, once a customer gets too touchy-feely or otherwise demonstrates inappropriate behavior, you usually can’t ignore it and hope it’ll go away. “If you give them an inch, they’ll take a mile,” says executive coach Andrea Nierenberg, principal of The Nierenberg Group in New York City.

She suggests adopting a tone of matter-of-fact professionalism the moment this type of behavior crops up and asking the client to avoid the offending behavior going forward. “Then drop it,” she says. Seizing control of the situation right away will often enable you to resume a professional working relationship without revisiting the problem.

Of course, if a client gets too friendly again, or has crossed the line to the point that you’re worried about your physical or mental well-being, you may have to ditch the account. “Those clients need to be terminated as soon as possible,” says attorney Andrew Sherman, who advises companies of all sizes as a partner in Jones Day in Washington, D.C. and is author of Essays on Governance.

The Verbal Abuser

Whether this obnoxious individual sends nasty e-mails that hit you like a hard kick in the gut or tracks you down first thing in the morning to deliver a screaming rant on your mobile phone, it ruins your day. But you don’t have to put up with it. Nierenberg recommends trying to keep your emotions out of the situation, calmly listening to a ranting client’s concerns and then calmly offering a solution. If a client is cursing, say, “There’s no need for improper language,” before you make your point, she advises.

While you never want to get into a yelling match with a client, it’s important to stand up for yourself, or the tantrums will continue. “People will say, `I have this crazed client who calls me at all hours of the night,’” Nierenberg says. “I say, `Why?’ You have to set up boundaries.” It’s perfectly reasonable to make yourself unreachable to clients in the evenings or on weekends, unless it’s an emergency.

What if the client continues being rude—and you’re miserable? “Sometimes, you have to fire a client, if it’s making you physically and mentally sick. Life’s too short to have that type of abuse,” Nierenberg says.

By avoiding heavy reliance on a single customer and continually maintaining a diverse customer base, you’ll give yourself the power to walk away when you need to, she says.

The Greedy Client

Contracts mean little to this cheapskate, who thinks nothing of trying to get you to double or triple the work you agreed to do without paying any more. To avoid this scenario, outline all projects in writing, and ideally, get a signed contract. If a client asks you to tack on significant additional tasks, says Nierenberg, “go back and say, let’s revise the contract.” It’s much harder to renegotiate your fees after you’ve done the work. Also make sure to get a 50 percent deposit on each project up front, she recommends.

Bear in mind that some clients who are guilty of “scope creep” on projects may be asking you to do extra work because they have no idea how much time is involved in filling a particular request, notes Sherman. “That client is not trying to take advantage of you,” he says. If you suspect that this is the case, the answer is educating them. “You need to have clearer communication.”

Elaine Pofeldt is an independent journalist and editorial consultant who specializes in small business, entrepreneurship and careers. A former editor at Fortune Small Business magazine, she has written recently for Fortune, Money, Crainís New York Business, Working Mother and many other publications. She is co-founder of $200KFreelancer, a community for freelance professionals, and Endhousearrest.com, for homeowners looking to sell.