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Small Business 101: Dealing with Difficult People

The Small Business 101 column is where we share tips and ideas to help you work better, posing questions and finding solutions to the issues faced by the small business community.

Difficult People: What to Be on the Lookout For

There are many reasons why a client or supplier can be difficult to deal with, from a project that’s unwieldy, to personality differences.  It feels awful when a client is unhappy, and you feel drained by a project which is demanding more time and energy than you anticipated.  In “12 Breeds of Client and How to Work with Them” Jack Knight explains what to be on the lookout for BEFORE you start working with a certain personality, and how to safeguard yourself.

The Best Defense is a Good Offense

The easiest way to prepare for any project is to clearly state expectations.  As you get more comfortable with the client, supplier, or colleague, you can relax deadlines, or pull back in other areas as needed.  Phyliss Bottome, a business coach who gives advice about difficult clients, recommends that “…the best defense is a good offense:

  • Prepare extremely well defined written and verbal communications for the client.
  • Express exactly what you will and will not be providing, as well as what the client is responsible for.
  • Be clear about deviations from the agreed upon time frame, other changes in scope or specifications will add additional cost and time to the project.
  • If you do not already, use some kind of a written change order form, which the client must sign off on before changes are made.”

You may be able to tell a client is trouble in the initial meeting for a project.  Politely and directly, you can turn the job down, as the project may cost you way more in wasted time down the road.

But what if you’re already in the middle of the project, and you and your client have reached an impasse – what do you do?

Distill Out the Real Issues from Emotions

  • Take a deep breath.
  • As pragmatically as possible, figure out what is standing in your way to completing the project, and write it down.
  • Make a list of the things you need out of your client/supplier/colleague to continue the project (renegotiating the fee or hourly commitment, or even clearly stating that you will no longer be able to take phone calls after 9pm).
  • Then take a look at yourself: Are there things you would be willing to do to get the project back on track  (ie. “I could give weekly updates of my progress”)?

Keep in mind things you might be able to do better, that perhaps you have let slide.  As in many situations in life, you sometimes have to give a little to get a little.

Make a Good Faith Effort to Get the Project Back on Track

A face to face conversation, or a simple phone call, can make all the difference in the world.  In an age where texting and emailing can be the majority of your business communication, you should allow for the reality that misunderstandings can crop up from hastily written emails, or unclear wording.  Set up a meeting, or a phone call (Skype or video conference, if possible), to address the issues.   Calmly state the problems you have identified, and a few paths to move forward.  Create an atmosphere of discussion, not accusation, and be open to hearing the other person’s concerns and ideas.  Celine Rogue advises, “Discuss the things that didn’t work out last time and propose solutions for them. It’s best to express your concerns and propose ways on how problems can be avoided this time around – without blaming each other for previous mistakes, of course.”

What have you done to get a project back on track?  How have you turned around a less-than-satisfactory business relationship?  Post a comment, and share some knowledge!

If you have articles, ideas, or insight you’d like to share from your own experiences for a future write-up, send us a tip!

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This was posted in Small Business 101.
  • Great article. A great tip I learned – Smile. Even when talking on the phone. And laugh. Make fun of yrself and the situation. It’s contagious and can definitely help relieve stress in a conversation.

  • Great advice – we all hit roadblocks from time to time – it’s important to be proactive and not reactive to the situation – this article states how to be proactive.

  • what a necessary and helpful article. it can be very frustrating as an independent contractor who wants to say “yes yes yes” all day long to learn that saying “no” is sometimes the way to get business done. obviously clarity and communication are key.

  • Speaking of giving a little to get a little: When I had to break things off with a client I just couldn’t make happy, I offered to connect her with other freelancers who might be interested in the work. (I warned them of her demanding-ness, of course!) That actually helped our relationship.

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