Deal with difficult clients

Written by Yvan Marston

Occasionally, a difficult client or supplier who drains your resources and demoralizes your staff is best set adrift. But saying goodbye to steady revenue or a reliable supplier is a luxury many smaller companies can’t afford. In many cases, it’s better to try to smooth out the difficulties instead of parting ways.

Accept that you may be part of the problem

It’s important to acknowledge that your own behavior almost always contributes to a situation of conflict, says Dr. Rick Kirschner, co-author of Dealing with People You Can’t Stand.

“When you include yourself in the equation, you gain a lot of leverage rather than seeing yourself as a victim,” he says. And if you succeed in converting a very difficult client, often these same people become vociferous fans.

Know thyself

Be aware of the assumptions you make about people, and if they’re really helpful to your situation. “Are your assumptions giving you an informed perspective or just something to be right about?” says Kirschner. Most conflict centres around who’s right about what. What should be important to you is executing your agenda, rather than winning an argument — so you have to find ways to cooperate.

Know thy foe

In his book, Kirschner outlines ten behaviors that otherwise sane people resort to when they feel threatened. If you can recognize and be ready for the specific behaviors your client uses — examples include the know-it-all, the tank (a client prone to explosive, targeted attacks) and the whiner — then you’re one step ahead of the game.

Kirschner cautions that one should understand behavior and personalities as separate things. “Behavior is fluid and it changes all the time,” he says. So you may have to deal with someone in different ways as different behaviors emerge.

Find common ground

“No one cooperates with anyone that seems to be against them,” says Kirschner. That’s why sending signals that you share common ground is one way to build a connection. Non-verbal cues are especially powerful, he says. If you subtly simulate your adversary’s subconscious behaviours (examples: using the same tone of voice, tapping a pencil like he does or crossing your arms the way he does), it will quietly relay a message that you have something in common. This is called “blending” and, done properly, will establish a connection no amount of talking can make. (Note: don’t make your blending obvious and don’t blend hostile gestures.)

Redirect behavior

Redirecting is how you exercise the influence you have gained as a result of blending. Essentially, redirecting takes the positive things your adversary can contribute and brings them forward.

For example, a redirecting technique to deal with know-it-alls is to make them mentors. One of Kirschner’s subjects found herself blocked at every turn in her career by a manager who regarded her as inexperienced. “If he’s a know-it-all,” reasoned Kirschner, “it’s probably because he knows a lot, and maybe the way to win him over is to acknowledge how much he knows.” Using blending and redirecting techniques, the woman successfully turned her tormentor into a teacher.

Take a course — and invite your staff

When planning your staff training courses, consider including a course on human relations, because it’s best for everyone in the organization to know how to handle prickly personalities. “Teaching people human relations skills, collaborative skills and understanding dispute resolution is really in the best interests of most organizations,” says Alan Levy, a workplace mediator and trainer with ADL Consulting, who teaches alternative dispute resolution at the University of Toronto. That’s because a lot of conflict comes from ego and poor human relations. This is especially true in the Great White North: Canadians in particular, says Levy, tend to avoid dealing with conflict.

Those not taught to deal with difficult people see only three options. “They think they can either avoid it, give in or just bully their way through it,” Levy says, “but what you really need to do is put yourself in [the other person’s] shoes and look at things from their perspective.”

© 2004 Yvan Marston

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