Five High-Maintenance Clients To Avoid

Ah, clients—we need them, we crave them. Consultants, coaches, advisors and freelancers mostly live in attraction mode, constantly building a vibrant roster of sweet-spot clients.

But not every client is a good client. So while you’re courting new relationships, beware of five types of clients almost never worth the trouble.

The Negotiator. The Negotiator gets a thrill every time they get a deal. They ask ”is this your lowest price?” or “I know you said this will cost $20,000, but I’m only prepared to spend $15,000—when can we start?” Negotiating prices makes sense for hotels, but since when are you a commodity? Sure, there may be times it makes sense to make a deal—you have idle staff or it’s a project you’ve been itching to do—but the classic Negotiator will ALWAYS want a deal. So unless you are ready to put yourself permanently on sale, keep a wide berth from these clients.

The Scold. You just can’t please a Scold. They may be screamers, exploding their frustrations on anyone who is handy. Or they may be quiet fault-finders (think email bombs)—chiding you and others at every opportunity. Scolds need someone to blame for the glitches in their lives—and it is never the guy in the mirror. You can recognize them by the string of broken professional relationships that preceded yours. Working with a Scold is exhausting—you’ll spend valuable emotional energy trying to manage their moods and feel like you’re slogging through quicksand.

The Center Of The Universe. Master of all he/she surveys, the Center Of The Universe thrives on seeing how high you’ll jump. Now let’s be perfectly clear—clients DESERVE to be the center of your work universe. You’re engaged to serve them and have a moral—and perhaps even fiduciary—obligation to put their needs first. But these clients thrive on having you (and everyone else in their purview) at their beck and call. They might even sulk or try to guilt you into serving demands from the frivolous to the truly outrageous. You need boundaries of steel to work successfully with a Center Of The Universe. If that’s not your thing, take a pass on these clients.

The Colluder. This client wants you to see their situation EXACTLY as they do. They simply won’t accept any aspect of your assessment and recommendations if it differs with their precise point of view. They don’t want an advisor, they crave an employee or an administrator or even an outlet to whine about why they have not been successful (coaches beware). Empathy is an essential skill for any advisor, but take it too far and you risk collusion, which benefits no one.

The Werewolf. The werewolf is a client that seems perfectly reasonable and normal until he snaps. You often don’t see the trigger coming, because it tends to be something minor in the scheme of things. I once had a client start screaming in a conference room stacked with people—his and mine—who had worked all weekend to draft their merger communications. The misdeed? He didn’t like one of the examples in the copy. He went from normal guy to complete werewolf in about 15 seconds—we had to literally escort him from the room.

Which types of high-maintenance clients have you learned to avoid? And are there some who are worth the effort to salvage?

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  • Very interesting since we just discussed pricing a meeting of my Gotham Network’s Long Island Lawyers group on Thursday (Oct. 30).
    The “slogging through quicksand” phrase just sounds like something my friend Bob O coined for just that type of person.
    I think it is okay to accept some of those rather distasteful “assignments” (prefer not to use “engagements” for that ilk) if you can use them to build relations with other, impress them and snag other better gigs. I believe I was successful in that regard (of course I did not know at outset the client was not as attractive as I thought and later learned).
    Most others know or learn of the client’s flaws and you can impress other by how they see you handle it.

    • Rochelle

      I think we are all willing to take a flyer with challenging clients when just starting out or trying to break into a new niche. But at some point, we decide life is just too short 🙂

  • Quite succinct and effectively worded, Rochelle. There have been many variations of these personality / sales quirks over the years. This is the best one I have read. It is critical to know who you are dealing with. If you misread the client your efforts can become fruitless leaving both parties dissatisfied.

  • My experience has been that corporate America seems to specialize in promoting these types to the levels where they have the ability to authorize (or not) your contract. So, there’s really no way to avoid running into them and in some cases working for them.

    There are a couple of strategies I use for some of these. For example, if the Negotiator MUST have a “deal”, then start your terms, pricing, project time, or whatever, higher than you would normally and then settle on your normal price; (s)he “wins” and you win. Move on.

    Those who throw tantrums have an emotional need to have an audience for their performance. Deprive them of their audience and the tantrums always stop. A couple of approaches here: 1) remind the “client” when they take their first breath that their tantrum is costing them $X per hour for you to listen to and as a professional you would recommend a better use of their time. 2) Explain to the “client” that you are exhibiting professional behavior (as a peer and not a subordinate) and you expect them to do the same. Finally, 3) get up and walk out clearly stating that there’s nothing in the contract that requires putting up with abuse, bullying, or other unprofessional behavior as a condition of the work.

    “But I might lose the contract!” Maybe, maybe not. It’s either take the risk or co-dependently put up with the abuse being heaped on you while you’re enabling their behavior.

    Oh, by the way, be sure your contract includes a clause that says you can terminate for cause when the client won’t correct their behavior.

    Like any abusive relationship, when you firmly set the boundaries your opponent will respect you for it and most times the unacceptable behavior will stop, especially if they really do need your help.
    Best, 🙂

  • Rochelle

    Thanks Dan for such thoughtful additions to the conversation! Much appreciated…

  • And then, Rochelle, you can hit the quinfecta – the combination of all five. Wow! But I guess like basic personality, no high maintenance client is a pure type, but fits on a spectrum of high maintenance traits.

  • Rochelle

    Oh dear–let’s hope none of us hit the quinfecta Raymond! Thanks for adding your thoughts!

  • Rochelle,
    I visited and like your website.

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