Practical tactics for dealing with difficult clients

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Following on from Richard Hattersley's article ”when unappreciative clients take up too much time”, Jennifer Adams looks at tactics that can be used should you ever have to deal with a 'difficult' client.

How you deal with a difficult client depends on your answer to one specific question: do you want them to stay or would you not mind, or even be thankful, if they leave?

If the latter then you should have a set speech prepared, don’t stray from that speech and out of decency (and possibly your own sense of pride) tell them personally. Not by email and preferably not face-to-face (in case words are said in the heat of the moment).

Say you have valued their custom in the past but now feel that your relationship is not as it should be and you believe that the relationship must end. If you want to give your reasons then fine, but there will usually be no need to do so. Then send a letter of disengagement.

Many accountants put off sacking their clients in the hope that either the client will change their ways or they are scared of the loss of money should the client leave. However, it needs to be remembered that invariably another more grateful and easier-to-deal-with client will replace them.

When your business is just beginning you might be afraid of letting go but it must always be remembered that if you are good at your job people will get to know and better clients will follow. More detail as to how to sack a client can be found in the article: 'When and how to sack a client'.

If you want the client to stay

The problem comes if you decide that you want the client to stay (or you are unable to sack them, which might not necessarily be the same thing). You then have a further decision to make in working out what tactics to use to ensure that the relationship changes to the extent that the client is happy with the service and you (and your staff) are happy with the client.

A client will not mend their ways if they do not know they are causing problems and that is the aim – for them to mend/change their method of working to facilitate a good working relationship.

A list of those tactics includes:

1) Live with it – does it really matter? The expression water off a duck's back' has relevance in this situation. If the client keeps changing their mind, is invariably late to meetings or is indecisive does it really matter? Of course, the problem with this tactic comes in another saying: 'give someone an inch and they will take a mile.'

2) Charge more: Consider the 'value' method of charging such that if they continue to demand an immediate response then they must pay for that immediate 'gold' service.

3) Try to remain calm: Obviously easier said than done but your calmness could reduce the intensity of the situation. Count to 10 before returning an email or ringing. Possibly send any response emails as the last thing you do at the end of the day/week? This teaches the client that you are not at their beck and call.

4) Communication: Consider whether the client is actually aware of the difficulties caused by their behaviour. If you think not, then they should be told. Point out that their behaviour is causing problems. If their ways are upsetting your staff then they are the foremost priority, regardless of their other behaviour. Use the 'four-step IUFO process': 'I Understand your concerns/problems but I Feel that I must point out...is that OK?'

5) Measure, prove and be firm about their behaviour: Make sure that when you speak to the client you have your facts straight eg they have been late for three meetings out of five – explain this causes difficulties. Ask for defined changes – be specific and agree on a plan.

6) WIIFT – 'What's in it for them?' Many accountants use this tactic with clients who are continually late in sending their accounts. Make their behaviour cost. Say that you will increase their fee by 10% if the information is not in by the end of September or six months after the company year end, then stick to that threat. Include in the letter of engagement so there is no comeback. If they continually send emails wanting an answer immediately then say you will charge per email. The key is not to reward bad behaviour, or it will continue or get even worse.

A practical solution could be to invest in a practice management system that automatically reminds clients of outstanding information or late payment either by email or SMS. 

Have a late payment procedure in place and put that procedure in your letter of engagement: eg if no payment within one month send a statement; if no payment within another month send a second reminder; if still no payment issue a county court claim. A court claim is a cheap way of making your point and nine times out of 10 results in payment on the first letter.

7) Fogging: Either as a full response or a starter, fogging is a technique that gives both parties space and can help prevent situations from escalating any further. When someone makes an aggressive comment, human nature is to give an aggressive response but 'fogging' surprises them by giving an unexpected response. It works by offering agreement rather than disagreement. The tactic is to start your response with the word 'yes' eg "Yes, I can see you think that was not the best way to behave". The word 'yes' at the beginning can take them by surprise, slows them down and can reduce the tension. You are not agreeing that it was your fault only that you recognise that it might look that way. The thinking behind this tactic is that they can at least recognise you value their point of view.

8) Peel the onion: If they come to you with a grievance ask them how they want to settle matters. Ask for specific examples of the problem as the client views it rather than accepting the comment “nothing’s working”. If possible, offer them a choice - that gives them the impression that they have made a decision.

9) No repetition: Say what you have to say once and don't keep explaining. Otherwise you are drawing out the situation and giving the impression that there is more to it than there is.

10) Does the client have a point? Is it 'six of one and half a dozen of the other'? Are you partly to blame eg do you encourage their behaviour by sending immediate responses to emails and ramping up the expectation?

Finally – make sure you always make a note of what is said. If they are a difficult client then there is always the possibility that they (or you) may take further action and you might have to explain your actions.

Sometimes it is best to call it a day, not least with those clients who will always be right and you will always be wrong - or rather think so.

For further reading see:

Do you agree with these tactics? Do you have any other tips you’d like to share with the community? Let us know in the comments below.

About Jennifer Adams

Jennifer Adams is Consulting Editor of AccountingWEB and is a professional business author specialising in corporate governance and taxation. She runs her own accounting and consultancy business with offices based in Surrey and Dorset.

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19th Sep 2018 10:53

Great article!

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By Ammie
19th Sep 2018 11:50

Interesting article.

Coincidentally, I "sacked" a couple of sizeable clients last year, albeit they contributed good fees, as they were very very hard work and I had had enough!

Am in the process of divorcing another for similar reasons.

Yes, the fees I am throwing away are a tad regretful, but my well being and very importantly the fast approaching MTD and other professional changes mean the quality of client is becoming a much more important factor than the fee they generate.

Anyway, I have been very lucky because, like buses, there's another one along very soon!

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19th Sep 2018 23:23

Oh this article hits so many emotional triggers in me because I have had to deal with some clients that I wanted to fire so badly. What frustrates me the most is when a client hires me to do a job for them and then either does not let me do it or makes it more difficult then it needs to be. I was speaking with a friend who is a personal trainer and he mentioned with his clients that many times he finds himself babysitting them and being their therapist more than actually training them. I find this to be true in my role as well!

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