6 Strategies for Working with Difficult People

We live in a world filled with people, and people are awesome – most of the time. 

Then there’s the coaching session or meeting that happens every now and then. You know the one I’m talking about: The One where you can't seem to satisfy no matter what lengths you go to.

You pull up a chair and sit down across from them in a meeting or coaching session. Your bottom barely hits the seat, when it begins: The client launches into a lengthy rant about how you are doing _______________ (fill in the blank) wrong. How ______________ (inconvenient, costly, difficult) it is to do business with you, or why they're only working with you because their boss, spouse, kids are forcing them to. The blows come fast and fierce, and it’s all you can do to dodge the barrage of verbal punches flying your way.

Your gut reaction may be to defend yourself, fight back, or just up and walk out of the room. Before you totally lose it and say or do something that will irreparably damage the relationship, step back and take a deep breath. Don’t utter the first unfiltered thought that arises. Believe it or not, a fantastic opportunity has just landed in your lap. Engage your difficult client, right the situation, and you might just earn a loyal customer for life.

Try the following steps to reframe the situation and move forward:

  1. Understand it’s not personal: The founder of a company I used to work for, Dr. Howard Murad, has a saying, “If it’s not personal, don’t take it personally.” It's great advice. While the outburst may be directed at you – it’s not about you. Your client has a multitude of other concerns, responsibilities, and people to deal with. The sustained build-up of these outside factors is usually the trigger for their eruption. Remove yourself and your ego from the conversation. Focus instead on defusing the situation.
  2. Acknowledge the client: This is essential to restoring peace, whether you’re working in a retail sales environment or meeting with a Fortune 500 behemoth. I’ve observed countless times how the act of genuine acknowledgement quickly shifts the energy of the conversation. It’s okay to say, “I’m sorry,” if they’ve been wronged. Your client is venting, and they need to know you get where they are coming from. Don’t start with “I understand…”, because you don’t – You haven’t arrived there yet. Instead, begin with something like, “I hear your frustration. Can you tell me more about what’s going on, so I can better understand the situation?”
  3. Let them Talk: Once you’ve asked the question, let the floodgates open. Give them space to share. Resist the urge to go into defensive mode and don’t talk too much. There will be issues that are beyond your control, there will be concerns with what others are doing or what you’re doing for other clients. . While you can’t - and probably shouldn't - fix every issue, you can acknowledge your client’s feelings. Only ask questions for clarification, or supply a short comment to show you get their point of view.
  4. Reinforce the Relationship: Remind the client that you’re on the same side – you both want them to succeed. While you may not be able to wave a magic wand and fix everything, you can begin by sharing the ways that you are working for their success. Share how others like them have overcome their challenges and are winning in the same situation your client finds themselves in. Brainstorm ideas to support them, and have a good referral network if they need help with something that's out of your scope.
  5. Make a Plan: Collaborate on an action plan that address the root of your client's frustrations. Make a list of the top three things they can do right now that will make an impact toward changing their situation. Address their concern in a way that delivers a real solution.
  6. Get Buy-In and Implement: Recap the solution for your customer. Ask, “How does this plan sound to you?” and, “What else should we add to this?” Once you’re in agreement, set up a timeframe for achieving the plan. By staying engaged and delivering on your promise, you’ve demonstrated that you value this client and are willing to go the extra mile for them.

An encounter with a challenging client can ruin your whole day, and leave you feeling completely defeated. Don't give in - take initiative to turn things around. Some of your toughest clients will become fiercely loyal champions if you acknowledge and resolve their concerns. These clients often go on to become your most vocal advocates and source of word of mouth referrals – even more so than your generally satisfied low-maintenance clients. Own the relationship, address the challenge head-on and create a win. 

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