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On Dealing with Toxic Clients

Keeping a Cool Head in the Workplace

An all-too common thread among the creative and tech industries are clients who are... oh, how do I put this nicely... not ideal? By that, I mean that such clients are quite rude to people in these industries, and truly view them not as a valuable partnership, but as an expendable commodity should projects not be completed to their (at times, wildly changing) specifications. For businesses in both industries, this is often rather disheartening to the workers, managers, and sales professionals that deal with them. However, for companies that are either relatively small or are going through some big changes, the option to fire such clients on the spot is usually one that forces the company to take hits they simply cannot afford.

So... how do companies in the creative and tech industries deal with these types of clients effectively without resorting to firing on the spot? At what point in the relationship is it best to cut off communication and have the company and the client go their separate ways?

Well, the first method is to be patient with the client, no matter how they are behaving towards you or your employees. I know; easier said than done! The point and ultimate goal is to keep yourself, your employees, and your company as a whole from looking like the bad guys in the situation. If you remain resolute, patient, and kind in your dealings with these sorts of people, your credibility will stay intact, which will prove highly beneficial should they try to sue you or your company. How do you remain resolute, patient, and kind? Take a deep breath, exhale, and see them as more like small children who are simply throwing a temper tantrum (and are, therefore, no threat whatsoever), or whatever makes you not take them as seriously. View them as no threat to you even when they threaten you. For most of these folks, their bark is worse than their bite. Once such clients see their behavior has no effect on you, they generally stop their madness, and are more willing to talk things out.

The second method is to actually try to talk to them once they are done venting/throwing a hissy fit/tossing around mild threats. Realize that some folks are probably just having a bad day, and while it is not in your job description to be their therapist, those folks may need someone to talk to. Getting all the stuff out first may in fact make the rest of the meeting a little bit better. Granted, in an ideal world, no one would have such outlandish attitudes and behaviors, but bear in mind this may either strengthen the relationship, or help such people see the light about how they are acting. That being said, this makes room for more important points in the conversation, such as the project or task in question.

A third method that may help is to pull these people off to the side (if talking to them face to face) in order to redirect their attitudes and behaviors. Anger is a blind emotion that rears its ugly head in many forms. Some clients may only see their behaviors as wrong if someone pulls them off to the side and calmly but firmly points it out. Again, this is similar to how parents (should) deal with children. If you are talking on the phone with a client and things get out of hand, close your office door and turn off speaker to deal with them in a more private setting. A more private setting allows for greater control of the situation. This also works wonders to ease the nerves of employees who may have had to deal with such clients in the past.

A fourth method that may help alleviate the situation (especially in large groups) is to insert a bit of humor into the conversation in order to help folks relax and keep things cool-headed. A funny pun will at least get some groans and crack a few smiles, and this may be what the doctor ordered in terms of redirecting bad behaviors. You don't have to be a professional stand-up comedian to do this, but you can borrow how their humor works by observing the situation and making a humorous comment about it.

Now, of course, if things continue to get out of hand, and you've tried all of the methods listed above, then it may be time to fire them on the spot. Some folks just don't know how to control their emotions, and it is best to let them learn the hard way. Let them make themselves an example of how not to be in a professional setting, especially if other clients are around. The others will either learn, or be let go themselves.

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