Blog Post

6 Bad Client Types and How to Manage Them

Stay on Top of Enterprise Technology Trends

Get updates impacting your industry from our GigaOm Research Community
Join the Community!

stock-vampire1We’ve all heard the horror stories of difficult clients. Anyone offering client services has been there.

No company can function effectively when confronted with clients who operate from a place of fear — which is often at the root of most difficult clients you encounter. You can’t do your job well or be recognized for a job well done when your client contact is inadvertently — or deliberately — standing in your way.

Here are six common “bad client” archetypes that can impede your success. After the definition of each client type, I’ve listed some possible tactics you can use to tame those wild beasts in your client roster.

1. Micro Manager

Description: This person wants to control every aspect of your work. It may feel like they don’t trust what you do or that you can never do your job to their satisfaction, but their obsessive compulsiveness is often driven by fear. They believe that if you make a mistake, it is their neck on the line. So they go through painstaking editing processes, which often delay progress and rack up unexpected expenditures on your part.

Tactics: Understand that the micro manager is operating from a place of fear. Instead of riding their fear wave, have a heart-to-heart and find out what you can do to help them feel more comfortable with your work. Also, express how you weren’t prepared for so many revisions on every aspect of your work and how much it is costing you. Could they train you on how to deliver the work in a way that better suits their needs? In the future, put a clause in your contracts that stipulates the number of revisions included in the deal (say, up to three) with a trigger to charge hourly for each additional round.

2. Panicker

Description: For the Panicker, everything is an emergency. There’s always a fire to put out somewhere, real or imagined. Something is always about to go wrong, and chances are it is all your fault. The Panicker who will suck you into their panic mode if you’re not careful, setting a work tone that can be extremely disconcerting.

Tactics: Panic is also a manifestation of fear. Why is this person so afraid? Maybe there are machinations behind the scenes at their job that you’re not privy to that have set them into panic mode. Your job is to help alleviate their fears. Ask them flat out what can you do to make their job easier, better. What can you empower them with to help them prove to their higher ups that they — and you – are doing a good job. Work with them to bring the panic level down to a minimum so you can all get your work done without raising anybody’s blood pressure.

3. Puppet

Description: The Puppet is not in a power position. Somebody else is pulling the puppet strings, but they have been put out there as your client contact whether they – or you – like it or not. They may be the fall guy for someone else, and if they fall, they’ll inadvertently take you with them. They most likely are inexperienced and may not even understand what you are doing for their company, creating a stream of misunderstandings.

Tactics: If you can’t get to the Puppet Master, then empower the Puppet. They may not even know how their ignorance is undermining your ability to get things done, much less communicate what you’ve accomplished to their boss. Offer to train this person — on your dime — to provide them with enough knowledge so they can play a more productive role as client contact.

4. DIY-er

Description: The DIY-er knows everything, and thinks they can do it all themselves. But somehow you’ve been hired to do what they perceive to be their job. Or perhaps they’ve been charged with cutting corners so they’d rather do some of the work that should be assigned to you in order to save a buck in the short term. Then they proceed to muck things up which could potentially set you up for failure from the start. This person may have backed themselves into a corner by saying they know more than they do, or biting off more than they can chew.

Tactics: There may be a lot of ego involved here — sensitive ego that, in a pinch, will point fingers of blame at you if anything starts to go wrong. It is up to you to make this person look good while not diminishing your own role in a job well done. Give them kudos often — both directly to them and to their team members or boss. Help them shine within their own organization as an important member of your client relationship. Once they view you as an ally and not the enemy, you can actually shift the situation so you can do the work well and everybody wins.

5. Bean Counter

Description: Bean Counters want numbers. They may stand in the way of progress and innovation if they feel they don’t have the numbers they need. Remember that the Bean Counter might have to report to someone else so they feel they need numbers to justify their every move. You’re just caught in the middle of their insecurities.

Tactics: They want numbers? Give them numbers. It may serve you well to do the extra research to find comparable statistics, to develop spreadsheets that calculate growth, to make a few charts to help assuage the fears of the Bean Counter. Yes, this will take you some time to compile the data, so make sure to build that into future contracts. But if it is numbers they want, go the extra mile to get them numbers.

6. Silo-er

Description: Beware the Silo-er. They are the most challenging of bad client types because they are wily creatures. They strategically set themselves up as the conduit by which all of the communications between you and the decision-makers flow. They do this so that if there are successes on a project, they can claim them for themselves. If there are failures, you will be the first one they blame.

Tactics: Without direct and open lines of communications with all the key players on your client’s team, you may become silo’d before you even know what has happened. It is up to you to open up or re-open up those communications channels before it’s too late. Offer to travel to the client’s office — on your dime — to meet with the whole team so you can re-establish key connections. Start requesting that other team members join meetings or calls so that you aren’t at the mercy of a single person. If no amount of overtures on your part work to break down the silo walls, try the last ditch effort of copying other team members on key email correspondence so they are somehow in the loop. Carefully document everything you do and all conversations just in case you’re set up to take the fall at any point.

Every client relationship can be peppered with moments of misunderstandings and disappointments — like any relationship. But without a strategy in place that can help you bring harmony to your client relations, your revenue stream could be negatively impacted by one or more of these bad client types. Ultimately, it is your responsibility to identify and address problems head on because when push comes to shove, you may end up being the one that is most dispensable.

What are some of the bad client types you’ve encountered, and how have you dealt with them?

16 Responses to “6 Bad Client Types and How to Manage Them”

  1. Iftikhar Ahmed Kahttak

    Thank you very much for the best comments about bad cleitns with suggestions. I really apprecaited this and will be intouch with you at any level I felt again. any thing I can do for… thanks again. very nice observations. good luck

  2. When I was sent this link I opened it up & there she was at #1: The Micro Manager!

    I’m a virtual assistant except that I often go to my client’s homes or workplace. I have a client who never gives me enough information to do the job properly & when I try to clarify what it is she needs doing, she makes me feel stupid for asking & speaks to me like I’m one of her children!

    Whatever she wants, I know that what I do will never make her happy; I thought it was me at first but then realised that none of my other clients had any issues with my work & were actually delighted with my performance.

    After receiving 3 calls on a Sunday before I was even dressed, I considered sacking her; she was undermining my confidence & clearly thought she was my only client & that I should drop everything to address her every whim. Luckily she is now on a business trip for 3 months & I’m going to try to keep her at arms length upon her return.

    I was advised that just because I’m a new freelancer starting out, it doesn’t mean that I have to put up with unreasonable demands from a client.

  3. I’ve discovered one thing with the “DIY-er” type of clients that they eventually wind up explicitly admitting that they shouldn’t have done what they know little about.

    Another type of clients (IMO) is the sheep type, which is perfect for Project Managers. The sheep type just wants to be led, and has perfect trust in the Project Manager (this trust is usually established over time, due to the hard work and transparency of the Project Manager). In order to maintain this sweet and convenient relationship, the Project Manager has to be honest and genuinely interested in the having the client succeed.

  4. Personas are great for helping you get these clients too.

    These profiles are great for helping me think about how I would approach these “natural beasts in the wild.”

    I also think we too often try to do it our way when we deal with clients. In the end, I think it is important to make solutions fit comfortably with different clients’ personalities, culture, and attitudes.

  5. What about the “SlipShod”? So in other words, the client who pays no attention to detail and in a way, sloppy about working with the results we provide him for his own clients?

    We have a client who is, in a way pretty easy. We hardly hear from him and we do make attempts to check in with him at least once a week.

    When we do hear back, he has not paid attention to the detail we have provided him. So we have to repeat and reteach, if you will, until he understands.

    We have provided him with what he needs. In a way he’s a bean counter too. So we provide the numbers, and we also strive to go above and beyond that.

    So in the case of this Slipshoded client who “also” does the disappearing act pretty well, yet who continues to pay us for the work we do, on time, should we be concerned or is there another way to better attend to him?

    I’ve often told myself to enjoy this one because there is a day soon, just around the corner we may have to deal with someone who is difficult or better yet, fits the descriptions above you’ve posted.

    So far we’ve been pretty lucky.

    We care deeply about our clients, but how do you know when you’re caring too much?

    We provide the results, they keep paying, no complaints thus far that are vital and cannot be fixed, but there is a lack of communication for this one.

    We care so we get concerned, but I try to tell staff not to let it consume their day by getting overly concerned, because all we can do is continue to reach out. Although balance that so we don’t become annoying to him.

    Any thoughts?

  6. …And I just remembered a fourth type.

    The Downwards Promotee: These are technically a subtype of Puppet (in the same way that the Little Empire Builder is a subtype of Silo-er), but they’re definitely on the bubble, and they’re being micromanaged from above only because any other tactic will cause the project to burn through its budget. These people are flat-out incompetent, and they survived long enough to work with you only because they were in a patron-client relationship that has since ended. If you discover that “WTF?!” has become a routine part of your internal dialogue, you’re probably working for one of these. Do not attempt to empower them, because that won’t work. Instead, get all (and I mean all) requirements in writing, and satisfy them as literally as you can. The point to such engagements is to let the rope by which the incompetent will hang themselves; the challenge is to recognize the M.O. through which the project is expected to miss its objectives, and play along without getting clobbered yourself.

  7. I might sound a little airy-fairy by saying this, but the one thing toxic/bad clients have in common is fear-based thinking (as implied at the beginning of the article).

    …And there are three other types not mentioned here that justify vigilance:

    The Wheeler-Dealer: where Bean Counters try to nickel-dime you after milestones, these guys will do it during the contract negotiation. They love scoring bargains, and they thrive on the competition that goes hand in hand with haggling. These prospects are masters at controlling the conversation, through brute force if necessary. Most importantly, they will say anything and everything they can to keep you off balance when you attempt to demonstrate the value of your product — and fool themselves into believing it. Only take these prospects on referral, or if you like them interpersonally and you’re feeling charitable… because even if the relationship achieves a satisfying rhythm, every “favor” will come with a price. If they cross a line, don’t be afraid to tell them that you’re placing higher value on their actions than on their words, because that’s exactly what you need to do to work successfully with this type of client.

    The Little Empire Builder: This guy (or gal) is building a silo, but their mindset is more long-term. and their delegation/leadership skills are often much better. The danger with these prospects is not that the job will suck, but instead that their requirements of the product will cause the product itself to suck… because they’re not working for the success of the project or to serve customers, but rather to serve their own career goals. (Even cowboys down on the cube ranch can benefit from personal vision and goals.) You have two choices: either take the money and run, or grab onto those coattails and enjoy the ride. It’s up to you.

    The Clueless Visionary: …If you start with Steve Jobs and subtract significant fractions of capital and leadership ability, the Clueless Visionary comes out in the difference. Even if they value your skills, they’re still prone to believe that their ideas are poorly misunderstood; their plan is to throw money and talent at a problem they perceive, and automagically profit from the solution they’re paying you to build. These prospects are trouble for two reasons: they’re prone to undercapitalization, and they rarely appreciate that of better, faster, and cheaper, you can only pick two. They need education, and lots of it. The key to dealing with these types is to stay goal-focussed; don’t worry about building masterpieces, worry about delivering product that meets business objectives at the lowest practicable level of capital investment. If the business plan’s worth anything at all, the masterpieces will come after reality proves the validity of the business plan.

  8. the “perpetual mind-changer” (for lack of a better term). allow me to explain… you present the first crack at a project. you know there will be edits/changes from the client. that’s fine and acceptable. back at the workshop, you digest and implement said changes. time to re-present said project inclusive of aforementioned changes. client seems to forget that he/she requested those changes and is mystifyingly begins leaning back to the original content (i.e., client: “i think this misses the mark here, the vision i have is X.” me (internally): “I ORIGINALLY HAD X INCLUDED! YOU NIXED X!”). this usually happens over the course of multiple revisions. naturally, you can’t lay the blame on the client.

    ultimately, sometimes you just have to bite your tongue, grin and bear it and go back and forth more times than is necessary – eventually the client will tucker out (or feel content that their vision is realized) and you’ll have been able to get the project to where you want it.