Executive Insider

4 Ways to Shut Down Client Bad Behavior

Rhett Power

Tough clients are just as likely as terrible bosses to send employees packing. So what can you do to ward off the negativity that comes from nasty clients? Try these techniques to build a cadre of clients who are a pleasure to work with and for.

Move over, mediocre managers. Today, employee churn is just as likely to be fueled by chaotic clients as by bad bosses.

Not all clients are terrible, of course. Even the tough ones can be reasonable to some degree. But other clients become so troublesome, combative, and churlish that they make work miserable for anyone trying to serve them.

If you’re not careful, you could end up losing some of your strongest people who’ve grown tired of dealing with dictatorial clientele. That’s hardly a good thing, especially since the labor market has been so rocky. Even before the Great Resignation, you could expect to wait about a month-and-a-half to fill a position. Now, you might not be able to get people to show up for interviews, let alone accept job offers.

So what can you do to ward off the negativity that comes from nasty clients? Try these techniques to build a cadre of clients who are a pleasure to work with and for.

  1. Avoid incentives that make it practically impossible to let go.
    Take a good, hard look at your bonuses, referral programs, and other policies. Do any of them promote a workplace culture that incentivizes and rewards the suffering of employees at the expense of disastrous clients? If so, you’re basically telling your staff that they’re less important to you than the leads you generate.

    Chris Cardinal, principal of Synapse Studios, explains how so-called perverse incentives work. “I’ve seen agencies constantly and notoriously take on more work than their teams can handle,” he writes. “Let’s say you financially reward middle managers if their team gets more work done quicker. If managers’ bonuses hinge on their direct reports’ productivity, they may display toxic behavior that feeds into employee burnout.” Additionally, your mid-level bosses may look the other way when clients get rude to their team members.

    It’s a good idea to revamp your incentives so that everyone on the team is treated fairly. That way, all your employees feel empowered rather than like replaceable cogs in a wheel.

  2. Set upfront expectations with your clientele.
    From the very first discussion with a new client, make it clear that you won’t tolerate jerkiness. Author Bob Sutton famously coined his “no a–hole” rule to address this principle. Sutton has gone on record to say that he believes in civilized working environments, not ones that let people get away with being disrespectful to one another.

    Wondering if you’ll scare away clients? That’s kind of the point. A good client who would never be anything but professional won’t have a problem with your “no jerk” rule. In fact, the best clients will appreciate that you put civility above profitability. Just be ready to hold your clients—as well as vendors and any other corporate stakeholders—accountable to your expectations. The moment you shut down a bad client or even fire one, you’ll set a huge example.

    As a side note, you may start to see employee engagement improve. Without the specter of bad clients lurking like a shadow above your team members, they’ll be able to focus more freely on producing high-quality work. Ironically, they’ll probably help you hold onto your best clients, too. Engaged employees tend to be better at delighting clientele.

  3. Interview prospective clients before a close.
    Most businesses treat sales as a one-way street. You get a lead, you work the lead, and if all goes well, you close the deal. This puts all the power in the client’s hands and doesn’t give you an opportunity to vet whether your client will be an angel or a demon.

    Begin to look at your early client conversations in a more double-edged manner, like a job interview. Gather information about your client. Ask situational questions so you can get a better sense of how a client will react if X, Y, or Z occurs. You may even want to request some references to help you decide whether the client is a good fit.

    Another way to dive deeper into how a client is likely to treat your team is to look at the social media accounts of the executives you’ll work with. Do they seem negative? Send up red flags? Have a questionable vibe? Even if the money seems good and you’d love the constant revenue stream, you may not want to tether your reputation to theirs.

  4. Be willing to break with long-term clients.
    It can be highly challenging to say goodbye to a long-term client. Yet it can be equally challenging to replace key personnel. For this reason, you can’t be afraid to tell clients that it’s time for them to find another partner.

    Before a “breakup,” talk with your team. Tell them you know that the client’s been rough and that you are considering firing the client. See what your employees say. Many may be willing to continue working with the client if the client agrees to be less hostile.

It’s not an easy task to tell a client that they have to make changes or leave. However, it’s a reasonable request and shows you’re not operating from a position of weakness or fear.

You’ve put tons of effort and money into finding and training your team. Don’t let that money fly out the window because of a jerky client who’s in desperate need of an old-fashioned time-out.


Written by Rhett Power.
Have you read?
How to Gain a Competitive Advantage Through an Outcome Mindset by Kim Stearns.
What does employee empowerment really mean by Rebecca Houghton.
5 Global Trends that will Accelerate Hybrid Workforces by Scott Stein.
Can You #Manifest Business Success by Sedge Beswick.

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Rhett Power
Rhett Power is responsible for helping corporate leadership take the actions needed to drive impact and courage in their teams that will improve organizational performance. He is the author of The Entrepreneur’s Book of Actions: Essential Daily Exercises and Habits for Becoming Wealthier, Smarter, and More Successful (McGraw-Hill Education) and co-founder of Wild Creations, an award-winning start-up toy company. After a successful exit from the toy company, Rhett was named the best Small Business Coach in the United States. In 2019 he joined the prestigious Marshall Goldsmith's 100 Coaches and was named the #1 Thought Leader on Entrepreneurship by Thinkers360. He is a Fellow at The Institute of Coaching at McLean Hospital, a Harvard Medical School affiliate. He travels the globe speaking about entrepreneurship and management alongside the likes of former Gates Foundation CEO Sue Desmond-Hellmann and AOL Founder Steve Case. Rhett Power is an acclaimed author, leader, entrepreneur and an opinion columnist for the CEOWORLD magazine. You can follow him on LinkedIn, Facebook, and Twitter.