When my sister was a copywriter for a small marketing firm, she had to handle a particularly toxic client. One night over dinner, she described how this client messaged her at all hours of the night and she was expected to respond immediately. If that wasn’t bad enough, he talked down to her constantly, hurled insults on a whim and demanded she rewrite content three or four times for every posting. And he refused to take any of her marketing advice (even though that is what he was paying for). Nothing was good enough for this client.
When my sister finished venting, my husband leaned back and said “Well, sometimes you gotta take it in the mouth just to end up taking it in the rear.” We all had a much needed laugh.
But is this really true? Do you always have to pamper your clients just to let them torture you in the end? How do you deal with a toxic client?
Know When To End The Relationship
Take a second to think this one through. Obviously you are being paid or you wouldn’t be dealing with this client. But don’t let it end there. You need to conduct a cost benefit analysis and truly consider all aspects:
- Is this client damaging your brand?
- Is this client damaging morale?
- Will your company still be successful without this client?
In my sister’s case, the client wouldn’t listen to her advice and demanded she write his marketing content how he wanted it. Seeing as how this client was not a marketing expert, he didn’t know how to truly build visibility. If my sister continued to do things the way he wanted it, it wouldn’t benefit his brand and it would give her company a bad reputation. Not to mention, her morale was in the gutter.
But would her company be successful without this client? This is a tough call to make. When do you know you can cut the cord with a toxic client? You cut the cord when the client’s damage to your business is greater than the client’s benefit to your business. If your client is paying you $1000 to write a marketing campaign but they won’t give you the freedom to make the marketing campaign effective, it might be time to end the relationship.
Set Rules Of Engagement
Ok. So you looked into it and you decided to keep this client. So how do you deal? You have to begin with communication. And your first communication has to be rules of engagement. Talk to you client about what to expect when working with your company. Call out how you prefer to conduct business. Ask the client to do the same. If need be, you can even include this as part of your client agreement.
If you client comes back with unreasonable demands, then it is ok to say no. This is your business and you can define the boundaries. But when you do, be sure to explain why you are saying no. Your client might not realize he or she is making heinous requests.
You are already doing work for a difficult client. Make sure the parameters of your work are clear. Sometimes a client just wants to blame you for all of their issues. You have to specify what work you are willing to do and what is out of scope. Only take accountability for the work that you agreed to complete.
Don’t be afraid to use measurables to make agreement crystal clear. For example, if you are writing content for a website, specify how many posts you will complete and the word counts. Include deadlines for drafts and client review. The more hard facts, the better.
Never go into a client meeting unprepared. That is common sense. Especially when dealing with a toxic client, you have to be prepared. Have your materials ready and all of your facts straight. Not having all of your ducks in a row can be all it takes for a client to go ballistic.
You will inevitably have to deliver bad news to your client. It is the nature of the beast. There are always unforeseen circumstances that can affect a project. In these cases, preparation is especially important. Try to get ahead of it by asking your client how they prefer to be communicated to in the event of a setback. You could do this when you set rules of engagement (see above). Knowing how your client likes to handle bad news can save you when the time comes for you to deliver it.
Demonstrate Emotional Control
Most toxic clients do not have emotional control. If they did, they wouldn’t be screaming into your ear over the phone at 4AM. Don’t fall into a trap where you catch your client’s rage and enter a screaming match. Instead, demonstrate emotional control.
It is so hard to keep your emotions in check when a client is yelling or personally attacking you. But, if you are going to keep doing business with this person, keeping your cool is key. Maintain a calm voice. You can stand up for yourself, but don’t do it defensively. Instead, be calm and assertive when you explain a situation. Stick to the facts when in an argument and focus on the work that needs to be completed. You don’t need to take blame for all of a client’s issues. Redirect the conversation to what you need to do for your client. If nothing else, remember to revert back to your rules of engagement. Point out what you agreed to and what falls outside of these parameters. Remind your client of the demands you outlined as unreasonable.
Toxic clients are terrible to deal with. If you can cut them loose, do it. If not, you can follow these tricks to help make the relationship less abusive and more productive:
- Set rules of engagement. Clearly state what work you agree to and what is unreasonable. Call out how you each will conduct business with each other.
- Be specific. Use measurables to be as specific as possible when agreeing to do work for a toxic client.
- Be prepared. Have your ducks in a row before interacting with your client.
- Keep control of your emotions. Even if a client is badgering you, remain calm and assertive. Use hard facts to make your point clear.
Have you ever dealt with a toxic client? How did you handle it? Let us know in the comments!