Spotting & handling the bully client

Bully clients lead with their egos.

They try to treat you like an employee who should be grateful to have a job.

They act like your system doesn’t matter and that their work takes precedent over every other client’s work.

They enforce their own deadlines (and often break them with no apology or explanation).

They ignore your advice and expertise, while expecting you to do their thinking for them and to take responsibility when results aren’t rapidly forthcoming.

They take “the customer’s always right” to mean “the client can do whatever he wants because that’s how desperate things are out there.”

Funny thing about me, though. I’d rather be flat broke than be disrespected. Because that’s what it is, whether they do it intentionally or not: a form of disrespect for the experience you bring, for your insight, for your ability to do your job, for your willingness to be helpful without being taken advantage of…

Beware the Mighty Ego

I wish I had known a few years ago that you can spot these Squawking Ego Bombs a mile away.

It’s Not Me, It’s Them

They might spend time explaining why their past client-consultant relationships didn’t work out (e.g., the team’s inability to deliver or complete ineptitude).

How to Handle It: Ask the prospective client what they would have done differently, how they tried to work it out with the team (if nothing constructive, walk away), and whether or not they would mind you contacting one of the former teams. Then gauge the reaction overall – are they just blustering (ego) or does it genuinely seem like they found some lemons? One other thing: Note the number of predecessors you have, particularly in cases where there is just outright dissatisfaction with “all” people in your area of expertise.

We’re Pals, Right?

While familiarity can certainly lead to a long-lasting client relationship, bullies will often use it against you at a later point in time, usually by taking advantage of you financially.

What to Watch Out for: You should be able to tell fairly readily if someone is going to be all about business or if there will be … more. Client bullies bring more emotion to the conversation right away – whining, residual anger or frustration, anxiety. Note that I used the word “emotion,” not energy. In fact, the energy they bring to the work you do together may be toxic and disruptive to productivity.

You’re the Expert {Shrug}

This trait can be hard to spot. This person might say: “You’re the expert; I don’t know a thing about anything other than what I know, but I really know that. I don’t know what I want – that’s your job to tell me.” This scenario heads in one of two directions: (a) “I know what I like when I see it,” or (b) “Let me show you what my competitors are doing.” They’re masking a need for control with respect. You’ll recognize this by its other name: manipulation.

How to Spot It: In this instance, look for context clues. If other signs are pointing to Ego, then it’s likely that the same applies here. Some people genuinely admit to having no personal preferences whatsoever and are happy to leave you to your own expert devices, but not the bully.

I’m Not Your Employee (Nor Would I Be)

But how many of us charge back against the bully once it rears its ugly head? Is it because when someone handles a situation by throwing his or her Ego out in front of them, it comes across as brusque, disrespectful, or overreactive, so you feel the need to defend yourself? The true crime here, dear friends, is not stopping it before it gets to that point.

We’re all trained, to a certain extent, in the traditional workplace to grin-and-bear-it, suck-it-up, and forget-about-it-because-it’s-not-important, but when it’s your own enterprise, it’s a different animal. Suddenly, there isn’t a manager to blame, a system to criticize, or a process to insist would be more efficient if one of 700 things happened.

Now it’s your process, brought to the world by your brain, and there’s something both immensely cool and untouchable about that. You’ve honed it and you’re confident that it’s successful. In fact, it IS successful. So why are these client bullies trying to mess with it?

Spotting & Handling Client Bullies

The truth is that there will always be people who have been overindulged or who use fear as a weapon, who bully their way through business because they’ve seen that it works. The sad part is that many creatives and consultants feel that this is just the cost of doing business. It doesn’t have to be.

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  • Be selective about the clients you choose and be upfront about your selectivity. Some relationships just aren’t meant to be and that’s to be expected.
  • Be careful to set expectations in the very first phone call as to how you like to work, and feel out the person on the other end of the phone. If you sense resistance, that’s a red flag.
  • Particularly when productivity is being affected and/or the relationship is affecting other clients, don’t get caught up in an emotional battle. Always refer them back to the directives of the project and remind them that they’re not the only client you have – in writing.
  • If they’re insistent on bringing the Ego into the conversation and redirection isn’t working to get you back on track, it may be that the relationship has reached an irreparable point.
  • For goodness sake, learn from the experience! If it happened once, don’t let it happen again.

You can only do so much. Some people just aren’t cooperative, want something for nothing, and won’t quit hassling until you take a stand. The best thing you can do in this scenario, for your own ego, is to walk away. Leave the bully to figure out another way to reach his or her goals because it’s clear that you’re not the Chosen One (nor will anyone else be).

Something better will always come along – it’s just the way it works. And that’s pretty awesome.

If you are on the receiving end of a negative attitude or feel unnecessarily challenged by someone’s ego – a client, a coworker, a subordinate, a colleague – how do you react?

Comments (14)

  • Sarah. This was, by far, one of the most beautifully written descriptions of what so many of us who are self-employed, encounter at random with the clients we take on as hopeful projects/jobs/employment. I have been self-employed for more years than I care to count and the level of disrespect has only increased 100 fold, making the saying “making a living” seem like we have all reverted back to the level of serfdom and we should all be grateful to have any kind of business, no matter what it is. Not so. If we can release these bully clients who are ego-driven, it doesn’t matter that we won’t have their business because the loss of their business will free us up to take on new business that is meaningful and fulfilling. I am in my 60’s and I have just realized this. We don’t have to take nonsense from anyone. Our integrity is very important and in the long run, we will be the wiser individual who took control of our own life and who we interact with,

    • Mary Lu, thank you so much for your thoughtful comment! I’m honored that you found value and raised your voice in response to the piece. The most coincidental thing is that your comment came through on a day when I too was re-encountering what I described here. Seems as though I was being sent a reminder myself!

      Best we can truly do is remain mindful and preserve our boundaries. Best to you on your entrepreneurial journey!

  • Tamara-Lee Beveridge

    Thank you Thank you Thank you. I have only just begun the journey of Business Owner as a Contractor. I am currently experiencing everything you mentioned above from a client whom I have bent over backwards for and only receive negativity and the request for more for less.
    Feeling very unrespected and non valued at this point.
    You have described her above to a T and having read this I feel stronger in knowledge of identifying the relationship.
    I feel so dissapointed that I even need to address this behaviour and at a loss as to how.
    But Thank you non the less.

    • Tamara-Lee, thank you for sharing your story. These situations are all too common; some people just do not know how to avoid mistreating others. Protect yourself above all things from it devolving into a full-on toxic relationship, if you can. Nothing is more valuable than peace of mind. Check out our Today series at https://816nyc.com/today for more tips on staying positive and strong. Best of luck to you!

  • Melanie Grano

    Sarah. This is sound advice and a timely reminder. Sometimes, as with many small businesses with the burden of putting food on the table, entrepreneurs (myself included) have intentionally ignored the ‘red flags’ in initial conversations, thinking that ‘oh, it would not be that bad’. I have lived to regret it.

    Thank you so much for the words of encouragement. It took a while before I could accept that for such clients, I would never be the “Chosen One.”

    • So glad you found it worthwhile, Melanie! This is one of our most popular posts, believe or not, written back when this business was in its infancy. Rants tend to do pretty well. 🙂

  • Fantastic article! Right now I am dealing with the most difficult customer I have ever had in 10 years of business. She is exactly as you described. She came in complaining bitterly about the last place she was at. I wish I knew about your advice about asking to contact the last business and then see her reaction. She would have ran for the hills!! Now I know. Her pattern is to be all buddy buddy at first. She would tell me all her personal problems, I would listen and offer advice. No, I’m not a therapist! She wasn’t wanting advice, she want me to share my personal dirt back to her. I don’t have any dirt and if I did I wouldn’t talk about it! Then I would just be minding my own business and she would send a snarky text out of the blue. So I would immediately call her. I was always calm, but I was confronting her to find a solution. She’d back off. We were traveling together back from some business and she did (what I now am calling a Hail Mary pass) she told me every screwed up thing from her bad childhood, her money problems,her “boyfriend” (some guy that is happily married, but occasionally will text her although there was a year long gap in their communication) etc. I just listened and gave advice. She disappered for 3 weeks, then I get a notice that she is leaving for another business. Reading your article and a few others about bully customers really helped me understand. She leaving in two days and I am so happy! I will follow your wise advice. If someone new comes here trash talking the last business, I will tell them that I want to contact the prior business and find out what happened exactly. Bad customers like this has really made me appreciate the good ones I have! Thanks again

    • I’m so glad you found the advice helpful. And glad you got to vent out your experience. There is nothing more draining and fruitless than a bad client relationship. One of the hardest things can be setting boundaries, especially when you think allowing some personal connection would help the project move along. Best of luck to you in finding people who celebrate your talent while honoring your time.

  • Thank you ! Much needed I’m running in the opposite direction

  • Thank you Sarah and great post. Just what I was looking for. I was raised to be a pleaser unfortunately, and aged 36 I am still learning to set boundaries, usually to ensure others don’t show such disrespect towards me. Most clients over the last 12 years have been good, but there has always been that 10% which are utterly dreadful, never able to please, and that just waste time. Sometimes it has lead to legal threats and bullying / controlling behaviour. Nowadays trusting gut instincts and looking at the boss and his behaviour, and paying attention for red flags is the key.

    You put my mind at ease tonight. thank you 😊🤗

    • Sarah Williams

      Thank you for reading and commenting, Luke! In a perfect world, we could avoid toxic people. Know when to walk away – one door closes and another opens every time, but particularly for those who operate with integrity. Stay well.

  • Angelika

    Just stumbled over this article and I absolutely love it. Avoid to deal with people who don’t pay respect to your energy, time and work. Classy people are kind, calm and balanced.

    • Totally agree! You don’t need to be a bully to be a good leader. Glad you enjoyed the piece and thanks for sharing on your Twitter as well 🙂

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