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2 Tips for Handling Difficult Customers

John Butman, author and founder of a content-development consultancy, reveals his secrets for responding to pain-in-the-ass behavior.
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John Butman knows what it's like to deal with divas. 

As the founder and principal of Idea Platforms, a company that develops book proposals for subject experts and thought leaders, he is often in the position of advising would-be authors about how to hone their themes and messages. But when it comes to temperament, not all experts and thought leaders are created equal. Some are a pleasure to work with. Others are what you might generously call pain-in-the-ass customers

In nearly 25 years at the helm of Idea Platforms, Butman has handled his fair share of pain-in-the-rear clients. Here are two of his tips, for two very specific types of pains: 

1. When a client micromanages your every move. Your response should be: "Continue to do your work, unfazed. Wait for your (eventually desperate) client to ask for help when the going gets rough. Let your skill and talent speak for themselves," he recently wrote in a post for Harvard Business Review

2. When a client gives you way too much--or way too little--feedback. Your response should be: "When deluged, negotiate a process in which the client's feedback (no matter the amount) is pre-synthesized and delivered in digestible chunks, so as to be (or at least appear to be) more manageable. In the case of drought, don't make any assumptions. Ask for feedback directly, early, and often."

I recently caught up Butman to learn more about his techniques for handling bad-behaving clients: 

Can you give an example of a situation where you've turned an incredibly difficult client into a pleasure to work with? 

I worked with a client to create a book, from proposal through to publication. Actually, the "client" was five people, partners of a young consulting firm, all of whom were "named" authors of the book. I liked and got along with all five of them--personalities and relationships between me and the client were not the problem. Nor was the problem that there were five of them, where usually there would be just one or two (sometimes three) authors, although that did make things more complicated.

The symptoms of the problem were obvious: everything took longer than necessary, there was lots of rework, and far too much time spent in discussion of issues that did not directly pertain to the project itself.

So how did you resolve this? 

What I came to realize was that the five partners were still working out fundamental problems about the nature of the firm and its business model and these issues were getting contangulated with the book development process. Now, it's to be expected that a client's strengths and difficulties will be exposed and can complicate the process of executing a project. In this case, however, I was being sucked into internal debates that appeared to be related to the book content, but were really about the firm itself. As a result, I felt frustrated, sometimes poorly-used, and certainly was not as efficient or productive as I could have been. I certainly lost time and money on the project. From that engagement, I learned that it is important not to allow yourself to get involved in tangential issues, even if it seems that doing so is a kind of responsiveness to the client's needs. 

Can you provide one or two key steps or tips that help you remain patient and unfazed-- and focused on delivering when a client gets on your nerves? 

Two things help with this. First, do not allow yourself to engage emotionally with an impossible client. Keep all communications factual and focused on specific issues. Avoid the language of judgment and use language of description. Put criticism in the form of suggestions or queries. For example, if I am editing a piece of writing that contains questionable data or grand suppositions, I might be tempted to say, "You are completely full of it." Better to suggest, "Data source needed." Or "Will you be able to support this claim?" Do not let yourself become the client's adversary, because that will make everything worse.

Second, if things become very bad, it may be necessary to directly address the issue with the client. Always do this in a private situation. Do it when there is not a pressing problem with the project itself. And do it in a probing way, rather than an accusatory one. Use your best interviewing skills. Do not make assumptions about why the client is impossible. State only specific issues that you believe affect the work and explain why and how they should change.

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Here are Butman's prescriptions for two other types of bad behaviors. His own book, Breaking Out, explores the process by which certain ideas (and their champions) take hold in society. 

Last updated: Dec 13, 2013




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