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This is a truly massive topic that ranges across pretty much every tricky issue that anyone in business must face on any given working day, and affects staff at every level.

But it’s territory I’ve explored in great depth in some of the training courses I provide, and there are some important areas that are really worth zooming in on. So, here are four tips for how to manage a problem client in ways that will keep them engaged with your business for the long term.

1. Learn how to say “No” politely

For perfectly understandable, commercial reasons, most people are very uncomfortable with saying no to a client or customer. This is particularly true of ‘non-essentialists’: people who struggle with prioritisation.

However, what businesses often don’t realise or appreciate is that by choosing not to say no, they are de facto saying yes. In which case, the list of client requests grows exponentially longer and soon surpasses anyone’s ability to get to grips with it – with junior staff, trainees or interns in particular bearing the brunt.

This is bad for juniors’ development: if they take to heart the notion that they’re there merely to do what they’re told, they will never grow through the process of providing strategic advice based on their expertise.

So, there are several ways of saying no politely – and I must caveat them by stressing that i) they must be pitched sensitively and 100% without aggression (which never works), ii) they must be carefully deployed for the mutual benefit of your own business and the client, and iii) they all depend on your experience, confidence, tone – and the quality of the relationship that you have with the client in question:

  • The consequences of doing what you suggest are X, Y and/or Z, none of which are good. Are you still sure about this?” Give the client time to ponder this.
  • The agency wouldn’t recommend this course of action.” This reminds the client that you are speaking as part of a group of people with specialist knowledge.
  • I wouldn’t recommend this – it goes against all my previous experience.” (For the exclusive use of senior figures with long-established track records.)
  • I really don’t agree, for reasons X, Y and Z. May I discuss this with a colleague and call you back?” This buys time for internal advice and consultation.
  • We have already discussed that possibility and rejected it as inappropriate for the following reasons.” This provides a recap on an earlier discussion that the client has either forgotten or ignored.
  • I understand what you are saying, but I cannot action this in isolation, so I need to discuss it internally and get back to you.
  • We can do this if you’re happy that, as a result of this decision, we won’t achieve X.
  • Split the problem into parts and commit to resolving some, but not all, of them.
  • Say no – but offer a better solution immediately.
  • Say yes – then find a way of saying no later.

2. Educate your client about your business and its values

Within the whole area of what I call ‘Problem-client Troubleshooting’, there’s a rap sheet of behaviours that are simply unacceptable and need to be tackled.

For example, you can have an ignorant client who doesn’t even understand the product or service they’re buying. You can have an overtly prescriptive client who just says, “I want one of those,” and hasn’t considered the full breadth of your offering. You can have an even more stubborn variant with a ‘supplier mindset’: all they want to do is buy your stuff – they don’t actually care about your opinion.

You can have a brazenly manipulative client who will try to put you and your business in a headlock over service or price. This tends to happen in discussions around service-level agreements, and will typically take the form of a current or prospective client deliberately misquoting your stated position or offer. So, you’ll put forward your own, clear language and figures, and they’ll respond with a wilful misrepresentation designed to put you under pressure, drive down costs or – by stealth – add to the scope of the mission.

You can have late approvers, who will skewer your firm to their side until the very last minute, sapping your bandwidth and depriving other clients of your resources.

On top of all those characters, we also have bullies, bigots, sexists and racists.

Again, junior staff are particularly vulnerable to the influence of the above characters, because they’re often too terrified to raise the resulting issues with their bosses. This is particularly true in firms with bad cultures, where juniors live in perpetual fear of being slapped down by their managers.

However, what we want are good cultures – and one of the most constructive ways to establish them is for firms to educate their clients about the ins and outs of their businesses. What is your actual business model? What sort of conditions best support its effectiveness and responsiveness? What are the logistical processes that your firm has to fulfil in order to meet clients’ expectations? What sort of knowledge base exists among your staff? And what should clients take away from that about how to properly harness your offering, so they’ll come away with a result that’s so much better than what they’d first imagined?

As for the bullies, bigots, sexists and racists, they can be screened out through a similar type of educational drive around your company’s values. It is increasingly recognised that firms with shared values are sharing supply chains, too. So being particularly assertive about your firm’s underlying ethics – plus your zero-tolerance list for certain, harmful behaviours – will tell everyone in your network about what sort of conduct you’re unwilling to accept.

3. Make ‘panic-free service recovery’ a company policy

Imagine yourself as an ordinary customer – let’s say you’re dealing with your phone provider, for example. Now, a lot of people assume that if something goes hideously wrong in that relationship, service-wise, then that’s the end of the line: it should be fully expected that you’d want to move on to pastures new.

However, according to consumer behaviour research, that’s not actually the case. Indeed, one study has shown that if a company has handled a mistake particularly well – even if it’s entirely to blame – the affected customer ends up being 14 times more loyal to them than they would have been if nothing had gone wrong at all.

So, if the phone company is honest enough to recognise its mistake – and shows genuine concern in contacting you as quickly as possible with empathetic commiserations and the offer of, say, an extra element to your service free for a year – then suddenly, your service is recovered.

As a result, you will end up being an ambassador for that brand, saying to your friends over dinner: “It’s amazing – there was this total mess, but they were completely brilliant about how they dealt with it.”

In other words, the response is far better than anyone plunged into a cynical mindset had any reason to expect. Replicate that across multiple customer relationships, and hey presto – you have an army of ambassadors who are prepared to vouch for you in their networks.

My term for that technique is ‘panic-free service recovery.’ And the important thing to remember is that it’s not just a method for handling one-off mistakes – but a constructive way to approach any scenario in which your relationship with a customer is under strain. Which makes it particularly effective for managing problem clients.

There’s a lot to be said for any business partnership that’s tested… where you go through a hard time together, but come out on the other side and say, “Wow – we made it,” and your relationship is actually reinforced by the experience, rather than diminished.

So, the message I try to get across to leaders and managers on my training courses is to reassure themselves and have faith in their teams when something next goes wrong. Don’t regard it as a disaster. See it as an excellent opportunity to show how you can service-recover a tricky situation at speed, with charm and good grace. And you will probably have a more loyal client as a result.

4. Don’t be afraid to challenge your client

There’s a wonderful book called The Challenger Sale: How to Take Control of the Customer Conversation, by Brent Adamson and Matthew Dixon.

In its pages, the authors provide an analysis of 6,000 salespeople to pin down the most effective type of sales approach. And given that across the sales world we have a number of different traits and psychologies, they pull out a set of characters such as The Hard Worker, The Relationship Builder, The Reactive Problem Solver, The Lone Wolf, and so on.

But the type that’s more effective than any of the others by a factor of about 10 is The Challenger. So, for example, when a particularly prescriptive client says, “I want one of those,” and seems dead set on that, The Challenger will say, “That’s very interesting – but haven’t you considered one of these, and then two or three of some other things we do, as well? I think that would create a much better outcome than the one you have in mind.”

In other words, The Challenger reframes the client’s request as a new proposition, and then solves the issue for them in a different, innovative way. Challengers are the most effective salespeople anywhere. So having the confidence to challenge is a winning formula.

Voices from our community: Kevin Duncan is a business adviser, motivational speaker and author of The Excellence Book and The Smart Strategy Book.