How to Manage Difficult Clients

7:30 a.m.

You are the owner and president of a small land surveying business and you’re walking to your office from the parking lot. You are surprised to see one of your largest customers, John Bradbury, standing in front of your office door. His arms are crossed, he has a rolled up paper clutched in his right hand, and he’s wearing a scowl on his face.

“Good morning, Mr. Bradbury,” you say.

“Good morning yourself!” he spits back. You’re thinking: Now what?

But you reply with a small smile and say, “Let’s go in my office and talk about it, shall we?”

Every business has to deal with difficult customers; land surveying is certainly not immune from this fact. Indeed, the art and science of surveying is often hard for the layperson to understand. Although we often wish difficult clients would become ex-clients, financially it’s healthier to turn them into better (or at least less-difficult) clients through improved communication.

Think of the last time you dealt with a difficult individual. What were some of the reasons behind the conflict? In almost all uncomfortable situations we need to manage, at the root of the problem is usually a breakdown of communication. To best manage difficult people, we need to improve our communication skills and use a process that will help us diffuse, mitigate, and hopefully minimize the number of unwanted interactions. Examples of the following tips appear in the rest of the narrative at the end of this article; just connect the letters.

Listen Actively

When we are engaged in a difficult conversation, we combine listening with all other senses to comprehend what is happening. Listen to the words being expressed and try to grasp both content and meaning from the other person’s perspective.

While this may sound simple, you will find that internal and external distractions get in the way. The competing thoughts that develop inside you while the other person is talking are internal distractions. External distractions are things that happen in the environment that compete with your attention, such as sights or sounds. Once you remove these distractions, either physically or by shutting them out mentally, you will be able to focus more easily on the other person and provide the most appropriate response. [A]A

Use Language Effectively

We also must understand how we use language to help or to hurt. When we listen to other people speak, we decode their words (assign meaning) to translate them into our own thoughts. Because language is an imperfect means of transmission, the thoughts expressed by one person never exactly match the thoughts decoded by another person.

The language you choose to use provides information on how you see yourself, how you see others, and what relationship exists between you and others. You use specific language during an interview, particular jargon among colleagues, and relaxed conversation around friends.
The book Human Communication, by Pearson, Nelson, Titsworth, and Harter provides the following approach to improving verbal skills:

Avoid intentional confusion: People’s verbal patterns have become increasingly confusing over the years. Using clichés (no pain, no gain), industry jargon (Improvement Survey Plat) and slang (ya know what I’m talking about?) distorts the true meaning of the message. Eliminate these as much as possible from your language when you are dealing with a customer.

Use descriptions: Describe what you observe instead of offering personal reactions and opinions. You can do this by defining terms that you and the other person are using to be sure you’re talking about the same thing [B] and then paraphrasing (restating what the other person said in your own words). [C]C

Be concrete: Use statements that are specific rather than abstract. [D]D

Differentiate between observations and inferences [E]: Observations are descriptions of what you are sensing, and inferences are conclusions you draw from observations. For example, during the day you make observations of where objects are in your yard. At night when it is dark, you cannot see but you infer that the objects are still in the same place, and that prevents you from walking into them.

Monitor Body Language

Body language is a critical element to the credibility of your message. Based on one prominent theory, 93% of what people pay attention to in communication is visual.

Tips to improving your body language include:
  • have good posture,
  • look the other person directly in the eye, and 
  • project positive facial expressions and hand gestures.  
You should also use space appropriately. According to anthropologist Ed Hall, standing 18 inches or closer is normally reserved for intimacy only, whereas standing from 18 inches to 4 feet from someone works for casual conversations, and 4 to 12 feet is for more formal conversation such as workplace meetings.  The bottom line is: Do not get too close to people because it makes them uncomfortable.

Non-verbal communication also includes the sounds and non-word characteristics of language. How you use your voice will either help or hinder your progress as an effective communicator. Vocal cues that you should be aware of include:
  • Pitch (high or low)
  • Rate (slow down, but not too slow)
  • Inflection (variety or changes in pitch)
  • Volume 
  • Quality (avoid a unique resonance such as husky, nasal, whiny)
  • Pronunciation (say a word correctly); articulation (make it understandable); enunciation (speak clearly) 
  • Silence
Make sure that you use your voice and these vocal cues appropriately for any challenging situation you are managing.

Reach an Effective Outcome

How do individuals discuss their interests and reach an agreement? The secret is understanding as much as possible about the other party’s perspective. In order to do this, follow this four-step process.

  1. Establish a supportive climate. Climate refers to the tone of your conversation. It can be cool, honest, overpowering, etc. A defensive climate is when each party is critical, acts superior, and tries to control one another. A supportive climate is when both parties attempt to enter each other’s world.
  2. Explore interests. Each party is striving for clarity. If one party appears to be open and trustworthy and the other is not, point that out. You need to do this if both parties are to be as direct and clear as possible about their needs. 
  3. Brainstorm options. Once you have identified the conflicting interests, the discussion enters a problem-solving mode. Creative thinking comes first; judging comes second. Both parties should come up with all possible options and scenarios. The trick is to find an alternative so both parties’ interests can be satisfied in the final agreement. 
  4. Wrap up. When all options are presented, both parties evaluate each one until the best choice becomes clear that can satisfy both needs. [F]

Understand the Other Person

One of Stephen Covey’s principles in Seven Habits of Highly Effective People is “Seek first to understand, then be understood.” Even with deeply conflicting issues, if we can look at the other person’s intent, we can sometimes move past the conflict.

Bringing the conflict into perspective is the first step; yet if we do not have a way to communicate our perspective without upsetting the other person then we will be unable to resolve the situation.

So, next time you are dealing with a difficult person—perhaps a client or a neighbor out in the field—go to their world first. Think about why they possibly could be angry or why they will not provide access to their property. If you determine their reasons, you can quickly communicate in a way that will focus on their concerns, build rapport, and ultimately help you achieve your goals.
Lori E. Miller is president of Developing Professionals, a company based in New York that provides training, coaching, and consulting in leadership and professional development.

Jeff Salmon
has worked as a survey instrument operator, land-survey business manager, and a land-use consultant as well as a customer working with land surveyors in land development and building projects. He is also is editor of our enewsletter Pangaea.

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