Small Biz Advice: How to Handle Clients Who Drive You Batty

Holly Howard runs Ask Holly How, a small business consulting company based out of Williamsburg, Brooklyn that works with a wide variety of businesses from restaurants to retail to art studios and pretty much everything in between. Her clients report increased income and profit, decreased expenses and a significantly better quality of life. Holly also heads up the Small Business Book Club at McNally Jackson Books and teaches business classes at The Yard in Williamsburg.

Got a question for Holly about running your small business? Email her and she’ll address it in her next column: hhoward@askhollyhow.com

Dear Holly,

I’m a music producer, and I am having trouble with two clients. One used to be much more successful than they are now, and I find that they are quick to see a snub where none is intended and put me down to put themselves up. The other client is a living anxiety field, constantly interrupting our work flow with accusatory comments like “What are you doing? What the hell is that?” They are both really dragging me down. Help!

–Downbeat

Dear Downbeat,

Great question! This is a situation that a lot of independent contractors have experienced.

First, don’t take it personally. People generally tend to attack others and put others down to make themselves feel better. It sounds like in both casesm you are dealing with some projected disappointment from your clients. Most likely, they’re feeling let down by themselves, not you.

Second, take full responsibility for the situation. Now, I’m not saying that you deserve to be talked to in this manner, but the only way you can change this is to take responsibility for your reaction. Otherwise, you’re operating on their level.

I would stop the session and say something like, “I want to make sure that you and I are on the same page. My impression is that you’re not happy with the work we’re doing together. Do you want to talk about this?” Alternately you could say, “Your comments feel disrespectful to me. Is that your intention? I’m happy to talk if you’re not feeling invested in our work together.”

Be the leader here and create a space for open and honest communication. I know how challenging it can be to not be reactive in a situation where you perceive that you’re being attacked. Unless we’re really grounded, our lack of self control can get the better of us. I also know what it’s like to fear confrontation. We tend to concoct outrageous scenarios in our head about what will happen if we confront behavior like this. But, my experience shows that what we think will happen and what actually happens are two totally different scenarios. So, be courageous and take charge of the situation.

Communication is all about the delivery. Be clear, compassionate and direct. Stick to the facts of the situation. As the leader, it’s your responsibility to create an environment of open and honest feedback. It’s important to nip this in the bud now, rather than letting the project progress and being disappointed with a possibly poor outcome in the end. It’s not worth risking your reputation.

Finally, if you create the space for open and honest communication and your client still continues to behave disrespectfully, I say this to you: “Fire your client!”

–Holly