Anne 馃悵 Thornley-Brown, MBA

3 years ago 路 3 min. reading time 路 visibility 0 路

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Clients From Hell: How to Avoid Them & How to set Boundaries if you Don't

Clients From Hell: How to Avoid Them & How to set Boundaries if you Don't

Clients from hell....we've all had them.聽 Just like sexual harassment and problem bosses, we're all much too terrified to talk about it.聽

"My career will be over."聽

"I'll get ostracized and shunned."

"I'll look unprofessional."聽

聽"I'll never attract new clients."聽

So, we're all silent and the abuse and bullying continue day after day, year after year, and decade after decade.聽

Today's the day. Yes, I'm terrified it will hurt my business but just like the members of the U.S. Gymnastic team who finally spoke up about abuse, somebody's got to make the first move.

It's an important issue for CEOs. If abrasive control freaks are tasked with sourcing suppliers, their approach will do irreparable damage to your brand. The supplier of today may be the prospective client of tomorrow.

For suppliers, it's a no-win scenario. You'll never please them and they'll bad mouth you.

Scenario:聽We designed and facilitated part of an executive retreat for a new client.

Red Flag 1: During the planning of the retreat, the CEO never made himself available so all planning was through more junior聽members of his team. We never spoke to him even once. We didn't have his input when designing the content.

We asked for 1 1/2 days for the simulation. We were asked to do it in a shorter timeframe. I indicated the timeframe was too short to cover the content in depth.聽

Red Flag 2: The feedback was that I was being difficult. He gave us half a day plus an activity.

We even suggested another consulting firm that specialized in shorter programs. They presented to the members of his team who were our contacts but he wanted our programme.

Red Flag 3: He provided no feedback about the content.聽 Our request for him to go through the detailed agenda and sign-off to request changed or indicate he was in agreement was denied.

Red Flag 4: Yet, he micro-managed when it came to the social aspects. Location scouting for our supplier to do a desert dinner was cancelled at the last minute.聽

Red Flag 5:聽The week before the retreat, he changed his mind and ended up booking it with another supplier.

Red Flag 6: My time on the first day was chopped from half a day to 2 hours as the agenda was jampacked. (A consultant from another organization cut his losses and pulled out when his time was also cut a 2nd time from what he had requested.)

Red Flag 7: The agenda was behind schedule as the CEO had prattled on and on. Those who went ahead of us also went overtime.聽

There was a knock on my door. He sent someone to tell me that he wanted me to sit through the comedic MC's performance.聽 I was promised that there would be no break. There was a break. I ended up with just over an hour and I had to chop the content drastically. The group was going to be picked up for dinner so I could not run over. He kept sending a member of his team to remind me to聽cover what would happen during the desert activities. I asked the group to cover an exercise enroute to the desert since there was no time to do it.

Apparently, he micro-managed the arrangements for dinner. He determined where everyone would sit. There were few women in the group. Naturally, the prettiest women were seated beside him. (One of them complained that he kept grabbing her thigh under the table throughout the meal.)

The next morning, I received a phone call at 7 AM. I was summoned to an emergency breakfast. No, it wasn't with him but I was informed that he was not happy with the content. (It was not covered in enough depth.) So, the exercise the group was to do on the way to the desert to make up for the short time the day before was cancelled. So was the debriefing. He had decided he did not want the desert dinner after all so, even though everything was set up for 60 executives and some spouses, it was cancelled. (When he woke up he decided he would rather have Italian food.)

We headed to the desert for the activities. Everything went smoothly. Our local supplier returned the group to the hotel instead of rendez-vousing with the other supplier for the desert dinner.

For the first time in the history of my business, I was never introduced to the CEO. I THINK I know who he is. How bizarre is that? It reminded me of this scene.聽

There is a reason that people develop obnoxious personalities. Perhaps they have psychiatric problems and require therapy, medication, or both. Maybe there is a drug or alcohol problem.聽

Some people become overly controlling as a way of coping with an abusive upbringing. Perhaps they are in a personal desperate situation to the point of being suicidal.聽

Whatever the cause, they may need help and a referral to your EAP programme or an outside counselling agency. The worst thing you can do as an executive is let them burn your relationships with suppliers, create a toxic work environment, and damage your brand. The worst thing we can do as suppliers and consultants is continue to enable their abusive behaviour by remaining silent.

Part 2 will focus on identifying red flags and strategies for setting boundaries if you end up working with a client from hell.

Anne Thornley-Brown, MBA, is the President of Executive Oasis International. She designs and facilitates leadership development initiatives, team building, executive retreats, and meetings.

For Discussion:

  • How do you spot clients from hell so that you can run the other way?
  • What are some red flags?
  • 聽How do you set boundaries if you didn't avoid them?聽
  • 聽Why do we tolerate clients from hell and keep their abuse a secret?

Join in the discussion here and on LinkedIn where I tell the tale of another client from hell.

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I love your rules Jerry.

Jerry Fletcher

3 years ago #7

Anne, I've found over the years that If I can't meet with the senior person in the organization I should walk away is rule number one. Rule two is to step lively if that CEO/President/Whatever is indecisive. If i go past that (and I have) rule three is to bail as quickly as possible.
The problem with not getting is involved is some of them show up and complain and sabotage because what was designed did not meet their unspoken expectations.
Excellent questions. He has since stepped down. I tell a tale of another character here. This one was even worse but I dodged a bullet and didn't end up working with him. It would have been a nightmare:

Harvey Lloyd

3 years ago #4

We struggle with several "gatekeepers" who seem to change the rules as they go. They are large entities and feel as though working for them is a privilege. We should be honored. But if i could jump on the flip side of your perspective. Yes bad clients are rough to work with, but bad clients generally are the ones that need you the ,most. The real trick is to get them to see that. I dont disagree with the cut and run perspective, especially if there many other clients that are too be explored. But if you want to play in the field that this customer dominates then you will need inside information. This information will come at the expense of your expectations. We used to calculate the cost of a new customer, it was usually pretty high and the ability to get in the door was the largest cost. Get me on the inside for a while and it will be the cheapest marketing dollars you ever spent. You may wish to only stay ;long enough to gather intel for a future call on the firm. Especially if you can gather any detail whereby you could use to better propose something in the future. This is what we did a few years back when i was playing the game. I am glad i am not at that level anymore. But it was fun. The best position we ever had was working with a losing proposition when we didn't need the money. It gave us the edge.
How to spot a liar? How to spot a toxic client? How to spot and avoid a bad manager? All questions are related to humans. The problem is that these people cover the smell of their sweat with expensive perfumes. They have two contradicting smells at the same time. Thank you Anne \ud83d\udc1d Thornley-Brown, MBA for initiating such an important topic.
Since I was never introduced to him and I only THINK I know who he is, it is hard for me to assess. The agenda was jampacked. It was under his control. We only had a portion of it and, except for the late start of our portion, it went smoothly.
Anne \ud83d\udc1d Thornley-Brown, MBA, what a nightmare. The CEO seemed extremely unorganized with no structured agenda. If he set up a schedule, he shouldn't have bothered. I feel he must have personal problems. I look forward to Part 2.

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