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How I Keep My Sanity, Or 7 Ways I Manage Problem Clients

Snippy and antagonistic emails that feel like you were just bitch-slapped.

A staff that is so disorganized a simple process turns into a convoluted mess.

Requests that are just so nuts you start wondering about the mental stability of your client.

If you haven’t run into any of the above scenarios yet – just wait. They’re coming!

The worst part about problem clients is that they have no clue they’re assholes. They might think they’re self-aware, but they truly have no idea how they’re coming off and affecting your mental and emotional well-being.

Over the years, I’ve cobbled together a strategy to help manage problem clients. So far, it’s kept me out of the loony bin, and that’s a positive sign, right? Here’s what I do – and don’t do:

I do manage expectations

I’ve learned the very hard way that managing expectations is THE key to managing clients, period – problem or not. From the get-go, be very clear about what you can and cannot do, and will and won’t do. Make sure this stuff is in writing in your proposal, so once that proposal is accepted, you can refer clients back to it and say, “This is what we agreed on.”

I don’t respond immediately to bitchy emails

There’s a joke in my family: Don’t mess with a Pattantyus (that’s my maiden name), because it won’t be pretty for you. I still have this mentality. Ask anyone who knows me, and they’ll tell you that I am definitely not a doormat.

I think you can guess what I’m going to say next, and you’re right. When I get a bitchy email, my first response is to throw shade back at ‘em. Instead, I just sit on the email and respond once my emotions have cooled.

I do write a thorough response

When I’m ready to respond, I take the high road. I write a thorough response that spells out options. I provide guidance as to what to do next. I refer to previously sent emails that already included this same information, if applicable. And I do it all VERY nicely.

I am not shy about setting very firm boundaries

I have zero problem saying, “No.” It’s probably one of the most under-appreciated and under-used words in an adult’s vocabulary, but it’s one of my favorites. Boundaries are boundaries, people. You can’t just cross them if you want to!

My favorite and most important boundary is firmly planted around emails and phone calls. I do not check my email after hours, on the weekends, or during vacation – and I definitely don’t answer work calls. And so far, the world hasn’t imploded.

I do listen

Sometimes, problem clients just need to be heard, so I’ll jump on a call and listen to them. I won’t say a thing. I’ll just let them talk.

When they’re done, I’ll acknowledge what they just said. I’ll empathize. And then I’ll offer solutions to get a project back on track.

I don’t assume anything – anymore

This recently got me in trouble, because I assumed a client knew way more than they actually did. Instead of a clear-cut project getting off to a quick start, it took three weeks and a lot of hand holding. In effect, I created my own problem client.

The fix is easy: During all initial project calls with clients moving forward, you had better believe I’ll be asking super detailed questions.

I do provide updates

One of the best ways to manage problem clients is with semi-frequent updates on project status. This often prevents snippy emails, and it can help tightly-wound clients relax a bit – they’ll see that you have things covered.


So, I’m dying to know – how do you manage problem clients?


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