First-Class Coach: dealing with disruptive clients

Is it time to revise the idea that the customer is always right?

by Miranda Kennett
Last Updated: 03 Oct 2011

Q: In my company we say that the customer is always right and on the whole I agree. The trouble is, I have an exceptionally unpleasant client who throws his weight around in meetings in a way I wouldn't accept outside work. I'm tempted to give him a piece of my mind but don't want to get into trouble for doing so.

A: It's high time that this maxim about the customer's absolute supremacy in terms of being right was revisited. True, most service companies include a statement about their customer-orientation in their charter, values or mission statement and customer focus is self-evidently a vital element in business success. However, the wording of this platitude smacks of a type of ingratiating servility which is years (or even centuries) out of date.

Bad behaviour is bad behaviour, whoever is perpetrating it, and needs to be dealt with appropriately. If this were a customer you met once for five minutes who behaved in an unpleasant manner, you might well decide to let it pass, but this is a person you see regularly, with whom you are meant to be developing a positive relationship, so you can't ignore it.

So what are your options? You could ask to be relieved of that customer, though your boss might see this as weakness. You could quit the company, but that would be to leave the problem to someone else in a rather cowardly way. My suggestion is that you try and tackle the issue.

The first step is to check that this customer behaves like this with other people, not just you. If so, then you have made progress in realising that the cause of the behaviour is his 'stuff' psychologically and not caused by you. Maybe he's had a bad experience with other suppliers; perhaps he's under pressure at work; or maybe things aren't going well at home. Whatever the pre-existing reason, you can be pretty sure it's not directly related to you.

It's ironic that clients who treat their suppliers and agents badly usually end up with worse service than those who are pleasant. Resentful employees find ways of exacting revenge (let's not even think about what disgruntled waiters do behind the kitchen door) and the best and brightest refuse to work on their business. So, if you can generate a change in his behaviour, you will be doing him a favour, too.

Although the last thing you may feel like doing is socialising with him, one approach that might help is to spend some time with him away from his home territory - at a restaurant, for example - where you can get to know each other better. Find out what he enjoys. Sport? Travel? His kids? Showing some interest in him may encourage him to drop his belligerent work persona and make it more difficult for him to revert to it.

If his is a power-based reaction there are several ways you can reduce the threat you apparently pose. Try sitting next to him or at right angles to him, rather than directly across the table, the most confrontational of positions. You could also try the NLP trick of mirroring his body movements and, once having achieved physical rapport, moving to a more open and less threatening position. But this technique risks further alienating him if he spots you doing it.

Alternatively, you could address the issue directly, by asking for a few minutes with him to discuss things. You could say you are concerned with the way things are going; that you have amicable relationships with other clients so would like to understand what's not working for him. Then listen carefully to what he says. He may deny there's a problem, in which case you can cite a specific example, sticking to facts rather than making judgements or assumptions. He may defend himself and his role. Just maybe he will bring up some aspect of the way you and your colleagues behave that he finds irritating. Ideally, whether he apologises or not, you will have gathered enough clues about what triggers his unpleasantness to avoid it in future. Importantly, you will have sowed some seeds in his mind about the repercussions of his behaviour, which will help him decide whether to modify it in future.

Your client sounds like a bully; bullies are often oblivious to the impact of their behaviour on others, because people around them are afraid to give them feedback for fear of reprisals. This can get in the way of their career progression, so your friendly intervention could have benefits for both you and your client.

- Miranda Kennett is an independent coach. If you have a problem you'd like her to tackle, email: miranda@firstclasscoach.co.uk.

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