Disarming Tough Clients

February 3, 2012

How to Recognize and Deal with Three Demanding Client Archetypes


Ira Friedman is the CEO of Bay Audio, a manufacturer of custom speaker solutions. He holds an MBA from the Harvard Business School.

It’s a common complaint from integrators. You are being pressured to deliver projects at breakneck speed and often at a discount. Prospective clients hold out the promise of a nice project, but only if it can be installed within a short window of time and within a tight budget.

Wealthy clients have become demanding because they can. Knowing that they are the only one in the room with cash confers giddiness and, too often, a “petulant child” mentality. This “take it or leave it” approach to relationships is self-destructive to be sure. Yet, the sheer joy of pushing around service providers appears to trump kindliness.

Here are three demanding client archetypes that I’ve observed, and how you can better work with or without them.

1 The Playgrounder

Surprisingly, many wealthy clients fall back into grade school mentality by claiming, “It’s my ball; I’m going home if you don’t play by my rules.” You know you’re dealing with the Playgrounder when they present an”all-or-nothing” condition, sounding like this: “I need this AV system installed in a month. If you can’t do it, I’ll find someone else.”

The problem with placating a Playgrounder is obvious. Once they establish this relationship with you, every interaction will be take-it-or-leave-it.

The only way to handle a Playgrounder is to understand their motivation. When presented with their demand for a one-month turnaround, respond by saying, “Projects like this, when done properly, typically take two months to complete. Why the rush?” The Playgrounder will present some poor excuse, like, “We’re moving in within a month, and I want the system completed. I don’t want workers in my house after I move in.”


Some clients are simply bullies. They want what they want.

Now that you know it is, you can address the real issue. A reasonable response is, “We’ll set the schedules to complete the project within one month, as you requested. However, it’s hard to foresee every contingency, so let’s develop a plan now for how we can work in the home after you’ve moved in. We can be flexible.”

2 The Controller

Many wealthy clients equate control with cost savings. They believe the world is out to rip them off, and by putting a tight reign on their contractors, they can control costs.

Controllers are suspicious of service providers, especially in a tough economy. You’ll know you’re working with a Controller when they say: “This project has to be completed in a month, without any cost over-runs. I demand a formal estimate, and refuse to pay more than the signed-for amount.”

Accepting this job is tricky. You’re predisposed to estimate high, with plenty of wiggle room. Yet, chances are that the Controller will gather multiple estimates, using the lowest price as a negotiating tool.

Address the Controller’s fear of price-gouging and cost over-runs with a modified T&M proposal with materials passed through at cost plus 17 percent, and labor billed at a reasonable hourly rate. Modified T&M proposals shift control back to the client, allowing them cost transparency. They also protect your bottom line by guaranteeing a modest profit on all materials (even TVs) and recoverable costs on all labor.

3 The Bully

Some clients are simply bullies. They want what they want. Bullies are easy to spot, because they reference themselves constantly. Bullies sound like this: “This is what I want: a system completed in one month. If you don’t have my system completed in one month, I’m docking you 10 percent of the project.”

The only way to handle a bully is to be stronger. A reasonable response to their demand might be, “I can do this job in one month if I get the following: complete access to the job site, no interference from anyone–including your other contractors–and clear direction from you and your spouse. I need all of the material paid for up front. I also need you to sign off on the plans, agreeing to all placement, aesthetic, and performance criteria before we get started.”

Bullies respect strength, not acquiescence. Pushing back with your own set of demands is appropriate, so stand your ground.

>Handling Demanding Clients

• Meet every Playgrounder’s demand with a question, and a rational response.
• Give the Controller control, but do it in a way that protects your design integrity and profit margin..
• Push back a Bully with your own set of demands.

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