Following a “how to deal with difficult customers” script is a great way to save yourself the time and energy of treating people like individuals. In fact, by simply researching steps on how to react to challenging clients, you’ll be able to take away the “difficult” label immediately!

…Followed by the “customer” one.

But if you’re looking to form a productive working relationship with customers* who are consistently unsatisfied with your products and services, there are ways to start assembling their frustrating actions into larger behavior patterns.

*Much of this can also be applied to relationships with colleagues, but there is generally a chain of command that makes resolving conflicts a bit easier.

Two primary factors intersect to create four types of “bad” customers:

  • Informed vs. uninformed (How much does the customer know about what you do and the services you provide?)
  • Confrontational vs. nonconfrontational (How willing is the customer to be direct with you?)

Once you categorize these behaviors, you can then:

  • Identify sources of the behavior
  • Implement strategies to prevent conflict
  • Resolve differences
Four Challenging Behavior Types

Uninformed and nonconfrontational: The Victim

Oh, my goodness! Won’t someone help little ol’ me?


  • Passive aggression: “If I had had these proofs weeks ago, maybe we wouldn’t be cutting it so close on the ship date.”
  • Claims ignorance: “You didn’t tell me that.”
  • Makes deferential remarks if she feels cornered: “You’re the expert here.”

Possible underlying reasons for the behavior:

  • She has no idea what she wants and looks to you to solve her problem in a much broader sense than your services offer.
  • She doesn’t know what her superiors want and is too embarrassed/proud to ask.
  • She selected the wrong person/company to solve her problem, and instead of being upfront about the mismatch, she avoids revisiting the original agreement.

Nip it in the bud:

  • Make it clear that you document all interactions. It’s difficult to claim ignorance when there are records. Ask for confirmation of receipt on all important messages.
  • Ask for clear outlines of expectations from day one. This will make her accountable.
  • Be direct. Passive aggressive behaviors are unsuccessful when one partner states the subtext: “I’m hearing that you’re disappointed in the time frame of service delivery. We agreed on the 14th, but you would have preferred the 9th. Is that right?”

End the B.S.:

  • Present documentation of communication. If she says she never received certain information, tell her how and when she did receive it.
  • In a worst case scenario, suggest you’re not the right person for the job. You may lose the client, but the possibility of report back to her superiors that you walked off the job due to a communication breakdown could help cut the nonsense.

Informed and nonconfrontational: The Nitpicker

This easel is far too “woody.” Do you have anything else you can offer me?


  • Delivers backhanded compliments: “This version is good considering what little experience you have.”
  • Constantly nitpicking: “A due date of the 15th meant the project needed to be done BY the 15th, which means I expected it ON the 14th.”
  • Uses vague language: “We need enhance the overall aesthetic quality for a contemporary feel that enhances and revitalizes the brand’s synergy.”

Possible underlying reasons for the behavior:

  • He knows what he wants but feels uncomfortable with being direct.
  • He resents that the task was outsourced rather than given to him.
  • He cannot afford services as quoted but thinks he can nickel and dime you down if he finds minor mistakes.

Nip it in the bud:

  • Ask for his input from the beginning. As someone who has knowledge in the field, he will feel valued and less likely to nitpick if he participates.
  • Have him make approvals on proofs based on several changes, not each individual draft. Ask for overall feedback with each version.
  • Respond positively to any constructive criticism with praise for being direct and specific commentary on how his input was helpful.

End the B.S.:

  • If his constant revisions are taking up time and energy that you could be using on new assignments, offer a small discount if the project can be done by a certain deadline.

Uninformed and confrontational: The Groundskeeper

My payment is due today? That can’t be right! Well, what about your air freshener, huh? How am I supposed to work under these conditions?!


  • He responds to you pointing out inconsistencies by moving the goalposts. For example, if he objects to a price increase and you point out that what he wants is an add-on service, he will redirect the argument to the quality of the work.
  • He becomes defensive when you question his experience in your field.

Possible underlying reasons for the behavior:

  • He doesn’t know what he’s talking about but still wants to be considered on your level.
  • He may be insecure or feel insulted that someone else is doing the project.
  • He used to perform your job, but his insufficient performance caused the task to be outsourced.

Nip it in the bud:

  • When you suspect he’s inventing facts on the spot or even outright lying, ask for a source (with appearance of wanting to learn more rather than as an outright accusation).
  • Present your own sources/facts with your argument. Backing up your information with an authority leaves less wiggle room for argument without questioning that authority.

End the B.S.:

  • State “agenda” for consultation meetings before starting to prevent getting sidetracked onto other topics.
  • Ask a lot of questions. Hold him to the same scrutiny to which he holds you in order to stay on equal footing.

Informed and confrontational: The Power Tripper

Don’t even make me bring out my cactus bat.


  • She tries taking over project, completing tasks you were assigned to do.
  • She dismisses or undermines your ideas in favor of her own.
  • She takes credit for good ideas.

Possible underlying reasons for the behavior:

  • She has done or wants to do what you’ve been hired to do.
  • She is insecure about her own work and wants to ride the coattails of your quality work.
  • She believes the quality of your work reflects on her, and she wants to control her reputation by taking over.

Nip it in the bud:

  • If the assignment is set up as a partnership, specify each person’s role in the tasks.
  • Calm insecurity by complimenting work that is genuinely hers alone. Also, acknowledge when she does point out your success or shares credit appropriately.
  • Pick your battles; if you believe her taking credit will affect your reputation, be direct. If she only seems concerned with impressing you, let it go. You both know who contributed what.

End the B.S.:

  • Ask questions: “What do you want me to do? How can I help?” These questions give her power as well as provide you with more concrete instructions.

Overall Strategies

  • Give concrete expectations, deadlines, and quotes. If you don’t honor your end – turning in something a day or two late, for example – the client will hold onto that as leverage later.
  • Ask questions. Lots of them. And not just for the sake of asking questions to falsely appeared interested or eat away at consult time. Find out not only what tasks you’re completing but also for what purpose and to what audience. If you get stuck on a project, those answers will become an important touchstone.
  • Document EVERYTHING. Try to get everything in writing, and record phone calls (but make sure you check your state laws on required consent).

Until next time, keep expanding your brand!

About the author

Kyrsten Ledger

Kyrsten is a promo expert with a passion for branding . Her vast knowledge of promotional giveaways and marketing has led to several articles and published work for PPB Magazine, a publication from the Promotional Products Association International.