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The Myth of a difficult client

Graphik and copyright by: Sandra Schulze,

In informal gatherings with business people, the term "difficult clients" often comes up. But what does "difficult" really mean? Is it a term used to describe those who strive to achieve better results and work together to solve problems, or is it an indication of a troubled relationship between parties that leads to misunderstandings and superficial work? Both these scenarios are symptoms of different expectations between clients and suppliers.

Questions like "What does he want now? He doesn't understand anything! Why is he getting angry again? Do they think they own me? I'm not their emotional doormat!" are common among people who work with clients. Depending on their perspective, be it the client or the supplier, they always seem to face the same modus operandi: there's never enough time, the price is too high, the other party doesn't understand, and, of course, it's always the other party's fault if the defined goals aren't achieved.

All questions, statements, and thoughts have something in common. They reinforce the idea of a "difficult client" by picturing one person in front of them, a personal conversation, and a hidden desire to learn to cope better. If you're looking for a five-step guide on how to deal with clients more efficiently, this article may not be for you. Our thesis is that it's not just about solving the surface-level issues; it's necessary to delve deeper into the matter. The statements we hear and experience come from one system, the interdependence between the client and supplier. The client and supplier are a part of other systems, which are often overlooked.

Let's take a look at two practical examples. An international company wants to promote a new sales application in a particular market. They plan to increase the number of downloads through a social media campaign. However, the application is not adapted to that market's language or product range. The products it promotes are not available in the country, and the contracting agency's communication consultant warns that the campaign's success will affect user satisfaction with the company. The company's marketing manager ignores the warning because of his personal goals, assigned by the company, related to the number of downloads.

Looking at the situation objectively, it should not matter to the consultant what happens next, as long as the campaign is successful. However, the long-term consequences are worrisome. When users become dissatisfied, the number of critical inquiries reflects negatively on the company. The consultant believes that the manager is unaware of this, but ignores the fact that the manager is only doing what is necessary to achieve personal goals, which ultimately affects his salary. As a result, the path to "joint value creation" is blocked, frustration increases, and trust decreases, causing the relationship to become strained and difficult.

For instance, consider a cosmetics company launching a new product promotion campaign. The sales manager visits hairdressing salons to distribute promotional material and encourages salon staff to promote the product to their clients. The hair salon owner agrees to the request and orders specific quantities of the product. However, without any prior notice, the goods do not arrive, and the owner is forced to apologize to her clients. Upset, she calls the sales manager, who instead of explaining or apologizing, lashes out at the owner, irritated by similar conversations with other hair salons. This behavior leads to a complicated and tense relationship between the manager and the salon owner, which continues to exist due to the nature of their work and signed contracts.

People are not the problem; the system is.

It can be assumed that the cooperation was established with the intention of creating joint value. However, it is important to note that this intention alone is not enough.

William Edwards Deming, an American engineer, economist, and the founder of Japan's industrial power, discovered that at the organizational level, only 6% of errors are caused by humans, while 94% result from inappropriate organizational systems. According to him, companies have the right people, but the wrong practices, processes, and systems guide them. Therefore, the reason for conflicts is often a manifestation of a system error, rather than the faults of individuals involved. Instead of blaming people, it is important to take a deeper look at the processes that lead to their behavior. By doing so, we can avoid serious consequences that do not contribute to the organization's success. Blaming individuals makes it easier for us, as it helps us find a culprit, but it also means we no longer question the system and deal with difficult questions like whether we are doing the right thing and whether our processes are designed to survive in today's market. If we become aware of this, we can dedicate ourselves to understanding that we operate in a complex domain of interpersonal relations and the market. This understanding opens up space for different perspectives on building and maintaining relationships.

Many smart companies adapt their practices, processes, and structures based on symptoms they observe. However, some companies still persist in using outdated methods and offer their customers or suppliers "explanations" as to why change is not an option. They also try to assure their employees that avoiding conflicts is possible with a shift in mindset and behavior, leaving them in a very awkward position that can lead to conflicts.

To understand how two paradigms are hidden in the last sentence, it is important to shed light on the concept of communication and the idea of conflicts as a negative state.

Paradigm 1: Ultimate Truth

Communication is an essential aspect of our daily lives, yet we often fail to communicate effectively with others. This is because we often rely on an outdated communication model that assumes a sender and a receiver of information.

In this model, information is viewed as something that is sent from one person to another, like a package. People are compared to transmitters and receivers that either work or malfunction. This model assumes that there is only one truth, which is not always the case.

This communication model is based on linear and mechanical thinking, which is present in many areas of Western culture. It is how people, interpersonal relationships, and organizations are viewed. However, information is not a "thing" but the result of a joint process of constructing our reality. This process involves three operational activities: perceiving, communicating, and understanding. These activities occur simultaneously and not linearly, as previously assumed. Everyone involved in the process is circularly connected, and there is no receiver or sender of information. Terms such as "truth," "reality," or "objectivity" are not relevant because the process of communication is determined by the mental maps and systems we act in. They govern our behavior, and the behavior of each person involved has an impact on other people involved. Therefore, there is no "right" or "wrong" understanding – everyone understands what they understand.

Despite this, some organizations still try to change their employees' behavior through communication training. They assume that the problem lies with the employees and that if they learn what the "ultimate truth" is and convey it to clients, there will be fewer unsatisfied or difficult clients. However, research by Deming has shown that blaming individuals, clients, or companies for communication problems is not an effective solution. This approach only leads to compensating for organizational deficiencies.

Paradigm 2: Avoid conflict

When we hear the term conflict, we often associate it with negative things such as disputes, misunderstandings, disagreements, damaged relationships, verbal arguments, ignoring, or even bullying. Many people try to avoid conflicts rather than deal with them, but this is unfortunate because not every conflict is destructive.

Conflicts can actually be an opportunity for explanation, clarification, ideation, and development.However, when it comes to dealing with "difficult clients," many tactics and solutions are offered that focus on steps to calm down emotions and avoid or resolve conflicts. Egoism, envy, personality, stubbornness, and other human characteristics are often used as explanations for why conflicts arise. In many cases, winning the conflict becomes the only goal, and the idea that it is something that can be worked on together is lost.

By thinking of conflict as "something between people," we limit ourselves and miss opportunities for clarification and improved understanding. It is important to recognize that conflicts can be a positive force for growth and development, and it is possible to find mutually beneficial solutions.

Conflict is not the end of thinking but the beginning!

In her book "Success is a Team Sport," Stephanie Borgert suggests distinguishing between factual, personal, structural, and time conflicts to better understand their dynamics and find the root cause of the problem.

Factual conflicts are short, flare up and immediately calm down. They can be problematic if suppressed and left unspoken. Personal conflicts are more challenging and often lead to intense discussions over small issues, such as insults or individual dislike. There are countless opportunities for hurt, belittling, neglect and rejection when working with others, and these conflicts occur more often than we would like. Structural conflicts arise in the context of cooperation between clients and suppliers, where specific ways of organizing cooperation inevitably lead to conflicts. For example, the division of work at the functional level, different departments, and internally conflicting goals. The problem arises when conflicts that arise from the structure are mistaken for disagreements in relationships, which can prevent "renewal and development". When current behavior is explained through the past, it is a time conflict, and the past is often used to clarify the issue of guilt. This is rarely purposeful, but depending on the level of escalation of the conflict, one or more participants may find it essential.

If we believe that conflict needs resolution, then the decision must be made here and now, as it has an impact on the future. Conflicts have the power to disrupt the social order and highlight the need to make decisions. The decision is to choose between "preserving the old" and "renewal and change." This is the dynamic that every social system faces, and this tension is necessary, so we should practice dealing with it appropriately. It is the only way to achieve progress in cooperation and joint "creation of added value," which is the initial reason why the marketing manager, communication consultant, hair salon owner, and sales manager started the cooperation.

In their case, releasing tension may seem like a good solution when they "want to reach a consensus on the issues mentioned above," but the agreement thus reached with the client is more than fragile, and it is a question of when it will escalate again. That is why it is helpful to regulate the conflict, if necessary, to heat it or cool it down. Where there is communication and cooperation, conflict is always present and worth its weight in gold. Sometimes it is necessary to reconcile differences, but differences lead us to development. As Johann Wolfgang von Goethe said:

"The same leaves us alone, but contradiction is what makes us productive."

If you want to learn how to deal with conflicts, failure, and feedback, you can discover it in the "Culture Triple" program designed by Stephanie Borgert and metafinanz GmbH. It has been available on the qohubs platform since spring 2023.

Contact us to schedule an Experience Session now.

*A modified version of the article was writen by Dijana Vetturelli and Viktor Vetturelli and published in the leading business magazine in Southeast Europe Lider in November 2023.


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