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Client Loyalty Post #13: Should you fire or mollify difficult clients?

04.14.21 | Susan Duncan

This is the thirteenth in our weekly series of posts that provide excerpts and tips from our book Building Enduring Client Loyalty: A Guide for Lawyers and Their Firms, just published in February.  Click here to save 15%. Enter code ‘AUTHBEC’ at the checkout.

You will not have deep, trusting and successful relationships with all of your clients. When you think of your “ideal” or favorite clients, you may designate them as such in part because the work is challenging, they are in a growth industry, they are acquisitive and innovative and/or they never argue about your fees.  But an important consideration is how well you and your client relate and interact, whether there is chemistry, commonality and mutual respect and likeability.

There are a number of different types of difficult clients that lawyers often encounter:

  • Everything is a crisis.
  • Rude and disrespectful.
  • Demanding and unreasonable.
  • “I’m smarter than you are.”
  • Constantly push back on rates and fees.
  • Defer and procrastinate.

Obviously, many clients may exhibit some aspects of these traits at different times during the relationship or engagement. Some of them will reflect the clients’ own levels of stress and how their managers are placing pressure and expectations on their work product and deliverables.  Over time, you and the firm will have to determine whether you want to continue to work with clients that are consistently difficult, perhaps even abusive.  Some clients clearly will not be a good fit for you or your firm. Many other clients who may be difficult might deserve some attention and effort to see if the relationship and mode of interaction can be improved.

There are a number of steps you and others on your team can take when dealing with difficult clients.

Let clients vent and stay calm. People need to blow off steam. A client’s anger may be directed at you either correctly or really should be directed at someone else.

Put a little distance between heated exchanges If you feel defensive and strike out to dispute a client’s criticism, let things sit for an hour or two or even over night before you respond but do be sure to respond quickly.

Apologize even if you didn’t do anything wrong.  Apologizing doesn’t mean you have to admit to wrong-doing, it simply may be to let the client know that whatever transpired or whatever the transgression, you are sorry that they feel frustrated or let down.

Don’t throw your colleagues under the bus. A client can be wrong and unreasonable. Your first step is to acknowledge a client’s anger and frustration and assure them you will look into it and get back to them.

Reset relationship expectations. If you have not established expectations up front about deadlines, channels of communication, preferences for how work is completed, and deliverables, it is not surprising that clients may be unhappy with how you or tour team is performing. Set aside time once or twice a year to talk to the client about what is working or not working inside the relationship.

Consult with others.  In some instances, you will need to bring a firm leader, practice group leader or the client relationship partner into the situation. Rather than go it alone and risk your own emotional well-being or put the client relationship in jeopardy, it is always good to seek “cover” and help from others.

“Pull the plug.” In some instances, difficult clients are harmful to the lawyer’s health, the firm’s reputation and to the firm’s financial bottom line. If you have done all you can to try to address a client’s unhappiness and anger but the pattern of disrespect and unreasonableness continues, the client likely is not a good fit for your firm and you may choose to end the relationship with the client.

RainMaking Oasis provides consulting and coaching services to law firms and lawyers in the areas of client loyalty and development, business development and growth strategy, collaboration and innovation and succession planning. Please contact Susan Duncan at [email protected].