11 clever tricks for dealing with difficult event clients and customers

Dealing With Difficult Clients and CustomersIf you have worked in any service-based business, you have encountered difficult customers, and event planners, event venues, caterers, florists and other event professionals certainly have their fair share of them.

When it comes to difficult event clients, there are several types:

  • The Know-It-Alls – They could do your job as well as or better than you could if only they had the time.
  • The Never-Happys – It’s almost like they were born with a special gene that makes them sour and whiny about everything they encounter.
  • The Polite-and-Pickies – They will be exceedingly nice and then politely nag and badger you so much that you wonder how they don’t have permanent strangle marks around their neck from all the people they annoy.
  • The Last-Minute-Changers – Everything is great right up to (and even past) the deadline, when they decide to make dramatic changes, causing a panicky fire drill for you and your team.
  • The Type-AAAAAs – They must be appraised of everything, looped in on everything, monitoring everything, at all times, in all circumstances. Like having a helicopter mom as a client. (Why five A’s? Because four just didn’t seem enough).
  • The Price-Is-Always-Negotiables – Some people think that services are vapor and that, unlike a physical product that has fixed costs, there are no true fixed costs in providing a service and hence lots of room to negotiate (basically, they have difficulty seeing value in your time). A less severe but just as annoying variant is the person who assumes that the first price you throw out is always the highest and is always negotiable; they are difficult to deal with, but great to have along when you are car shopping.
  • The Fighters – Some people are uber-uber-competitive and believe that everything in life is a fight, an argument or an obstacle to be overcome. You’d think most Fighters would be men, but actually it’s about a 50/50 M/F split.

Sure there are other variants of these, and all of us probably have tendencies towards one or a few of these unfortunate traits. However, some of us have them in spades, which can potentially cause problems when it comes to how event professionals can best serve these high-maintenance customers.

So here are a 11 simple but powerful strategies you can use when dealing with difficult event clients like the ones above.

1. Walk away early
Often it’s not hard to get a read on a prospect and quickly assess if they are going to be difficult to work with (with the exception of the Polite-and-Pickys, who will be very nice to you at first and then start their wheedling later).

In your first conversations with a prospect, if you can already tell they are going to be a nightmare to deal with, cut the cord now before they become a client. It’s so much easier to say “We don’t have the bandwidth (or resources) at this time to work with you” or “We’re all booked up” now than to fire them later and deal with refunds and he-said-she-saids when things are more complicated.

Oh, and do your competitors a favor and don’t refer these customers to them. It’s better for karma to take over at this point and let the universe decide who gets to work with them. Things always seem to even out.

2. Listen actively
Some high-maintenance customers often know they are high-maintenance and will tell you what they want and expect … good for them and for you. Others may be more cryptic or have no self-awareness how much aggravation they can cause.

So from the outset and in your first meetings, ask lots of questions and then let them talk. And while they are talking, repeat back to them what they are saying to you and take great notes. When they are done talking, summarize to them what you have heard and let them make any corrections at this time. When the meeting is over, send them the notes and have them approve them.

This way, you gain an understanding of exactly where you can anticipate difficulties, and you also have a record you can refer to later on to repeat to them exactly what they told you they wanted. Granted, this doesn’t work so well with Last-Minute-Changers, but that’s also why you should make sure to charge them out-of-scope and/or late fees (more on this later).

3. Set the ground rules of the relationship
Many high-maintenance clients are like small children, in that they need a set of rules from the outset that dictate the terms of the relationship. Yes, you definitely need to have them sign a contract, but this goes beyond the contract to things like…

  • No phone calls after 5pm on weekdays and on weekends.
  • All phases of completion require signoff.
  • Once decisions are made, they are final barring any force majeure (basically, something the equivalent of a hurricane has to hit to make a change after a certain point).

And so on. You set the ground rules upfront so they know what they can and can’t object to later on. Fighters will constantly battle you like a 2-year-old because it’s in their nature, but they also often respect someone who lays out the boundaries of battle. The Never-Happies, well, probably won’t be happy with any rules, but that’s par for the course with them. Set the rules anyway and they will begrudgingly follow them.


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4. Anticipate their demands and act accordingly
This starts with Active Listening and then follows through as you get accustomed to how they operate. Soon into the relationship you will start to see a pattern in how a demanding event client will behave, and at that point you need to start anticipating their demands and providing solutions even before they start demanding things.

For example, Type-AAAAAs need to know what’s going on at all times, so prepare update sheets for them or, even better, use a tool like Planning Pod where you can share limited access with your client so they can peek in and see progress for themselves (I know, shameless plug, but we do have great resources for helping you appease demanding clients).

5. Show them the added value
Some people will just squeeze you and squeeze you (Price-Is-Always-Negotiables, Fighters, Polite-and-Pickies especially) until there’s not much profit left. So instead of submitting and giving them discounts or add-ons, explain to them the value that is already built into your standard pricing.

This may require a more itemized proposal as well as walking them through everything they will get in the price, but it will be worth it when they understand the great value they are getting for their money. You may even want to compare your pricing to other competitors to show them they won’t really get a better value elsewhere.

6. Throw in some spiffs that don’t cost you much time or money
The Price-Is-Always-Negotiables, Type-AAAAAs and even Know-It-Alls will always drive a hard bargain, so leave some spiffs in your back pocket that you probably would have already included in the original pricing. This way, they feel like they successfully negotiated for more services, and your costs won’t increase or your profits won’t decrease.

A good example is if you have a event management software program that runs easy-to-generate reports. It takes you a few minutes to run them off and send them, but it seems like a lot of work to your customers and they think they are getting a better value.

7. Change the conversation
Most of these difficult client types will often get hung up on a certain item or deliverable and not let it go despite your best efforts to negotiate and/or reassure. Once you are at the point where you are no longer willing to negotiate, bend or appease, it’s time to change the conversation, because you are done talking about it and there’s nothing more to be said.

At this point, you simply say “Unfortunately there’s nothing more I can do about this matter, but here are a few things that you will find encouraging.” And then you show them some of your accomplishments and progress in working on their event. Basically, this is the “shiny bauble” tactic. Wave the shiny baubles (i.e., victories and finished tasks) in front of them that you know will get their attention, and move the conversation onward.

8. Overwhelm them with politeness…
It’s hard for difficult customers – even Fighters, Never-Happies and Know-It-Alls – to get angry with someone who refuses to return fire, and even harder for someone who is so overly polite and nice that it drains all of their vitriol.

In the past, I’ve treated this like a game where the object is to deflect their manipulative tactics (because all they are trying to do is manipulate you) and return it with a smile and a kind reply. Often they don’t know what to do with such kindness in the face of their anger or disappointedness. And once your politeness has brought their emotions down, you have a better chance of reasoning with them.

Note: It is especially fun to try and out-polite The Polite-and-Pickies crowd … they often don’t know how to deal with someone more polite then they are who isn’t caving in.

9. …But be firm
Like setting the rules of the relationship ahead of time, firmness displays to your difficult event client that you are no pushover. Most of these demanding client types prey on your desire to please and accommodate your clients. This is a great trait to have on your part, because any good event professional wants to make their clients happy.

However, there’s making them happy, and then there’s making them so happy to such an extent that you are tired, frustrated and losing money. So you must be kind but firm in all your dealings with them.

Also, for Fighters, Price-Is-Always-Negotiables and Type-AAAAAs, they usually respect someone who will stand up to them and will be easier to deal with after you have stood your ground.

10. Tell them why not
Earlier I mentioned about explaining your thought process to a demanding client who won’t accept your decisions at face value and trust you. And at the center of all these issues with difficult clients is usually trust … they just have a hard time turning over the reigns to another person and trusting them with something as important as a big meeting, wedding, conference, fundraiser, party or other type of event where they are on the hook if things don’t go well.

Well, if you have tried everything else and can’t change the conversation, then you finally have to tell them why what they want to do isn’t a good idea. Often this conversation starts out with two words: “Yes, but…” Basically you tell them that you can do what they are asking, but if you implement their idea then the following unfavorable or undesired things will occur.

You are basically outlining the consequences of their proposed actions, and you should tell them that they hired you for your expertise and it is your job – in fact, your professional responsibility – to look out for their best interests and to help them achieve the goals they first expressed to you regarding their event.

If they decide to ignore your advice, you have two choices: make the best of the situation, or fire them if the decision is so horrible that it will seriously impair your ability to pull off the event or damage your reputation.

11. Bill them accordingly
This may not sound like a strategy for dealing with a difficult event client, but it really is. Because most of us come to resent people who do not trust our decisions or our intuition, who are always second-guessing us and who require massively more time to deal with than our other clients.

What can help salve that resentment is billing them for all the extra time and bullshit that they put you through, because at least you feel like you are being (almost) fairly compensated for your time and efforts (as unappreciated as they may seem at times).

Thankfully, 95% of clients aren’t difficult whatsoever and are a joy to deal with, and with some patience and effort, most difficult client relationships can be saved.

Have any feedback on difficult clients yourself? Leave it in the comments below.