Get anyone, especially consultants, talking about a toxic client and it’s hard to get them to stop. Then you realise they are talking about someone who they worked for years ago with all the emotions as if it was yesterday ...
If you fall into that category you know only too well that a toxic relationship damages your mental health and it's no different just because they are a client and paying you. In fact, it can be worse because you feel obligated,
How do you know that a client is toxic? By the way you feel in your dealings with them. If you're still angry, anxious, upset and feel under pressure hours after you came out of a meeting or off the phone or read the last of 21 emails from them that day at midnight then something is toxic. Or maybe you feel you've had a run-in with a Dementor and had your soul sucked out by the negativity that always enters the room with them?
The best definition I've read is: "These are those extremely demanding clients who are never wrong; want much more than what they're paying for, and people who expect you to take the blame for their mistake." The fact that there is a whole literature about the phenomenon suggests it's more common than you realise. Take comfort that you are not alone.
What can you do about it? Bring in the CIA: Control, Influence and Acceptance.
- Control: The only thing you can control is you and your response to this energy-sapping contract. Go back to your role in this contract. I recommend you start by looking at your own emotional response and how you want to come across to the client.
You have been hired because you are the specialist professional consultant who can fix the client's problem or need. So, stay in that role whatever the behaviour of the client. The danger is that they play out a dysfunctional version of their role as someone with a problem. Then you can slip, without realising it, into either a defensive or more authoritarian role and the dance begins. Stay aloof and professional at all levels and most of all stay as the consultant that you are.
For example, If they are not delivering their side of the bargain then instead of being confrontational try being consultative. If there is a complaint that you keep missing deadlines say, "There seems to be a problem with getting the information to us with sufficient time for us to do the work and meet our deadline. How can we fix that?"
Always have all your basic timescales and rules of behaviour set out in your terms and conditions and go through them with all clients when starting up. As well as financial and payment terms, set out your hours of business, hours dedicated to this project and how you deal with out-of-hours requests. Be clear on your liabilities for the project work and who is accountable for signing off any outcomes or recommendations and how you will deal with disputes.
Make them standard for all clients and enforce them consistently. The last resort and the ultimate power of control are to be able to break your contract, so ensure you have a timescale for terminating the contract in those T&Cs.
Remember that it is the other person's responsibility to get the outcome they desire for their business by contracting with you. So, first consider that your behaviour is not toxic too. Are you misusing your authority? For instance, siding with the staff or trying to take control of aspects of the project that should rightly remain in their domain. Are you getting drawn into issues which are not your remit or in the chitter chatter of the organisation?
The rule of thumb is to model the behaviour you want from the other person and be prepared to adapt your style to meet them halfway. Again, stay professional and communicate and consult with this person constantly. Meet with them and agree on solutions to problems with the management of your work. If your delivery requires others to meet deadlines and they are constantly late then agree that your deadline is XX days after all information is received.
If the working environment and the toxic behaviours of the other person continue to affect you and any of your staff then exercise your ultimate control and terminate the contract.
Try and do this with good grace and professionalism, but do consider how you will manage the negative fallout if your client decides to go public. It may be worth consulting a Public Relations specialist to advise you before you make the move to leave.
No matter how unpleasant the experience was you can always walk away a bit wiser and here are some thoughts on what you can learn.
First, don't do it alone. It is hard to be objective when someone's behaviour is affecting you emotionally. Often we respond defensively and escalate by fighting back or beating ourselves up by accepting the victim role. "Is it me?" you ask yourself. Worst still is falling into passive-aggressive behaviours where you agree on one thing to placate this individual and then exacerbate the issue by doing something else. Ideally, get your coach or advisor to work you through your response.
Second, set up your contracting paperwork to cover disputes, deadlines, termination, confidentiality, working hours and of course, a full project brief. Keep notes of all meetings and decisions copied to those who attended.
Lastly, do your due diligence as a party to this contract. Do you know others who have worked with this company or individual? What do they say? What's in the public domain? Any testimonials and recommendations? Any bad reviews?
How has the leader treated you during the sales and contract negotiation period? If the experience has been unpleasant, disorganised, unethical, or indiscreet then think carefully. Is this likely to increase once they're signed up for your services!
I'll leave you with the best insight and advice I found on line. Alex McCann says, "From the moment a client starts criticising previous suppliers in the initial meeting it means I'm mentally telling myself not to work with them."
It's worth remembering.
If you'd like to learn more about referral marketing then do give me a call on 07970 638857 and let's have a chat and see how I can help you.