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Toxic clients and how to deal with them

Ivy Gura CA (SA) (Audit Senior) and Chipo Mashava CA(SA) (Audit Senior) at BDO

We have all experienced toxic clients. They’re the highly demanding clients who are never wrong, who want much more than what they’re paying for and who expect you to take the blame for their mistakes.

While we’re not advocating that going the extra mile is not a good thing, it should not be at the expense of your sanity or the company’s bottom line. Dealing with toxic clients is exhausting, stressful and unrewarding. There are, however, some measures you can put into place to deal with them more effectively.

Set boundaries

Boundaries need to be established with all clients up-front. Formalise who is responsible for which tasks in the early stages of a new relationship with a client so that everyone knows exactly what they are accountable for.

In this way, there can be no debate about roles or who has dropped the ball. Going forward, each side needs to be held accountable for their part of the partnership.

Toxic clients are quick to blame their service providers when the wheels fall off. Clearly defined roles that are confirmed in writing can serve as a reminder of where the various responsibilities lie.

If the relationship with your client changes over time and various roles evolve, this too needs to be agreed on, documented and communicated.

Assign a strong team

Toxic clients need to be handled with a combination of friendliness, firmness and confidence. The team handling difficult clients must be made up of strong members, who are confident and clear on what needs to be done.

Team members who are unassuming or too easy-going can allow themselves to be abused and tend to accept blame, even when it’s not their fault. This makes the situation worse, with the relationship becoming highly abusive over time.

The team also needs to know they have the support from the people they report to should the situation become overly-heated.

Breathe and keep calm

New mothers are often warned to take a step back when they become frustrated with their little ones. This is to prevent lashing out or any other behaviour they may regret later on.

It’s the same with toxic clients. Many of them have no scruples when it comes to sending nasty emails, making derisive comments or generally behaving badly.

Like the new mother, it is important that you remain calm in frustrating and difficult situations.

Before sending out an equally noxious missile back to your client, rather walk away from the situation, catch your breath and calm down. Remind yourself that this is not your approach to life and work. Take the higher ground.

Learn to say ‘no’

When you’re asked to do something that does not form part of the original agreement, you either need to say ‘no’ or let client know what the cost implications will be if you take on the additional work.

In other words, always know why you are saying ‘no’ and clarify what you are there to do. This means having a thorough understanding of the contract and making sure there are no grey areas.

In some instances, knowing when to say ‘no’ can be tricky. On the one hand, going the extra mile – within reason – may engender goodwill with the client and ensure future business dealings. In the case of toxic clients, however, agreeing to do something that does not form part of the agreement will open the door to future abuses.

Do not let the client’s disorganisation filter through to you

It is important to maintain a high standard of work, despite feeling frustrated by the client’s unreasonable demands or badly organised work processes. Don’t blame the client’s poor filing or other inadequacies if you get behind in something.

In this respect, keep processes as structured as possible and communication as professional as you can. This will go a long way to ensuring your side of the bargain is met and good relations are maintained with the client.

BDO is a proud Partner of the NSBC.