Why It’s Important to Protect Your Team From Difficult Clients

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Years ago, I hired a soft-spoken project manager who would step back for clients. He was an advocate for the client, born and raised.

He had many years of experience managing website development projects, so I assigned him to some of our most demanding and vocal clients, with the full confidence that he would remove them from the park.

One of the projects I delivered was a website for a local hotel. The project was progressing very well. We started with the homepage because it’s like the shiny hood of a car, the first thing visitors see to get an impression. He worked with our creative team to design the homepage based on customer input, industry best practices, and the hotel’s existing brand. We reviewed the first draft together and it was great. So he scheduled a call to check with the customer.

Related: Managing Difficult People (and Still Achieving Your Business Goals)

I was in my office, working on another client’s project, when I looked at the bullpen and saw the project manager coming out of his desk and straight to the exit. His face was red and he looked puzzled. I got up quickly and followed.

He was outside, walking back and forth in front of the door. The teary eyes were a dead day that was annoying. I asked him if he was okay and let him tell me what happened.

He said he was reviewing the design with the client, taking proper notes of her comments, when out of nowhere a board exploded and he started cursing her. He said he didn’t like the colors, the pictures or the content. I remembered that she had provided the pictures and content, and he confirmed yes. He said he tried to calm her down by saying he would change them all, but she refused to give in and continued to attack him for his creative work and his perception that the project was a failure. I had heard enough. I told him I had done a good job and apologized for leaving him to deal with the personal attack. I said that this client’s behavior was unacceptable and I would call her that.

I was already straining as I returned to my office, mentally preparing for the call. Once the call was connected, he resumed exactly where he had left off with the project manager. He started screaming and cursing. I quickly went in and told him that his behavior was unacceptable, and that if he continued in that tone, the call would end. He was really ready to hang up, but she kept quiet. I told him that his outburst seriously upset the project manager and we would not tolerate his behavior. I said that sometimes companies don’t have a good synergy, and if she felt we weren’t up to par, we’d give her back the money and let her out of the deal, with no penalties. In short, he was willing to fire her as a client.

Related: How to prepare for difficult conversations with customers

That happened. She was silent again for a moment. Then he began to apologize. She explained some of the pressures she was under and I felt it was not the first time she had reprimanded someone. Although it may be the first time someone has called her.

We left things on a good note and went out to update the project manager. He was relieved to learn that he regretted the outburst. I saw that he was regaining some of his confidence, but most of all he was grateful for my support. From then on, the client approved everything without a glance and referred us to another client.

It could have gone the other way. Staying with the customer was a gift. But for me, the biggest gift was an important lesson in leadership. I couldn’t push my team’s tough customers, hoping they would magically correct every mistake and turn bad customers into good customers. I also needed to set customer expectations early in the process, prepare the project for success, and protect my team. Most importantly, I remember the look in my project manager’s eyes when I told him I would call her. He had seen how angry she was with her, and he knew he had her back to him. And that’s the heartbeat of leading a team: having your back when things go wrong. Because no business is worth abusing your computer.

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