Is Your Client a Jerk? 6 Types of Toxic Clients & How to Deal With Them

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Matthew Kane
Matthew Kane



As much as we’d all like to believe in feel-good aphorisms such as “what goes around comes around,” the reality is the unscrupulous tend to advance further in their careers than the empathetic. A recent study surmised that CEOs are four times more likely than the average person to be a psychopath. In the past year, both The Atlanticand Timemagazine have published articles expounding the benefits of being a jerk in the workplace. And Steve Jobs -- the most notorious jerk CEO of all -- has been all but canonized.

This, of course, is nothing new. Americans have celebrated the self-serving from Vanderbilt to Vanderpump, and studying Atlas Shrugged and its theory of rational egoism is practically a right of passage for privileged 16-year-olds who think they’ve figured it all out. It’s not hard to see how to some, being a jerk is synonymous with being successful.  

Worse yet, this me-first philosophy is often amplified in the agency-client relationship, as without the same repercussions that can come in the everyday workplace (i.e., being fired), clients oftentimes feel the need to throw their weight around.

But here’s the thing about jerks: While all motivated by the same self-interest, how they further their own agendas vary greatly. Some are overt. Some are insidious. Some are smart. Some less so. But all of them need to be dealt with or risk poisoning your agency and employees.

Consider the below a field guide, if you will. It's your handy manual to dealing with the various types of "difficult" clients you’ll find in the professional services industry. 

1) Always-Right Jerk

Easily the most common type of jerk, Always-Right Jerks firmly believes in their own infallibility. So confident of their intelligence, they are quick to dismiss any and all differing opinions as wrong, or in extreme cases, stupid.

What they say: “Trust me, I know what I’m talking about here. You don't know my business like I do.”

How to deal: The Always-Right Jerk tends to be individualistic and often suffers from a me-versus-them mentality. Any dissent, even the most well-intentioned, is viewed as a direct affront. To counter, consider emphasizing a “teammate” relationship with the Always-Right Jerk, making it clear that the two of you are equal collaborators who can arrive at the right decision together

2) Passive-Aggressive Jerk

There are two types of Passive-Aggressive Jerks, one long-standing and the other born from the protective cover of modern technology. The first type of Passive-Aggressive Jerk is agreeable to your face, only to then turn around and talk negatively about your interaction with other stakeholders. The second type displays the same in-person agreeability but will cower behind a computer screen to fire off emails that run counter to early conversations. It’s not the change of heart that makes these types passive aggressive; it's that 9 times out of 10, they disagreed at the outset but hide from potential conflict.

What they say: Via e-mail: “Hey, Bill, I was thinking about our meeting earlier, and I’m not comfortable with what we agreed upon. We want to move forward with ...” 

How to deal: Regardless of which subset of passive aggressive these jerks are, dealing with them is the same: Have a paper trail. Because the Passive-Aggressive Jerk tends to voice his displeasure at a later time or to different people, he often twists facts to suit his point of view. Document all interactions, and send meeting reports to get on the same page. You could also try asking more difficult questions through email, where this type of person feels more comfortable providing his true opinions. 

3) In-Your-Face Jerk

Like the Always-Right Jerk, the In-Your-Face Jerk believes in the power of his own ideas, only he tends to be much more aggressive and argumentative when it comes to defending them. 

What they say: While red in the face, he exclaims, "How is this not getting through to you?!? If we don't move now, we're completely screwed. This is unacceptable! I should fire you right now!" 

How to deal: The In-Your-Face Jerk relishes conflict, so key in dealing with this type of person is to avoid escalating the situation. Stay reserved, and remember not to take his aggression as a personal attack. But don’t let yourself be walked over either. Talk pointedly and calmly. Don't be accusatory. Use "I" statements. And if all possible, smile and try to make the client laugh. Seriously. Humor is a great way to relieve tension.

4) Cheap Jerk

The Cheap Jerk is not necessarily marked by bad behavior. By all accounts, he might have proved to be an agreeable client. But then when the bill comes due, suddenly there’s a problem. The Cheap Jerk may produce a list of never-before-mentioned grievances and demand a discount, but most often, he disappears altogether.  

What they say: Nothing.

How to deal: Assuming everything is in writing and the job is completed, the Freelancer’s Union suggests three steps for “encouraging” payment:

  • Have an attorney send your client a letter.
  • Hire a collection agency.
  • Offer a discounted payment option to encourage response. Sometimes cutting your losses is the best option.

5) Time-Wasting Jerk

Even more loathsome than the Cheap Jerk who may have entered an agreement with good intentions but later ran into financial trouble, the Time-Wasting Jerk is out to steal from the get-go. This type's motivations differ -- some are looking for free advice while others are cheapos who want to offer you a chance to “showcase” work in lieu of payment -- but all are no good.

What they say: “Our budget is tight right now, but we're well known in our industry and can provide a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for you guys to showcase your work.”

How to deal: Ideally, you’ll identify this type of client's non-committal behavior from the start by asking specific qualifying questions about budget and timeframes. But if you begin to suspect you’re working with a Time-Wasting Jerk, halt any meetings and conversations until you can work out an iron-clad agreement. You could even suggest a pay-for-proposal style agreement, where your agency does a small initial project prior to signing a long-term retainer agreement.

6) Everything-Is-Rainbows Jerk

On the surface, the Everything-Is-Rainbows Jerk seems agreeable. He has the utmost faith in you. Everything you do is splendid. He declines progress reports and doesn't care about check-ins. He's sure he will be blown away by the final product. 

Except he's not happy with the project. A much too optimistic approach breeds unrealistic expectations, and suddenly Mr. Hunky-Dory morphs into anyone from the Passive-Aggressive Jerk to the In-Your-Face Jerk.

What they say: “You guys are the best! I’m so excited to see what you’ve done. I’m sure it’ll be b-e-a-utiful.”

How to deal: Make sure to manage client expectations on everything from the design to project timelines to the results, insisting on periodic checks to ensure everyone is on the same page and everything is on track. No client likes surprises, even if they completely trust your agency. Clearly communicate throughout the duration of the relationship to make sure the client's expectations match your own.

Illustrations provided by Tyler Littwin.

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