Bullies who mean business

If you're tormented by a big client, what do you do - schmooze them or lose them? Roger Dobson finds out

Roger Dobson
Sunday 23 October 2011 00:30

THEY ARE the clients from hell. When you have a presentation to make, they talk over it, pick holes in your ideas, rubbish suggestions, and crack lousy jokes which you are expected to laugh at.

As lowlife goes, it doesn't come much lower than the new breed of corporate bully who is invading Britain's growing service industry like a breath of foul air. Advertising and public relations agencies, law firms and management consultancies, and a host of other service providers, have all reported the horrors of the buyer-bully. They are so thick on the ground that a new breed of worker has spawned, the schmoozer, a thick- skinned man or woman skilled in the art of honeyed words. Show a schmoozer an awkward customer, and the charm will gush like a North Sea oil well.

Medium-size provider companies, who are often more in need of business than larger firms, are especially vulnerable to the bullies. "In the kind of business environment we have now, there is a lot of competition and very low margins, and the client knows that. They know there are plenty of other consultancies, agencies and providers out there, and that they can, at any time, withdraw their patronage. They can be threatening, interrupt you, and use all kinds of bullying tactics,'' says psychologist Professor Cary Cooper of Manchester University.

The client bully can, it seems, come in many and varied forms. There are the macho clients who feel they are under threat because they are out of their area of expertise, and who compensate by being over-aggressive and showing off to their own team subordinates.

Then there is the Attila school of management whose disciples believe intimidation and threats are the way to get the best out of people. "Some managers and clients think that management by fear and threats will keep people on their toes and make them more productive. But it doesn't work. People become unmotivated; they become less creative and more cautious because they are frightened of making mistakes,'' says Cooper.

"It may also be that bullying clients have poor social skills, or that their behaviour is making the statement that they are paying the bills, and it's a way of asserting their superiority. There's also the possibility that they might just want to get rid of you.''

According to one advertising industry-watcher, awkward clients are everywhere: "Agencies will tell you that everything is fine, but it's not true, everyone has bastard clients. Agencies have always jumped through hoops for clients, but more is expected these days. They take it for granted that they can treat an agency like shit, but back at their own place they are scared to say boo to the office boy because of the unions, equal opportunities, race relations and employment law.''

She added: "People hire agencies so they can feel good, and a lot of people who make it to the top in agencies are those people who can best make a client feel good. If the client wants to beat someone, the schmoozers let them do it and then tell the client what they want to hear. It's usually bullshit, but it works.''

But one jaded PR account executive, who isn't a natural schmoozer, described the behaviour of one of her clients during a presentation: "He came with two or three other suits and they sat down. As I was introducing my team, he started talking about how hot it was, and got one of his people to open the windows. Then he said he couldn't hear me properly, and kept telling me to speak up. Half way through the presentation he got up, went over to the window and called his finance man over to look at something in the street below. He was also making in-jokes all the time which had his lot laughing but which left us as outsiders in our own office. It was a nightmare. When I look back, I think it was because he felt out of his depth in a strange environment, and that it was all a sledgehammer attempt to assert his authority.''

There are apocryphal tales in abundance of awkward clients getting their comeuppance. There is, for example, the tale of the ad agency that secretly videoed a bullying client at a presentation and sent it to his company's board of directors.

But the problem for providers faced with the corporate bully is that there is no formal way of dealing with it. Unlike victims of workplace bullying who have access to formal procedures for complaints, the only answer for a provider who doesn't like his client, is to lose the work.

"If you work for a big agency or consultancy you might be able to tell them to take off, but bullies usually pick the most vulnerable. If you are a medium-size firm who can't afford to turn work down you have a problem,'' says Cooper.

Those who want to stay sane and keep the work must come up with some kind of strategy for dealing with their awkward customers. The first and most favoured line of defence is the schmoozer, but they are hard to come by. The fall-back strategy is to employ psychological tactics using body language, eye contact, and communication skills.

According to Ursula Markham, author of How to Deal With Difficult People,one of the most important tactics is knowing how to react: "Difficult people are used to employing a particular set of tactics and the instinctive retort is not always the best one. If you know that you are dealing with someone who is difficult and who treats everyone in the same way, try not to take it personally.''

A successful strategy means finding a way of dealing with the bullying client while still keeping him sweet and signing the cheques. The first part of the strategy is to try to get the client to come alone so that he or she doesn't have an audience to play up to. Bullies need an audience and without them they usually become victims.

You could also try hiring a celeb, like a model, a soap actor, or ideally a game-show hostess: "It gives male clients something to gawp at, and they go home happy. The celeb 'gives away' a bit of showbiz gossip and the client tells everyone back at the golf club they had dinner with so- and-so, who told them this, that and the other. They fall for it most times,'' confided one advertising executive.

Another tactic for dealing with awkward customers is to keep the body language assertive. Never let the shoulder droop - it's a tell-tale sign of vulnerability that the bully will exploit - and always maintain eye contact on an equal level. If they interrupt during your presentations, pause and let the silence pointedly continue for 10 seconds after the client has stopped talking. Alternatively start up a parallel conversation with a colleague. Never sound angry or weak, and if they are being negative invite them to come up with some positive suggestions. Then they go home happy believing that the whole campaign was their idea.

Finally, always make your presentation to the client before lunch because, according to psychologists, meetings before noon are usually over more quickly, are often more productive, and make the clients happy because they have the afternoon off. And, most important of all, meetings in the morning also ensure that the client and his team are less likely to be, well, tired and emotional, after a business lunch at the local hostelry.

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