Toxic Client or unhappy client? How to differentiate and effectively deal with them

All small business owners face challenging clients from time to time. Learn how to decide whether it's worth moving forward with or moving on from any client causing difficulties for you and your business.

All small business owners face challenging clients from time to time. Learn how to decide whether it’s worth moving forward with or moving on from any client causing difficulties for you and your business.

By Tim Dimoff

As a business owner you may have some clients that are very difficult to work with. Perhaps they are overly demanding or just disagreeable. Perhaps they question everything you suggest. This can make you understandably unhappy, frustrated and not eager to work with them. Deciding if you should walk away or try to make the best of the situation can be a tricky decision and should not be made lightly or from an emotional point-of-view.

Before making any decisions on how to deal with the client and the situation, the first thing you need to do is to determine whether they are actually a toxic client or just an unhappy client. The main difference is that unhappy clients actually want to work with you, but they are dealing with expectations or other issues that they feel have not been met. Toxic clients, however, don’t really care about working with you. They are more interested in a obtaining a good deal, being in charge, making a point, or even just being critical.

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If you are unsure which type of client you are dealing with, determining may be as simple as answering these questions:

  • Do they communicate in a respectful and professional manner?
  • Do they have realistic expectations and demands?
  • Are they respectful of your time and work product?
  • Are they collaborative, solution-focused and available when needed?
  • What is their main concern? Is the outcome more important than a discount or being right?
  • Do they yell, insult or threaten you or your employees in any way?

Toxic clients are generally not respectful, collaborative or available. You can try to set boundaries, but these are clients that you may want to consider firing. If that is the decision you make, keep a written record of all conversations. Document everything. Stay calm at all times and communicate clearly. Stick to the facts and finish any work product unless it is mutually agreed upon to do otherwise. You can also refer them to another business that may be a better fit, if you so desire.

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Unhappy clients are generally interested in solving issues and will work with you to achieve these goals. These clients are worth the time and effort to fix the relationship and move forward. They may be disappointed in the work product, service or something else, but they are not angry. Begin by discussing the issues and really listen to what they are saying. It may not be easy or what you want to hear but good listening is the best way to begin to repair the damaged relationship. Always be empathic and acknowledge the problems. Then have an open discussion and outline any actions you will take to remedy the situation. You may want to also offer them some type of incentive such as a discount on your services.

Dealing with toxic or unhappy clients is part of operating a small business. It is not a reflection on you, nor does it mean you failed or aren’t effective in your work. It is more an issue of you valuing your time, expertise, knowledge and energy to make sure you are utilizing them to the fullest extent in order to have a good outcome for all involved parties.

President, SACS Consulting & Investigative Services, Speaker, Trainer, Corporate Security Expert Timothy A. Dimoff, CPP, president of SACS Consulting & Investigative Services, Inc., is a speaker, trainer and author and a leading authority in high-risk workplace and human resource security and crime issues. He is a Certified Protection Professional; a certified legal expert in corporate security procedures and training; a member of the Ohio and International Narcotic Associations; the Ohio and National Societies for Human Resource Managers; and the American Society for Industrial Security. He holds a B.S. in Sociology, with an emphasis in criminology, from Dennison University. Contact him at


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