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Yeti's Guide to Effectively Managing Difficult Clients

July 29, 2019

Throughout our years of experience in product development one of the hard lessons we've learned is that the development of a great product can be seriously derailed by difficult client behavior.


As anyone who works collaboratively with clients can attest to, it’s fairly common to encounter an individual or team that has the best intentions but perhaps lacks basic organizational skills, calls at all hours, or just isn't clear on their vision.

Working collaboratively with our clients is a critical part of our product development process, so it goes without saying that it can be challenging to function effectively when our partners are exhibiting these types of behaviors.

While the majority of the clients we've had the opportunity to work with have been wonderful, we've also had our fair share of experience dealing with various types of the more difficult variety. Along with establishing best practices to ensure great customer service, we've found that understanding the 5 basic types of difficult client behavior, including the most effective ways to work through them, is essential in ensuring successful projects and happy teams.

To keep our teams on track and on the same page, we've compiled this field guide to the 5 basic types of difficult clients we've encountered, along with the tried and true tactics we've used to navigate the challenging encounters we've found ourselves in.


1. The client that lacks a clear vision for their product.

This generally manifests itself as the client who wants to their app to do everything. Long ago we began working with a client that wanted to build an on demand services app. As we started working through it we realized that they wanted to compete with Uber, Instacart, Postmates and every other on demand service out there. In order to even begin contemplating how to build this product we needed to do a lot of work focusing on the user persona this client wanted to target.

When working with a client who is passionate about their product as a broad concept but doesn't have a vision for who their target customer is, what customer need their product will meet, or what it’s unique selling points will be, we've collaborated with them to help them gain a higher level vision by doing the following with them:


2. The disorganized client

Because we operate in technology, we always have the latest tools to keep ourselves productive and organized.  However, we've learned that organization isn't a universal trait, and while certainly frustrating, we know it's not likely that this type of client is being intentionally malicious with their lack of organization. Instead, they may be dealing with a lack of focus, difficulty making decisions, or just have too much on their plate. We've helped these types of clients in a few ways:

  • Provided them with structure by outlining their responsibilities.

  • Gave them clear documentation and reports that outline the decisions we needed them to make including deadlines by which they needed to be made.

  • Met with their team to determine roles and responsibilities on both ends.

3. The client that doesn't understand/value software design and development best practices.

A few years ago we were hired by a century old manufacturing company to help them design a more modernized version of their software. Because their team wasn't familiar with the process of designing and developing software, creating a productive relationship necessitated a good deal of time working through the reasons behind why we were doing certain things and the benefits of doing them that way.

We've honed our processes to be as efficient as possible and to allow our design work pay for itself in multiples, but without an understanding of the how's and why's of that process, thing like creating a customer journey map might seem like a waste of time.

At Yeti we use Applied Agile as our proprietary process for software development. We believe it’s the ideal approach to ensure a common understanding and transparent communication between product team members and their executive sponsors. When working with an individual or team who didn’t understand or value our process we’ve done the following:

  • Shared our best practices at the very beginning of the process and gotten their buy-in in advance

  • Outlined the benefits of these best practices. 

  • Provided them with articles and research highlighting how and why our processes work.  

  • When all else failed, we put our foot down. The success of their product depended on us holding our ground. 

4. The client that doesn't deliver.

We stick to our deadlines - it’s part of our Yeti Brand Promise - but the nature of our work involves a great deal of client collaboration, making work especially difficult when a client is unable to deliver what we need from them on time. This has happened multiple times, but has proven to be most difficult in situations involving work with hardware, which is prone to delays in manufacturing etc. We like to be flexible but it’s incredibly important to communicate the implications of these delays as they can sometimes create a “butterfly effect” in which small things throw delivery dates off considerably.

There are multiple reasons why an individual or team may fail to deliver on what they are responsible for. Perhaps they underestimated the amount of effort involved in the project or failed to understand the timeline. It’s also possible that their team doesn’t have the level of skill or expertise necessary to execute their end of the deal. When we’ve reached a point where our work and timeline were being affected by a collaborators failure to deliver we’ve:

  •  Explained the timeline and financial ramifications of their actions.

  • Made it clear that deadlines were being missed and explained the repercussions.

  • Paired with their team members and directed them to our standard process for maximizing productivity.

phone laptop

5. The client with communication issues

We’ve had clients that felt the need for constant contact and hand-holding throughout our working relationship. This manifested itself in calls at night or on the weekend and attempts at direct communication with someone other than their point of contact. We’ve also dealt with clients who were impossible to reach. 

We love our clients and though we try to be available as much as possible, a late night call to one of our developers to fix a non critical issue won’t help the project. Our team is trained to handle client calls but when things don’t go through the proper channels it contributes to inefficiencies on the team and miscommunication that can harm the project. When dealing with clients that have communication issues we’ve:

  • Started our working relationships with a list of best practices for communication that made it clear who should be contacted directly, how they should be contacted and when. This is always reciprocal- we always want to be sure we are aware of our clients communication guidelines.

  • When we’ve had the feeling that a client may be a bit overly needy at the get-go, we’ve restricted communication to scheduled check in calls and slack to avoid all hours calls.

  • When all else has failed and we’ve started routinely receiving calls or messages outside of specified times, we simply wait until the next working day rolls around and respond then.

In our experience beginning a working relationship with clear communication, expectation setting, and an upfront explanation of our process is the surest way to avoid difficulty throughout a project. However, when we’ve followed those best practices, and things have still gone awry, these tips have worked wonders in getting us back on track!

is a CEO + Founding Partner at Yeti. Tony has been developing software since high school and has worked on digital products for global brands such as Google, MIT, Qualcomm, Hershey’s, Britney Spears and Harmon/Kardon. Tony’s writing about innovation and technology has been featured in Forbes, Huffington Post and Inc. At Yeti, Tony works on strategy, product design and day to day operations, hopping in and working with the development teams when needed. Follow Tony on Twitter.

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