Recruiters: The 5 types of difficult clients

No matter how efficient, how experienced or how savvy you might be as a recruiter, the law of large numbers ensures that you will encounter a difficult client every now and again. 

How you deal with these clients is arguably the greatest test you'll face on the job and will determine how successful you are. There are however some steps you can take in order to avoid (or at least alleviate) the stress caused by a difficult client.

This article will look at some of the most common client 'complaints', how to deal with them, and what to do in future to avoid such issues returning. This information is priceless to anyone early on in their career as a recruiter, as the tips have been contributed by some of the most experienced professionals in the UK.

5 types of difficult clients

Below is a list of 5 of the most common types of difficult clients you will encounter, in which I'm sure you'll recognise certain traits and habits that will recur in some of your own. Each type have their positives and negatives - but it's knowing how to handle them that will ensure you keep delivering great service and, ultimately, increasing your client-base.

We'll be getting some expert feedback along the way from Kathi Miller-Miller, Career Blogger and author of the book Your Journey from Fired to Hired!, as she offers her advice on handling the more challenging customers 

The 'Technophobe'

How to spot one: these clients would prefer to converse by carrier pigeon and parchment rather than email. The ideas of operating any 'online database' or logging into a 'portal' are still realms of science fiction in their minds, as they usually grew up before computers became a home commodity. Contacting them is usually done by phone, fax or simply knocking on their door.

Best bits: their old school attitude towards recruitment means that they know exactly what they want and tend to be very well organised. Without the distractions of hundreds of computer software systems and emails, they are very approachable and great to communicate with.

Worst bits: contrary to the last point, talking with them is great, IF you can get hold of them. The technophobe client can be a little elusive, especially as your lines of communication are already cut down somewhat. You will often have to walk them through the more technical things in a step-by-step manner - which can be a little frustrating and time consuming.

How to handle: it is always a good idea to have some kind of written document that you can send to your client, so he/she can re-read any information at their own pace. A technophobe client will probably enjoy making lists in order to comprehend and use any features, so understand how they operate before going full steam ahead with the assumption that they are a whizz on computers.

Presenting your view in a controlled and explained manner not only stops your service from being undermined, but it will actually earn you respect and credibility too.

It can be easy to seem unintentionally patronising, which can damage your relationship with the client. So, instead of constantly harking on about the use of technology and benefits, take the time to show an interest in how they operate their business. This will not only build your client relationship, but it will also help you to discreetly establish how they need to be treated.

The 'Paranoid'

How to spot one: these clients will want to know every tiny detail of your recruitment process, from pricing structure to your overall policy on everything in life. They take the approach that, until a deal is done, your service needs to be analysed with a fine tooth-comb - only then can you be trusted. They will stall on agreeing to use you at first, in an irrational and unjustified fear of being 'duped', more than likely questioning each step of your procedure.

Ensure your process from start to finish is as flawless as possible - this allows very little room for their beady eyes to see faults or complain.

Best bits: through their 'paranoia', you actually become a better recruiter. These clients keep you on your toes, make you work for their business and, by the time you're through with their interrogations, you'll find other clients a breeze.

Worst bits: their meticulous approach can become exasperating after a while, as you feel like you haven't earned their trust, even though you've consistently delivered an excellent level of service. 

How to handle: ensure your process from start to finish is as flawless as possible - this allows very little room for their beady eyes to see faults or complain. Make sure you listen carefully when receiving any candidate briefs/job descriptions from them, and then deliver the closest match possible. This might sound obvious and be something that you always do anyway, but being extra sure doesn't hurt when it comes to a paranoid client.

The 'Hard-Nose'

How to spot one: the hard-nose will always want the 'best' deal. While they will squeeze every freebie they can out of you, and demand the highest level of service, they will then proceed to try and chip your final figure down. These clients are very money-orientated and almost see it as the 'be all and end all' - often overseeing a higher quality service in favour of a better price.

Best bits: if you know what you are doing, these clients can be quite straight-forward, up front and (dare I say) fun to deal with. You will soon feel comfortable with their brash ways and vulgar obsession with 'discounts and deals'.

Worst bits: depending on your type of personality, these clients can seem the worst in the world. They can be quite intimidating to an introvert, often blinkered and sometimes totally deaf to anything you are saying (other than talking costs).

How to handle: don't take their approach to business personally, as they are likely ruthless negotiators at a children's charity fair. Instead, embrace their to-the-point nature and don't be afraid to knock the ball back into their court.

Whatever you do, don't undermine the worth of your service for the sake of gaining a new client, as you will find them more demanding to work with as well as getting less money from them. Sell them your features, benefits and especially value to effectively resist their attempts at getting more than a small discount. 

If you want to witness a masterclass in negotiation, just have a look at these emails between Steve Jobs and James Murdoch in Apple's acquisition of Harper Collins for their iBooks Store. The structured way in which Jobs presents the benefits of using his company should be something you consider applying when talking to a hard-nosed client.

Kathi Miller-Miller reiterates this point as she shares with us how she handles one:

"Sometimes the best approach when dealing with the hard-nose is to give them a hard dose of reality.  In these situations, I present them with only two candidates: one they can afford and the one that they actually want. The key to this strategy is to help them visualize the differences between the candidates and stress that they have a choice to make."

Kathi also goes on to highlight an alternative approach should the above fail:

"Another approach I often use with this group is to help them understand how attracting a better candidate can offset the additional compensation package.  Although a word to the wise, demonstrating ROI can be a timely investment for you and one that may/may not pay dividends."

The 'Aloof'

How to spot one: these clients couldn't be more laid back if you slipped them into a deck chair and gave them a Southern Comfort. Their favourite phrase tends to be 'do what you think is best' - giving you a whole lot of freedom (and pressure if you get it wrong). They will go with the flow in most cases, allowing you to do your thing without a big shadow over your shoulders.

Best bits: these clients will give you the freedom and capacity to work without them breathing down your neck every 5 minutes. If there are any challenges along the way, these are usually the most understanding and forgiving clients.

Whatever you do, don't undermine the worth of your service for the sake of gaining a new client, as you will find them more demanding to work with as well as getting less money from them.

Worst bits: the vagueness at which they approach their recruitment can often leave you feeling under informed and forced to take a wild 'stab in the dark' when trying to find suitable candidates. Usually they will only address an issue post-event, leaving you frustrated and thinking 'why didn't you tell me that earlier?'.

How to handle: probably the easiest 'difficult' client to deal with (if that even makes sense), the best way you can handle these is by having all of your information ready prior to a call or email. These clients like to keep things simple, so informing them of any skilled candidates in the most straight-forward and efficient way possible is always best. 

Try to avoid contacting them too much over relatively unnecessary things and, when you do contact them, relay the most important information first. Before you complete any major tasks or searches, always gain approval from them (both over the phone and by email), to cover your back. They will often give quick answers that have a whiff of spontaneity, but stay on your game and give them the level of service they deserve - these clients are gold dust. 

The 'Expert'

How to spot one: these clients seem to know everything (and more) about your job and therefore spend most of the time telling you how to source ideal candidates for them. They often give the patronising impression that you're incompetent at your job when, in fact, it isn't personal but more of an ego-boost for themselves.

Best bits: these clients are always very decisive and, as a result, always know exactly what they want. This makes managing their expectations much easier than others and you very rarely need to clarify anything (in contrast to the 'aloof' client).

Burning bridges in business is never advised, especially as fire can spread quickly - with one client spreading the word of their bad experience to others.

Worst bits: as mentioned above, they can appear somewhat patronising and having anyone telling you how to do your job is going to become frustrating after a while. As a result of them not actually being a recruiter like yourself, they will fail to understand the restrictions, limitations and hurdles that you might face - assuming your job to be much easier than it actually is. This often results in them undervaluing the service you're delivering.

How to handle: it's best to stay calm with these clients, let them have their input to an extent, but make a point of highlighting timescales, challenges faced and the back office administration involved. By justifying all of this you can give these clients more of a 'back seat', whilst still leading them to believe that they are a true expert. This way, they stay pacified, their egos remain massaged, and you are able to get on with the task at hand.

This point is reaffirmed by Kathi as she states:

"I've always believed in the power of compliments and, let's face it, everyone likes to think they are right and perhaps even the smartest person in the world.  Realistically recruiting is a selling environment and I have absolutely no problem putting my ego aside (as far as they know) and thanking them for what is an obviously fantastic idea.  The key to this approach however is to then follow my intuitionnot theirs!"

Difficult clients: handling a complaint

It would be easy to get involved in a heated confrontation should a client start scrutinising your work (especially if it is totally unjustified). The key is to stay calm and avoid getting into a shouting match with them. This will not only be detrimental to the resolution of the issue, but it will permanently harm your relationship with that client. 

Burning bridges in business is never advised, especially as fire can spread quickly - with one client spreading the word of their bad experience to others. 'The customer is always right' is a philosophy that transcends into recruitment so, even if the customer is wrong, just smile, stay calm and focus on finding a solution. Having said all of this, there are three key things to remember if you do have an altercation:

Stand up for yourself

There is a difference between the customer always being right and simply rolling over and allowing yourself to be walked on by a difficult client. If they are saying things that are completely unfounded or simply wrong, don't be afraid to say so. Presenting your view in a controlled and explained manner not only stops your service from being undermined, but it will actually earn you respect and credibility too.

Locate the 'real' problem

It is easy to become defensive when on the receiving end of a complaining client, but this will only serve to fan the flames. Instead, take the time to actually listen to what their problem is and relate to them in any way possible. By doing this you will not only find a resolution much quicker, but you will show the client that you are the consummate professional who genuinely cares about efficiency and service. You'll be surprised just how much more likeable you are for doing this, ultimately making the client more forgivable.

Establish the 'next steps'

Having kept your cool, weathered the storm and discovered what the reason for their complaint might be, the next stage is to look forward. The quickest way to overcome any issue is to provide an efficient response and action plan which serves to A) put the issue firmly behind you and B) ensure it won't happen again. Be sure that the 'next steps' you offer are more than just comforting words though, as we all know actions speak much louder. 


The truth is, as long as you are prepared for each type of client, there will be no such thing as a difficult one anymore - as you will become accustomed to which buttons to press and how best to prepare yourself for their calls and queries. Not all business is good business and, sometimes, you will be better calling it a day with any truly difficult people. The time and effort you will invest in them is simply not worth it - so move on and find someone else who will appreciate your service more.

The main thing to remember from all of this is to never allow a client to cause you undue stress or anxiety. Allowing one difficult client to get you down can have a negative impact on all of your other clients, as your tone of voice and overall attitude will subconsciously change. Doing the very best that you can is all anyone can ask and, if this still isn't enough, remember the phrase 'there is no pleasing some people'. Simply move on and find someone who will appreciate your service and give you minimum levels of hassle in the process.