Relationship Management: 6 Bad Client Behaviors You'll Encounter

From the hard-to-please to the angry customer, difficult clients can make your job tough. Learn how to break the tension and salvage the relationship for six bad common client behaviors.

January 1, 2011

Do you have a client driving you crazy? Emotions can charge in a real estate transaction — especially nowadays — and you may increasingly find yourself working with nagging, impossible to please, overly negative, or know-it-all types that, well, might be starting to drive you a little nuts.

Sellers are upset over falling home prices; buyers may be dissatisfied with stalled negotiations or blaming you for their financing fiascos. Whatever the case, there’s a lot of unhappiness out there among buyers and sellers in a transaction — and you’re caught in the middle.

Complex short sale transactions, in particular, can understandably have your clients on edge. For example, Renee Sabath with Realty One Group in Las Vegas says she once had clients tell her, two days before closing on a trustee sale, that their friends had been advising her that the transaction could be handled differently. She had to provide plenty of reassurance to her questioning clients that she had their best interests in mind and were guiding them in the right direction.

But sometimes plenty of reassurance just won’t work. Sabath also has had clients she actually had to “fire” during the past two years.

“Doing a short sale is hard work and the payoff for me can take six months or even longer,” she says. “If the client does not return my calls or does not provide me with the necessary paperwork, I will tell them they are tying my hands, and I have given back listings when the seller is not performing. … Some people just need our guidance and patience, while I strongly feel there are people who we would be helping more to walk away from.” (Read more stories from your peers on how they’ve dealt with difficult clients.)

Meet Six Difficult Clients

While you might not be able to win over every client, you can improve your client relationships — no matter how impossible they seem to please — by blending your communication styles and with lots of understanding along the way, says motivational speaker and bestselling author Rick Brinkman, who has written several books on dealing with difficult people, including Love Thy Customer (McGraw-Hill, 2005).

Here are six common difficult client behaviors that Brinkman has identified and strategies for winning over each:

1. Think-They-Know-It-All

How to identify them: You tell the sellers that their house should be listed at the price you’ve identified, but these clients know better than you. In fact, they know everything — at least they think they do. These clients’ know-it-all attitude has their ego front and center.

How to deal with them: Ask a lot of questions about what they say. “What will happen is they will quickly hit bottom,” Brinkman says. “They don’t have depth to their knowledge.” So, the best thing you can do is take a curious attitude and ask more and more specific questions until they start making big generalizations. Eventually, they’ll realize they don’t know as much as they’re professing.

However, be careful not to step on their ego. You want to derail bad ideas, not embarrass them. So, for example, refer to documentation in a nonthreatening way (e.g., “Have you seen this article?”) to make your point.

2. The Yes Person

How to identify them: These customers are highly agreeable but slow to deliver. Their people-pleasing tendency may get in the way of providing you with honest, valuable feedback to move forward in a transaction.

How to deal with them: Make it safe for these customers to be honest with you and show them there will be no relationship consequence if they say something negative. For example, say, “If none of these houses work for you, Mr. Buyer, it’s totally OK to tell me.”

You’ll need to make guesses at what they’re thinking so you can then provide such reassurance to them that it’s safe to provide honest feedback. By doing so, you’ll actually create a customer for life — they’ll perceive you as being sensitive to their feelings, Brinkman says.

3. The No Person

How to identify them: They’re discouraging and pessimistic. They’ll probably find something wrong with every house you show them or any idea you present for selling their house.

How to deal with them: Break them out of their negativity. Take out a piece of paper, draw a line in the center, and ask them to list positives on one side and negatives on the other about the house they’re viewing. Ask for the negatives first, since that’s more on their mind, Brinkman notes. Once they’ve exhausted the negatives, refocus their attention to list a few positives.

Remember, the No Person tends to zoom in only on negatives — so a No Person who sees three things wrong with a home thinks everything is wrong with it and will be unable to focus on any positives. The paper-pen method will help you to refocus the No Person’s attention on finding something positive. Plus, after a few homes, you’ll be able to develop a list of criteria to show deal-breakers and what the client really desires in a home.

4. The Nothing Person

How to identify them: They tell you nothing, providing no feedback, verbal or nonverbal. You may grind to a halt with a Nothing Person because “I don’t know” is often the first response to practically anything you ask.

How to deal with them: Try to guess at how they feel in a situation and offer statements to pry something out of them. Using the paper-pen method suggested above, you’ll likely need to guess the pros and cons to put on the lists about the houses rather than rely on them telling you (e.g., “This home has the open floor plan with the kitchen and living room. I’m guessing that’s a positive for you, right?”). They’ll be more apt to provide you with feedback on whether your guess is right or wrong. Don’t worry about guessing wrong — the aim is to get them to open up and externalize their thought process, Brinkman says.

5. The Tank

How to identify them: They are pushy, ruthless, and loud. They rant when something upsets them. They demand action. For example, “How dare you suggest listing my house for such a low price. You have no clue what you’re talking about!”

How to deal with them: Give the Tank 60 seconds to vent, no more and no less. If you allow a Tank to go longer, the verbal attack will escalate and it’ll be difficult to refocus. So after the 60-second tirade, interrupt using your client’s name and highlight some of the rant to show you were listening and reassure that you’re on the same side (e.g. “John, John. We both care about getting the most for your property. I heard you say ...”)

Then, repeat three of the statements you heard, Brinkman says. Why three? Brinkman, a naturopathic physician, calls it the generalization point, in which after repeating three statements back to a person that recounts what the customer said that person then subconsciously truly feels heard.

After you do a playback of what they said, offer your bottom-line solution, but make your solution direct and to the point. Tanks appreciate assertiveness.

6. The Grenade

How to identify them: You’ll feel like you want to take cover. The Grenade provides unwarranted tantrums that seem disproportionate to the circumstance. Unlike the Tank, who usually has a focused argument, the Grenade surfaces as explosive rants on anything and everything.

How to deal with them: Don’t give Grenades any time to vent: They feed on their negative energy, and it’ll only make them more angry. Immediately raise your voice to interrupt, using their name (e.g. “John, John. I care, I care ... You don’t have to feel this way. We’re going to work this out.”)

Don’t tell them to calm down; you’ll only make them more irate. Instead, you calm down: Take a breath and relax your tone, Brinkman suggests. Say: “Let’s take a moment and talk about it.” You want to create a break in the conversation to allow them time to calm down so they’ll be able to refocus on what their true concerns are.

Which client behavior do you most often encounter?


Stay Tuned! Relationship Management is a new column at Realtor Magazine Online that focuses on how you can improve your customer and business relationships. Real estate is a relationship business, and the quality of your relationships often determines how successful you will be. Have a business relationship gripe or a recent “a ha!” moment in improving your business relationships? E-mail your story ideas to Relationship Management columnist Melissa Dittmann Tracey at