Stopping negative talk about clients

All people-based businesses exist to solve challenges for their clients. These challenges can be the source of great joy, they allow us to explore the evolving problems our clients have, they keep us curious and they ultimately enable us to use our skills to bring brilliant solutions to those we work for and with. 

Without these challenges, people-based businesses would cease to exist. 

And yet, I’d confidently say that in almost every people-based business, there is a tendency towards persuasive negativity toward clients. 

We all know how it goes… perhaps there’s a team meeting and someone chimes in with “We’ve got another brief from XYZ, so that will likely be badly done or missing key information again – they never give us enough time or enough content to work with”. Or perhaps, “I’ve had yet another email from XYZ, they’re complaining again despite the fact we’ve done everything possible – it’s typical’. There will be much eye-rolling and a definite possibility that others will join in with the client bashing. 

The other kind of client negativity comes from leaders – often in more subtle ‘supportive’ ways made to be sympathetic and make the team feel understood. 

“Look, I know you’re working really hard and that XYZ can be really demanding and difficult….” 

The problem with this client negativity – whether from teams or their leaders, is that it creates division between your business and your clients. Any sort of repeated negativity – regardless how subtle – plays to an individuals confirmation bias – the tendency of people to favour information that confirms or strengthens their beliefs or values. This bias is difficult to dislodge once affirmed.

What happens when negative client chat continues? 

Once you begin being negative about a particular client or person with your client’s business, you run the risk of doing a number of things and behaving in certain ways, including:

  • Being unable to see the good in them
  • Being unable to view valid points objectively 
  • You’ll begin to do less work, or work that’s of less of a high standard. 

You’ll do all this because you start to believe that they ‘deserve it’. 

Make no bones that the client will see this, and they’ll respond. They might not know why you’re behaving in a certain way, but their behaviour will often begin to mirror your own. The negativity cycle will continue, and it will pick up pace to a potentially irreparable place. 

My own example of client negativity

My own example of this * hangs head in shame * was years ago – why I flippantly tossed out the phrase ‘all buyers are liars’ in a meeting. At the time I said it glibly, because I thought it was funny, but it caught on… people started to use it during conversations about clients. 

How do you stop client negativity? 

In my case, and this is how I would suggest you tackle it, the ‘cure’ for client bashing required me to do several things:

  • Spot it, catch it quickly
  • Identify if it’s your or specific team members who are propagating the negative chat – as a leader are you making it worse?
  • Have a team meeting – in my case an all-hands chat – focused on identifying the problem and cause correction. In this meeting you need to reframe your teams’ approach to clients. 

Ask them:

  • How is the negativity impacting what we do?
  • Mentally – how is it impacting the team ‘spirit’? 

If the negativity is coming from specific individuals, then speak to them 1-2-1. Ask them to reflect on the impact it is having on them and others. 

A final note on empathy 

If you’re a leader who finds themselves empathising with individuals dealing with so called ‘demanding clients’, then you’ll need to think carefully. If your team must work late or do more hours than they should then this is really a failing of account management. 

Weak account management has a real impact and whilst the client may have ‘caused’ some difficulties, a great scope of work and constant reminders and conversations with clients about the implications of their changes to briefs need to happen regularly. 

Take your conversations about challenge to your clients directly, have them constructively and with transparency. Without them, you will fail. 



Search the whole etc Playbook...

We have 100's of articles to help you with leadership, growth, talent and running a better business.

Agency Founders Surgery - free 1 to 1.

If you have something on your mind, a challenge you’re wrestling with or just want an alternative point of view, I’d be very happy to lend an ear and maybe help you start to unpick the issues.