Tips For A Hostile Client Makeover

Everyone needs to know how to defuse the tension in the heat of the moment when dealing with hostile advertising clients, employees, colleagues or vendors, and then how to move forward to achieve the outcomes you desire. Here are 11 steps toward accomplishing that.


Have you ever had a client who, as media collections expert Robin Szabo so aptly put it in a recent column is “belligerently resisting the idea” of paying you? While I sincerely hope not, I’m sure that’s naïve. 

Two weeks ago, in “Improve Performance With Communication,” I shared Barbara Kurka’s insights on using effective communications to motivate underperforming employees. As I read Szabo’s column, which also appears in the January-February issue of our member magazine, TFM — The Financial Manager, it occurred to me that Kurka’s tips for effective communication are equally valuable for collection professionals dealing with hostile advertising clients.

Even if you never deal with advertising clients, I know that you’ve had — or will have to — cope with employees, colleagues, vendors or even family members who are less than cooperative. When you do, you will find that tips in Szabo’s “The Hostile Client Makeover can help you turn the encounter into something positive for all concerned.

Szabo’s column provides a step-by-step approach to handling these difficult situations. He separates his advice into two sections: the first includes tips that will help you defuse the tension in the heat of the moment; the second provides ideas to help you achieve the outcomes you desire.

Feel Their Pain — Szabo points out that Hostility may have at its root many emotions, such as embarrassment, helplessness or fear.” While reacting negatively will heighten the person’s anxiety, empathy, conveyed through facial expression, body lan­guage and words of understanding can help the debtor or other person recognize his or her underlying emotions. This advice meshes well with Kurka’s reminder to be a good listener.

Maintain Respect — If the client or other person perceives disrespect, Szabo says their expres­sions of hostility can amplify. It’s important to maintain an attitude within the confines of what should be expected in a negotiation.  What we don’t want to do is sound disingenuous or to give the impression that we are willing to make concessions that we aren’t really willing to make. As Szabo says, “Demonstrate appreciation for the debtor’s viewpoints through comments that convey understanding rather than a conciliatory attitude.” 


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Establish Common Ground — Being professional does not preclude making small talk. In fact, small talk can generate big results. As Szabo points out, “discussing work, family or outside interests can break down communication barriers and build emotional ties.”  

Recognize and Manage Deception — Szabo’s final piece of advice for managing communication is to be on the lookout for situations where the other party is engaging in deception or outright lying. “Clues to deception may be verbal, as in the case of someone who overuses negatives such as ‘no’ or ‘not’ or irrelevant comments, or they may be nonverbal, such as signs of slowed speech, ex­cessive blinking, inconsistent facial expressions or body language,” he explains. 

Kurka’s article emphasizes the importance of preparation for difficult conversations.  Again, her advice is very consistent with Szabo’s. He points out that strategic concessions and threats, particularly when coupled with the techniques outlined above should help keep the conversation/negotiation on track. The key is anticipating how the dialogue will flow and doing what you can to avoid surprises.

Gather Information Similar to the advice provided by Kurka, Szabo underscores the importance of getting on the same page with the other party as the first step toward making progress. In the case of a hostile client, the process begins by consulting with the account’s sales representative for details about the debtor’s personality and the current situation.

Make Incremental Concessions — “Most negotiations involve going back and forth,” Szabo reminds us. He goes on to note that “If you offer everything in your first concession, the debtor may think you’re holding back.” Making incremental concessions demonstrates both that we are listening and that we are responding to the other party’s needs. Szabo’s recommendation for concessions in a debtor situation is to, “Make a reasonable first demand that serves as the baseline for later concessions. Don’t give up too quickly if the debtor balks. State that you are incurring a cost, and emphasize benefits to the debtor.”

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Encourage Reciprocity — If the debtor is slow to respond, Szabo recommends “diplomatically” demanding “reciprocity.” For instance, if the debtor is objecting to a proposed payment schedule, you could remind the debtor that you’re adjusting your terms to meet his or her needs and putting that debtor in a better position to get the account into balance within a specific period of time. Szabo says the statement should “label the concession, tactfully demand reciprocity and offer precise terms.”

Be Willing to Impose Stated Conse­quences — In Szabo’s experience, if you’ve shown yourself to be credible, the mere possibility of a threat may be enough to bring a debtor into compliance or resolve any difficult negotiation. What’s important is not to start a battle you are unwilling to fight and to make demands that the other person can meet.

Make Threats That Serve Both Parties’ Interests — Since a badly executed threat can be self-defeating, use pre-meeting preparations as the time for thinking through possible threats and consequences.This approach allows time for care­fully considering the short-term and long-term consequences and for anticipating the counter-threats that such threats could trigger. In the case of a conversation with a debtor, Szabo counsels, “If you determine that your threat will advance your interests, frame it in terms of how compliance will further the debtor’s interests.”

On the flip side, a poorly conceived threat can create a situation where the other party feels their agreement is illegitimate because it was reached under coercion. If so, he or she may use that rationalization as an excuse for later noncompliance.

Make Sure the Threat Is Precise — An “if, then, else” progression of events provides consequences for noncompliance at each level. Szabo says it is also important to provide a clear timeline and course of action.

Allow the Debtor to Save Face — While we are aware of the raw emotions that underlie belligerent behavior, both parties will leave the discussion in a better frame of mind if we can show that we respect the other person’s dignity. One way to do this is to offer alternatives of relatively equal value to you. Then the debtor or other person “will not feel you are compromising his self-respect by forcing compliance.” Szabo also reminds us to “respond with genu­ine appreciation” once we have reached a mutual agreement.

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When our egos get in the way, whether it’s in a negotiation with a debtor, a conversation with a difficult employee or some other person who is being uncooperative, we can have a tendency to miss the importance of being genuinely grateful. There is that temptation to resent having to concede anything since we know we are right and the other person is wrong.

But when this type of situation arises, hopefully we can look at what we have from the perspective of how much better off we are than before. As Szabo notes in his article, we managed a “win-win” by disarming a belligerent and unresponsive person and redirecting the process to a place of mutual respect and results.

A copy of Szabo’s article is currently available on MFM’s website. In addition to contributing to The Financial Manager and serving on its editorial advisory board, Szabo and his company, Szabo Associates Inc. media collection professional, are one of the prominent sponsors of our annual conference, Media Finance Focus.

Media Finance Focus 2013 will be held in New Orleans on May 20-22 and will be packed with CPE-accredited (continuing professional education) sessions from industry experts designed to achieve our theme of Unmasking Secrets to Success.” As the example of Szabo’s tips for a “hostile client makeover” demonstrates, the conference is sure to reveal profit-generating guidance for everyone from credit and collections personnel to senior financial professionals that will provide a great ROI for all of our attendees.

Mary M. Collins is president and CEO of the Media Financial Management Association and its BCCA subsidiary. She can be reached at [email protected]Her column appears inTVNewsCheck every other week. You can read her earlier columns here.

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