Dealing with Difficult People: The Know-It-All Client


Dealing with difficult people is not an option; it’s a human dynamic we all face, sometimes daily. There are different levels and types of difficult people. In this series, I would like to identify a specific type and how I try to deal with them in a professional environment. Anyone who works in any type of service industry must learn how to manage people well in order to survive, especially dealing with the know-it-all client.

know it all client

You know the type: they know more than anyone in the room, no matter the subject. They always, and I mean always, have an opinion about everything…sometimes even more than one opinion on any given subject. And now it’s your job to manage this person and get your project done to his or her standards.

When the know-it-all client starts to pontificate on matters that you are suppose to lead and begins to tell you not only what but also how to do your job, the temptation is to say something like: “Well, John, if you know so much about this, why did you bother hiring me? Just go ahead and do it.” is strong. While that sounds extreme, and it is, I have terminated relationships with clients who were unreasonable in their approach and expectations. I knew that no matter what I did, she was not going to be happy. So even before the project started, I politely told her, ” I don’t think I will be able to get this project done to your satisfaction. I think you should hire someone else.”

But often we don’t have the luxury of firing a client and must work with, through, or around them. If that’s your case, then here are a few things you should try:

Get his buy in before the meeting. Know-it-alls don’t like surprises. They need to feel the sense that their brilliance has guided whatever strategy or project you are doing for them. Bring them into your presentation or strategy as soon as possible. Have their buy in early on. I call it the meeting before the meeting. If you know she is going to be in a meeting with decision makers, make sure she is on your side of the fence before even walking into the room.

Transfer to him the credit. I worked with a client who would not pull the trigger on any new strategy unless he had come up with it. It was terribly frustrating and counter productive until the day I realize that all he wanted was credit for the idea. No problem! Instead of pitching new ideas as “here’s what I think we should do.” I started the pitch by saying, “What you said the other day in our meeting got me thinking. You were right on, and I think we should do . . . .” Even though it might not be his direct idea, he was the one who spawned the genius plan; therefore he will not easily shoot it down.

If you try to argue or reason with the know-it-all you will lose every time. Unless you can get his buy in early or transfer the credit to him, you’ll be fighting an uphill battle. The next best thing is to fire him from your account.

How do you deal with the know-it-all?

  • After 25+ years of dealing with know-it-alls in the tech industry, I’ve come to the conclusion that he/she isn’t worth the effort 90% of the time because:  I simply cannot help someone who thinks they know it it all. In the best cases, (e.g. teaching Sunday School) I might be able to put a “stone in their shoe” that helps them somewhere down the road, but in a business context, it’s fruitless more often than not.   In the end, those projects often end up only marginally successful.   But like you, I will try to plant a seed in their head so that it comes off as their idea, i.e “have you ever thought about this approach?”  And if they begin to shoot it down immediately in an unthoughtful way, I just repeatedly ask a single probing question:  “What do you mean by that?”  Eventually they either expose themselves or realize they look foolish in front of their peers.  At that point, I get control of the room back, and can begin to be helpful.

    • Scott, everyone in the tech industry is a know-it-all. It’s the nature of the entire industry. 🙁

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