How to Deal With Unrealistic Customers

Managing Excessive Expectations

How to Deal With Unrealistic Customers - Managing Excessive Expectations

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Are your customers asking for the moon?

Jonah's patience with his client was wearing thin. He'd just received yet another email requesting that the deadline be brought forward for the product he was developing for her company.

"This wasn't included in the initial brief," he thought. "Even if I work around the clock or she increases the budget (which she hasn't offered to do), I'll never be able to get this in on time."

Jonah's dilemma is a common problem for many organizations. And it's one that reflects the project management triple constraints model (also referred to as the "Iron Triangle"). In effect, the model states: "We can do it fast. We can do it cheap. We can do it well. But we can't do all three. So, choose any two."

Projects that are done quickly and cheaply, for instance, will unlikely be of high quality. But, given a bigger budget and better resources, high-quality work can be achieved faster. Meanwhile, jobs that must be of high quality, but which have a low budget, will usually take a long time to complete.

Customers, however, don't always see it this way. Some insist on demanding top-notch work at breakneck speed, for the lowest possible cost. So, what can you do to manage unrealistic expectations like these and keep your clients happy at the same time?

In this article, we look at a three-step approach that can help you to deal with excessive customer demands.

Step One: Understand the Customer's Problem

When you receive an unreasonable request from a client, your first response might be confusion or exasperation. Maybe the client has changed their mind all of a sudden, or is asking you to do more for the same money.

Remember that your client is not trying to be difficult deliberately, they just don't understand the impact that their request will have in terms of quality, budget, or time. You might know that their demand is unrealistic, but they don't.

So, even if you're frustrated, do your best to remain calm and professional. Proactively managing your emotions in this way will enable you to stay in control, and to prevent matters from escalating if exchanges or negotiations become tense.

Try to understand why your client believes their request is reasonable. Listen actively to them and look at the problem through their eyes. Are they under pressure from senior bosses? Are they fully aware of the procedures you need to follow?

Make a genuine effort to solve the client's problem and demonstrate empathy. For example, tell them that you can see why they would like it that way and that you're sorry their request doesn't fit into the current schedule. Follow up by asking whether there's anything else you could do to improve matters (though do stop short of simply giving in to the client's demands).

Establishing rapport in this way will help you to manage their expectations better and increase your chances of finding a happy resolution. It can also help to prevent your relationship from breaking down, and to protect your reputation. A dissatisfied or angry customer could post negative reviews or comments about you on social media, for instance.

Step Two: Explain Your Situation

If you have received a request to do something that you don't think you can deliver, the first thing to do is make sure that your initial assumptions are correct.

Check that your refusal doesn't breach the terms of your original agreement and, if it doesn't, refer your client back to it. If you're still unsure, get a second opinion from a senior colleague, who might have an alternative solution that you haven't thought about yet.

If your colleague agrees that nothing can be done, you'll need to go back to the customer and justify your decision to them. Be friendly, but firm. You don't want to come across as dismissive or unsympathetic.

Explain your situation in a way that they will understand. Avoid using jargon or general excuses like, "I'm sorry, but our systems won't allow that." Your client won't know anything about your systems, or particularly care about them. Share as much information as you can about the processes that you use and emphasize why these take time.

If the problem is to do with the budget, be as transparent as you can about the costs involved and explain why some resources cost what they do. But, don't overshare! Stop short of discussing things like your profit margins or the markups that you need to achieve on your products or services.

If your client still doesn't understand why you can't do what they want, and becomes unreasonable or rude, stay professional and avoid reacting in kind. Depersonalizing the situation can help here. For example, avoid using "I" or "Me" statements. Instead, say, "Our initial agreement didn't cover this, but if you can wait another week, we can get this over to you by next Friday."


Many potential problems can be prevented by preparing a clear, "ironclad" brief before work begins. This should set out deadlines, budget and specifications for the project.

Make sure that your client agrees to the brief before work begins and update them on your progress regularly to help avoid any nasty surprises.

Step Three: Resolve the Problem

Once you've explained the situation to your customer, try to resolve it by using one of the following strategies:

1. Find a Win-Win Solution

When you understand the customer's problem and he accepts your position, you can start to work together to find a win-win solution. Ask them whether the product really needs all the "bells and whistles" that they originally requested and give them an alternative. Could you perhaps produce a less complex product for the customer earlier, or for a lower cost?

Make sure that any alternatives you do offer are feasible before you suggest them. For instance, if you bring forward a deadline, what impact will it have on your team's workload? How will it affect the budget?

Avoid suggesting a solution that falls short in all three categories of the Iron Triangle (time, budget and quality). You don't want to make an already delicate situation worse. Your customer will likely understand by now that what they want is unrealistic, but they are unlikely to back down on all aspects of their request. Be sure to preserve their dignity at this point!

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2. Make a "One-Time-Only" Offer

Your customer may be important enough to your business for you to consider making an exception to the rule, even if it means asking staff to work a few extra hours or calling in favors from your own suppliers.

However, if you do decide to go this way, proceed with caution. There's a danger that by agreeing to their demands you'll open the floodgates for similar requests in the future. If other clients get to hear about the special treatment you're giving to your customer, they might expect the same from you, too.

Be absolutely clear that this is a one-off. In most cases, the customer will appreciate your effort, particularly if you make it clear how exceptional the deal is. It might even help to strengthen your relationship.

3. Refuse Politely

If what your customer is asking for exceeds what you can actually deliver, be honest with them. Committing to a request that you can't possibly fulfill will only make matters worse and could damage your relationship in the long run.

Remember, you don't need to be aggressive when you refuse their request, just assertive. Thank the customer for their initial commitment to you, and stress that if you could achieve what they are asking for, then you would.

Taking a step back from your customer's unrealistic request in this way doesn't need to mean the end of your deal. In fact, it could be just the beginning of another phase of negotiation.

4. Know When to Walk Away

A point may come when you realize that your customer simply won't see reason.

If they continue to demand more than you can deliver, or becomes aggressive or rude, it may be best to complete the contracted work to the best of your ability and then end the relationship.

Be polite but firm, and suggest that the customer find an alternative supplier. Even at this late stage, your refusal may be enough to prompt them to rethink their request. So, leave the door open for as long as you can once you've explained the situation. It's essential that you always gain the support of your manager if you need to do this.


Naturally confident people can sometimes overstep the mark and become aggressive or rude without realizing it. If your client acts like this, remain professional and emphasize that, while you're prepared to make every effort to satisfy their request, you won't accept intimidation.

Key Points

Some customers refuse to accept the constraints of delivering goods or services quickly, cheaply, and to the highest quality.

If your customer's demands have become unrealistic or impossible, try to remain calm and professional. Get to the root of their problem by listening actively and empathizing with them.

Explain your own position clearly. Clarify that you will do everything you can to help them, but make sure the customer understands the limits of what is possible and what isn't. Do this by sharing information with them and being open about the problems that you encounter.

Then, work together to resolve the matter. Try to find a solution that works for both of you, or consider making an exception for them just this one time. If this isn't possible, and you are unable to meet their request, you may need to refuse it or cut your losses and walk away from the deal.

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Comments (4)
  • Over a month ago BillT wrote
    Hi wyzelman,

    Thank you so much for that great feedback. Building change management into your project charters or client agreements is certainly a great way to manage revisions to the original agreement.
  • Over a month ago wyzelman wrote
    In our engineering contracts, there is always a clause for Change Notices and Extra Work Agreements. Our business will gladly accept either one should our client provide the opportunity. You can always create the structures that support a win-win. In the case of a Change Notice or an Extra Work Agreement, we get remunerated for the extra time, effort and resources and our client gets what he or she needs or wants. Remember, your customer may not be right.....however he or she is never wrong.
  • Over a month ago wrote
    This post deals with a theme that is poignant in today’s customer-obsessed driven market. Of course, the adage that the “customer is always right” is still subscribed to by most customers. The logical extension of this axiom is that businesses are always wrong. Ignoring the obvious fallacies in logic, common sense tells us that this cannot possibly be true. Unfortunately, nine times out of ten the totally unreasonable client is unlikely to develop into a valued customer. It is more likely that the client is going to be an increasingly expensive distraction. Management must make the decisions sooner than later to either renegotiate the deal or substantially amend its terms or not to. I think the better strategy is to request that the unreasonable customer adheres to the terms of the agreement so negotiated expectations can be realized. Management should not make any move (decision) until the customer or client has in writing acknowledged the original terms, requested an amendment thereof and stated why it is necessary.
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