Eight Behaviors Clients Can’t Stand—Are You Guilty?

By Andrew Sobel

During the past year, I’ve interviewed a broad cross-section of client executives about “relationship building from the client’s side of the desk.” I usually ask them about pet peeves–behaviors that irritate them or, even, that destroy their trust. I’m amazed at the stories I hear from these senior executives about the irksome habits of the outside suppliers and advisors they deal with. Here are the most common ones that client executives complain about:


1. Bragging. I’ve had a number of very successful clients who made it a point to start their business development conversations and sales presentations with effusive praise—bordering on the grandiose—for their own growth and success. Several invariably started their meetings with a big chart showing how much faster they had grown compared to their competitors. Prospects often perceive this as obnoxious, however. “Don’t brag and go on and on about YOU—turn the conversation rapidly towards MY issues,” a top executive recently told me. Also, the success you describe may actually intimidate or scare off a prospective client—if you’re growing 20% a year, they may worry that you’re hiring inexperienced people and won’t give them the attention they need! So be careful—convey your credentials more indirectly, through the examples you cite and the powerful questions you ask.

2. Walking through a slide presentation or brochure in the first meeting. Nearly every executive I have ever interviewed on this topic cites this as a pet peeve. Clients want to talk with you, not stare at PowerPoint slides for 30 minutes. Remember, great relationships are based on great conversations, not one person showing the other how much they know. How can you have an engaging, back-and-forth conversation when the other person is staring at slides that you are most likely reading to them? It’s stultifying and gets in the way of establishing rapport and likeability.

3. Overselling. No one likes to be sold to—but we all like to buy. When you meet someone socially for the first time, do you start pitching them on your attributes? “Hi, I’m very smart and successful, and quite gregarious…” No, you establish rapport with them, find some things you may have in common, and build up trust as you get to know each other. Building a relationship with an executive in a professional setting isn’t that different. Ultimately, you’re trying to find an issue of mutual interest that you can engage around. Far more effective than “selling” is to learn about the other person’s issues, be generous with your ideas, and add value in the conversation.

4. Asking tedious, clichéd questions. One top executive I recently interviewed on a panel said this: “If you ask me boring questions, it’s a turn-off—I can’t wait to finish the meeting. But ask me really interesting questions, and you’ve won me over.” You often have to get some background information and ask a few close-ended questions, but move on quickly to open-ended, thought-provoking questions that no one else is asking. And don’t ask all those clichés that salespeople have been using for the last 25 years—things like “What keeps you up at night?” (…The traffic noise) and “What would it take to get your business?” (…Lower your price by 50%).

5. Being overly familiar. As one British executive told me, “Don’t come in with all this ‘matey’ stuff and act like we are best friends after ten minutes. It’s really off-putting.” Be warm and friendly, but don’t pretend you’re suddenly friends. At best it’s a turnoff, at worst it’s kind of creepy. And remember, at the beginning of a relationship, ask questions about them as a person, but don’t ask questions that are too personal (“How have your first six months in this role gone for you?” versus “Tell me about your family”).

6. Arriving unprepared. My father used to tell me, “There is no substitute for genuine lack of preparation.” It’s true—a lack of preparation can uniquely convey a bad impression and make you look inept. Ridiculous, you might say—who would go unprepared into a meeting with a prospective or current client? Yet, I hear this from clients all the time. I repeat—all the time. But, remember, you don’t have to spend hours preparing for every meeting. Sometimes, just 20 minutes of judicious reading and review of the client’s annual report and website can help you glean a few interesting things to ask about and some thoughtful questions you’d like to ask.

7. Going over their heads. There are many reasons why we, as external providers/advisors, can feel the need to go over the head of our immediate client. It may be that we have a valuable idea to propose, but our lower-level client is not in a position, in terms of organizational responsibilities, to appreciate it or act on it. Our work-with client may actually be trying to control the relationship, and keep us from talking with other executives in the company. But going over a client’s head is highly threatening to them and risky for us. It can be seen as a betrayal and also a belittlement. There are times to go over someone’s head, but please do it only after a great deal of careful thought. And be prepared for the potential negative consequences.

8. Giving them recycled boilerplate. Every client I’ve ever worked for feels their organization, culture, and business challenges are unique. They have always wanted me to take the time to understand them as a firm and make recommendations that are tailored for them. Even if you sell a product, different companies may use it in different ways and seek to achieve slightly different goals. In your proposals and during your ongoing work with clients, make sure you are treating your client as a unique market-of-one and not giving them boilerplate. Use their language, and frame your solutions in the context of their special world.

Are you guilty of any of these eight client pet peeves? At one time or another in my career, I’m sure I have been. But that’s all past history. The important thing is, going forward, to be aware of how these thoughtless habits can undermine your relationships and ensure you never get past the first meeting.

Back to top