At the start of our day, many of us go to work hoping for the best: a day full of amenable agreements, productivity, and rewards for excellence. But this is often not the case, especially when dealing with demanding clients. If a wave of tension runs over you every time a particular one calls, you might have a toxic client on your hands.
Toxic clients put undue strain on businesses, especially those that dedicate significant time and energy to customer relationships. That's why we wanted to explore the true cost of toxic clients:
We surveyed over 1,000 working Americans of varying levels of leadership to better understand their perspectives and management decisions regarding toxic clientele. Here's what they had to say.
- 60% of employees have quit a job due to not tolerating toxic clients.
- Toxic clients are fueling Gen Z resignations (71%).
- Over one in four employees have been verbally harassed on Zoom calls by toxic clients.
- Over one-third of businesses have ended relationships with toxic clients by email or text message.
First impressions can be deceiving
The average person does their very best to make a great first impression. Ideally, most people will present themselves with confidence, expertise, and professionalism – all traits that make them pleasant to work with.
However, when your new client starts to exhibit problematic behavior, you‘ll realize how deceiving first impressions can be. In this part of our study, we find out who is most often plagued by toxic clientele and what characterizes them.
You've likely either encountered a toxic client yourself or heard about one, since most of our respondents have dealt with at least one in the last two years (64%). Most of them (73%) were faced by the retail industry, followed by the health care industry (68%). Considering the pressures that retail and health care workers endured during the pandemic, it's no surprise they've felt the most impact.
There are myriad signs that might point to a toxic client. The most common one, as noted by 35% of respondents, was being excessively hard to please. This sign was also one of the top pet peeves among employees and managers. Meeting a client's needs is usually the primary aim of a business, which might make it the easiest manipulation tool a client can use. It may be a red flag if someone constantly pushes for a better solution after you've done your best to satisfy them.
One way to avoid that is to communicate specific expectations. Being an effective communicator might prevent a toxic client from taking advantage of you: According to 37% of our respondents, miscommunication was the most common complaint made by toxic clients. While clear communication with a client can be difficult when they behave unreasonably, dramatically, or impolitely – respondents' second, third, and fourth top pet peeves – it shows them that you're strong, competent, and not to be messed with.
Testing our tolerance
Toxic clients always seem to test us. Sometimes we can adapt, but they'll often keep pushing until we reach a breaking point. How many working Americans have quit a job because of a toxic client?
Since a toxic work culture is a leading cause of job resignations, it makes sense that many workers might want to quit because of toxic clients. Among the employees we surveyed, 60% reported quitting their job because of a toxic client. Gen Zers were the most likely to do so, comprising 71% of those who had.
Employees who had been with their company for over seven years were least likely to quit their job due to client toxicity, while employees who had been with their company for five to six years were the most likely.
Since employee tenure didn't correlate with the likelihood of an employee leaving a job because of client toxicity, other factors may have persuaded the respondents who did so. Still, we shouldn't discount the potential for toxic clients to detract from a company's resources.
These problematic clients also negatively impacted employees' morale, motivation, performance, and engagement with the company, which can also badly affect a company's bottom line.
It certainly doesn't help when employees feel unsupported at work, which appeared to be the case for many of our respondents. According to our findings, 60% blamed their employers for keeping problematic clients, with Gen Z (73%) being the most likely to do so. When we consider all of this data, it's easy to see why business leaders reported that, on average, a toxic client costs their company $4,994 per year. Perhaps that's why 56% preferred to charge extra fees rather than sever ties.
Confronting challenging clients
Confrontation can be difficult. That's probably why, when we asked respondents how they've handled their most challenging clients, they shared a wide variety of tactics.
The most common method for handling toxic clients, staying calm, was used by 56% of employees, managers, and business leaders. It was also among the most effective. The second most common method was learning to say “no” (used by 44%), and the third was consciously preventing oneself from exhibiting toxic behavior in turn (used by 43%).
Other tactics were more action-oriented and engrained in the processes of the company, such as keeping communication records (the most effective, and used by 38%), specifying working hours (33%), and improving the feedback process (33%). Despite being a popular option among respondents, charging extra fees turned out to be the least effective method for handling a toxic customer.
Nice knowing you
Now that we've explored the experience and tactics of employees and managers when dealing with toxic clients, let's see what business leaders have done about them. We asked them how bad things had to get to cut ties with these customers and how they managed to do it.
Most business leaders we surveyed have ended a toxic client relationship in the last two years (68%). The top reason for drawing the line, prompting 38% of business leaders to do so, was that a client had made offensive, rude remarks toward their team. Disrespecting their time was the second most common reason (reported by 37%), followed by unrealistic expectations becoming the norm (36%).
As for how they broke the news to these clients, 35% let them know with a text message or email, while nearly the same number (32%) were more direct, using a phone or video call. Some companies – one in five – simply ghosted the client.
The true cost
In the end, toxic clients cost a lot more than just money; employees' well-being and trust in their company are just as important. Problematic and abusive clients can sink employees' morale and motivation, ultimately sapping performance, and risking the team's integrity.
That's why it's important to handle these situations in healthy, positive ways, such as staying calm, setting boundaries, and communicating clearly. Otherwise, it might be best to cut these clients off before they cause any more damage.
We surveyed 1,118 employed Americans. Among them, 45% were employees, 32% were managers, and 23% were business leaders. 52% of them were men, and 48% were women. Generation breakdowns were as follows:
- Generation Z: 17%
- Millennials: 40%
- Generation X: 28%
- Baby boomers: 15%
For short, open-ended questions, outliers were removed. To help ensure that all respondents took our survey seriously, they were required to identify and correctly answer an attention-check question. Survey data has certain limitations related to self-reporting, including telescoping, exaggeration, and selective memory. Margin of error: Plus or minus 3% with a 95% confidence interval.
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