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9 proven tactics for dealing with difficult clients

Dealing with difficult clients is an essential skill for any small business. Use these 9 tactics to diffuse tension & protect your business.

Business owner frustrated over dealing with difficult clients

Even if you’ve been in business for years, your probably don’t spend a lot of time focused on how to deal with difficult clients. Unfortunately, it’s a situation all independent business owners have to face at one point or another, but it’s typically something we deal with once it’s happening. 

Managing different personalities is a part of running a small business most of us have to learn as we go. Figuring out how to deal with difficult clients can be challenging though. You’re already in the thick of things, under pressure to do great work on deadline, and you have to navigate the minefield of client happiness. 

Just as there are many different types of people in the world, there are different types of unhappy customers you might face. In this article, we’re sharing nine tried and true tips to deal with difficult customers that will help you proactively resolve conflict, improve your client relationships, and protect your business.

1. Set clear expectations to avoid misunderstandings from the start

The best way to avoid someone becoming a difficult client in the first place is to set expectations. This should include establishing:

  • Project objectives
  • Responsibilities (yours and clients)
  • Communication procedures
  • Points of contact
  • Budget
  • Protocol for managing changes

The best way to do this is through your contracts. By establishing your relationship and project terms up front, you can save time and build lasting client relationships. On the flip side, unclear expectations open the door to angry clients who don’t feel like they’re getting what they paid for. 

It’s important to have your clients sign your contracts before they pay, which you can do easily using an online proposal. That way, they’re agreeing to all the expectations before they’re ready to move forward. 

2. Build empathy with how your client feels

When you’re first starting a project, you might think about taking a few moments at the start of a call to ask about the client’s family, hobbies, or a recent vacation. If you’re always getting right to business, you may miss out on building rapport with clients. We all tend to be more patient and understanding of people we know better as individuals.

When scheduling meetings, be sure to build in enough time to be human. If you’re hurriedly getting off one call to join the next one, with no breathing room in between, you’re not going to be your best self with any of your clients — they’re going to notice.

If you’re already handling difficult clients, the same advice holds true. Shift from email to face-to-face conversations (whether that’s virtual or in-person), so you can get a sense of their body language and more of what they’re frustrated about. Oftentimes, the whole picture doesn’t come across over email. 

Perhaps there was a miscommunication, or maybe they read something wrong in your contract. Whatever it is, working to understand your client and how they feel will make it better to resolve the situation. 

3. Respond promptly

It’s not always a good idea to respond immediately if you’re frustrated with something a difficult client has said or done. You can compose an angry email in your head, but that’s not the one to send. Nevertheless, when a client raises an issue, you want to be responsive. In fact, timeliness is a big part of client and customer experience, and 58% of American consumers have said they would switch companies because of poor customer experience.

Acknowledging their concern promptly will help the client to feel heard. You don’t have to accept blame. In fact, you want to avoid doing so right away. Instead, tell the client you are making the issue a priority and will get back when you’ve had a chance to review it in more detail.

With client communication management software, you can manage the entire project from end to end in one easy-to-use platform. It’s important to have a system like this in place when you’re handling difficult situations so that all your communications are in one place. Likely, you may have to go back to previous conversations so you can be clear about where the misunderstanding came from. 

4. Ask for specifics

If a client complains “this isn’t working” there’s not a lot you can do with that information. It’s too vague. Ask clients to specify what is bothering them. Maybe they feel they aren’t getting enough communication from you. Or they aren’t being kept up-to-date on project progress. Or you’re too expensive. Or not working hard enough. Despite how valid their complaints are or aren’t, you need to know specifically what the issue is before you can address it. 

Once their concern is clear, you’ll be able to discuss it honestly. You might have to point out that you’ve been sending emails to the client contact provided but that person appears to be on vacation. Or that the project is being held up on their end while you wait for their input. 

As we mentioned earlier, it’s also best to schedule a face-to-face call or meeting where you can discuss everything and take it off email.

5. Vent elsewhere

Whether you’re dealing with difficult clients for graphic design, photography, web services, copywriting, consulting, or another area, it helps to take a step back. When working with difficult clients, don’t take your frustrations out on them. Try also to avoid taking it out on the people you’re working with on the project (or on the people or pets at home).

It’s always a good idea to leave your desk or computer and get outside when annoyed. You might find a great solution comes to you while walking to get a coffee or standing in line at the food truck. At the very least, you’ll be healthier than if you sit hunched over your work holding it all in.

Maybe you need to join an industry networking group where you can all share anonymous horror stories. Or you have a friend who works in the same field who you can get together with to complain about clients occasionally. You might join a group like The Rising Tide Society, a community of small businesses, freelancers, and entrepreneurs that (usually) meet in person and engage in a lively Facebook group. 

6. Get things in writing

If you’re dealing with difficult clients on the phone, follow up afterward with an email capturing what was said on the call. Ask for an email response confirming you have accurately set out what both parties agreed upon. 

You’ll be better able to defuse a situation if you can point to established project goals or timelines. Reminding a client you warned them last Thursday that changing the website template again would add a week to delivery has more weight when you can forward the actual email or revamped timeline sent previously.

Sometimes, difficult situations may lead to changes in the project budget, scope, or timeline. Even for minor changes, you need to be sure the changes are captured in a new contract so you can avoid more misunderstandings moving forward.

7. Offer a solution

When figuring out how to deal with a difficult client, don’t assume that they are wrong. You’ve got to do the legwork and establish what went wrong or where the relationship went off the rails. Sometimes it isn’t as black and white as to whether it was your fault or theirs. Oftentimes, it could be a little bit of both, or just a simple matter of miscommunication. 

If you know you can take any of the fault, accept responsibility and provide a clear, specific solution. If the client is in the wrong, point to the particular discrepancy or fault on their end and suggest how you can both move forward. Offer a solution that you can live with, carefully outline what the solution entails, and get the new agreement in writing.

8. Just say no

As an independent business owner, it can be difficult to say “no” to work. However, working with difficult clients takes time and adds stress. Think of what you can accomplish or what new clients you may be able to say “yes” to if you aren’t having to escalate the situation with someone else.

Have faith in your business and your ability to bring in new work. Free your business up to focus on work that is appreciated. That way, instead of having to read about how to deal with difficult clients, you can be looking instead for more hands to handle your growing client base.

9. Learn from mistakes

It’s always useful to review what you learn from a particular situation. Perhaps you know there are clients to avoid working with in the future. Or you need to revamp your proposals or contracts to make certain expectations clear upfront. Or you need to add time into your review processes with clients in the future.

Taking the time to reflect on what worked and what didn’t can help you improve. After examining what went wrong and how it could have been prevented, apply those lessons to avoid dealing with difficult clients in the future.

The bottom line: make a plan to handle challenging clients

Unfortunately, the truth is that most business owners will have to become an entire customer service team from time to time. That means it’s important to prepare yourself for dealing with difficult clients so you can handle the situation as stress-free as possible. 

Be sure you’re setting clear expectations from the start, communicating consistently, and building relationships with your clients throughout each project. If things start to escalate, know where to look to resolve the situation (your contract and prior emails), and come to conversations prepared with a solution you can offer.



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