9 Proven Tactics for Dealing With Difficult Clients

Even if you went to business school, you probably didn’t spend a lot of time on how to deal with difficult clients. 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. 

how to deal with difficult clients

Just as there are many different types of people in the world, there are different types of difficult clients. In this article, we’re sharing nine tried and true tips for dealing with difficult clients that will help you proactively resolve conflict and protect your business.

1. Set clear expectations

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

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

2. Get personal and build empathy

No, we’re not suggesting you insult that difficult client’s mother or how they dress. This isn’t grade school. Instead, you might think about taking a few moments at the start of a call to ask about the client’s family, hobbies, or recent vacation. If you’re always getting right to business, you may miss out on building rapport with difficult 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.

3. Respond promptly

You don’t want 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. 

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 a client communication management software, you can manage the entire project from end-to-end in one easy-to-use platform. You’ll find email templates for all kinds of client communications and can customize your own response for initially dealing with difficult clients.

Related: How to Prevent or Handle Cancellations [Free Email Templates]

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 current on project progress. Or you’re too expensive. Or not working hard enough. 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. 

If you use a client communication management software like HoneyBook, you can send simple online questionnaires to gauge client feedback (even if they’re not a difficult client). Tracking the specifics is easier with a Client Communication Management System where you can keep all the communications and engagement information in a single platform alongside the rest of your business. 

Related: Client Communication Management Software: What it is and Why You Need One in 2020 

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 for working with a difficult client 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 afterwards 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. 

When you’re working with difficult clients, 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.

Most often, a clear contract will help you  avoid confusion about deliverables and set clear expectations up front. Better yet, if you send an online contract with a client management platform, the document and any edits or amendments will be easily accessible to both you and the client after signing. Need to confirm something? It’s easy to get back to that contract and review. The same is true of online invoices and payments.

Need to Get it in Writing? Start with an Online Contract.

Online contracts are easier to easier to send, sign, and track with HoneyBook. Start from a contract template, adjust to your business, and make it official in no time. 

Learn About Online Contracts

7. Offer a solution

When figuring out how to deal with a difficult client, don’t take it for granted that they are wrong. You’ve got to do the legwork and establish what went wrong or where the relationship went off the rails.

If it’s your 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 a small business owner or solo freelancer 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 spinning your wheels with this challenging one.

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 there is a type of client you want 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.

Need a client management system that has your back? Try HoneyBook.

As much as we hope you never have to deal with a difficult client, it’s likely an inevitability at some point. A client management system like HoneyBook can help you proactively communicate and onboard clients, while automatically capturing every details and keeping it organized in one place. Think of it this way: if all your client conversations, client info, contracts, payment due dates, project details, and status changes live in one organized place — you’ll run into far fewer problems with difficult clients. That means, more time to just do the fun part of running your business.



Steph Long

Stephanie spends her days helping small businesses discover the tools and systems that make running a business easier, so that they can focus on the part of business that inspires them.