How to Deal With Difficult Clients

Over the course of business we’re bound to cross paths with a client who makes us want to scream, hide, or throw our computer out the window. Heck, we might have been that customer. I know I’ve come close when stuck on the phone with the cable company for three hours.

If everything in the business world flowed in perfect harmony there’d be no need for signed contracts, bidding, refunds, or pressing three to speak to a representative in retention. That’s not the world we live in. Business happens.

First, let’s identify some different types of problem clients.

  • The know-it-all:
    • This type of client thinks they know everything about your business. In fact, they’re pretty sure they know more than you do.
    • The know-it-all is more than happy to tell you how you should be doing things.
  • Piece of cake:
    • This challenging client assumes that everything you do is easy. They have no real understanding of what it takes for you to be successful.  
    • By thinking everything is easy, they  assume your work can be done fast and cheap.
  • The world is on fire:
    • This person is in a constant state of panic because everything is an emergency.
    • They think everything needs to be done immediately for them. This is the client who stares at their inbox waiting for your reply.
  • The nickel & dimer:
    • This client is always looking for a rebate, discount, or any type of price reduction.
    • They will often harass you for a deal or pit you against another firm, threatening to go elsewhere.
  • Just plain nasty:
    • Some clients just aren’t nice people. They’re often condescending and rude.
    • This can be the most challenging client to deal with and may take extra care.

Are any of these types of clients recognizable? Have you come face-to-face with any of these creatures in the wild? If you have, I’m sure you’ll agree that they [the pain in the @#!%] can have a serious impact on you and your business.

Trouble clients can put a drain on you, your staff, your reputation, and your finances. They may pay late, demand discounts, or not pay at all. They can be especially demanding and take up your staff’s valuable time, time not spent working with grateful clients. Difficult clients can cause unnecessary stress, anxiety, and high blood pressure. And with today’s technology, your reputation is now a click away from being at risk.

Steps to Dealing With Difficult Clients

  1. Respond quickly to the client. Making a client wait to hear back from you will only make the situation worse. They’ll begin to feel like you don’t care or worse yet, that they’re not important enough for you to reply. This is not the stage where you are replying with solutions. You are acknowledging there is a problem and that you are available to the client to begin the healing process.
  2. Stay calm. Take any problems with your clients seriously not personally. Even if they make personal comments, understand they might be speaking emotionally and not rationally. You’re the voice of reason, don’t be offended and be patient. Your body language, word choice, and tone of voice can influence the client. Very often the client will mirror your behavior and begin to settle down if you remain calm, cool, and respectful.
  3. Listen. Paraphrasing one of my favorite quotes from Stephen Covey, “Listen with the intent to understand not the intent to reply.”. Your client wants to vent, complain, and most of all be heard. Practice patience and refrain from replying too quickly. Ask for details and seek to clarify any situations or confusion. Be appreciative that they’re coming to you with this and acknowledge the need for fixing the situation. Do not apologize or agree to any fault just address the need for repair.
  4. Identify the problem. After thoughtfully listening to your client’s problem you’ll want to confirm that you’re on the same page. Repeat the problem back to them and ask for their confirmation. Clarify any misunderstood expectations or communications that may have transpired. Make sure you completely understand what the client’s problem is.
  5. Come up with solutions. If you’re wrong, admit it and offer an apology. If the client is wrong don’t finger point. Use the wording from contracts, bids, or policies to explain (not accuse) where the confusion may have come from. Assure the client that you will work with them to ensure a fair resolution. Whatever the solutions are, make sure you get the client’s agreement that they are acceptable. This can be done with a confirmation email or a new contract agreement.
  6. Cut ‘em loose. Sometimes you just have to release the beast back into the wild. Yes, you can fire a client. When you’ve exhausted all efforts of making them happy the best decision can be to cut your losses. Make sure you have all contractual work finished, be polite, and perhaps recommend a company that can better service their needs. Give them the ol’ “It’s not you, it’s me.” You never know when they’re going to talk about you and you want them to have positive things to say even if you weren’t a good fit.
  7. Learn. Some of the best lessons for your business can be learned from a difficult client. Humility is your ally. What could you have done differently to make the situation go better? What could be done in the future to keep an incident from happening again? Are there training lessons to be learned? Should you tweak a system? Good or bad, there’s always a takeaway for next time.

Problems are going to happen, it’s inevitable. The best way to deal with a difficult client is to try to avoid a problem to begin with. Easier said than done, I know. Review your systems, scour your reviews, and ask the clients you have good relationships with for their feedback. By doing a bit of work periodically you might just see the potential of a problem before it happens. Being proactive will save you time, money, your reputation, and a whole lot of headaches.

Over the years, a majority of my best customers/clients have been born from an initial problem/incident/situation. It wasn’t me giving away the farm or bending over backwards to make them happy. It was listening to what they had to say, treating them with respect, and remedying the situation fairly that became the foundation for a strong relationship.  

Published by Gabriel Hawk

Father & Husband Undergraduate student at The University of South Florida Major: Professional and Technical Communication, Minor: Leadership Studies

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