How to Deal With Difficult Customers and Clients

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By: Jennifer Davey

No matter how good your customer service, you will eventually have to deal with an unhappy client. Whether you made a mistake or they’re just having a bad day, these five tactics can help you handle difficult customers.

For self-employed professionals and small businesses, difficult clients are a fact of life. Even if you rarely make mistakes and treat all your clients with appropriate professionalism, sooner or later you’re going to make an error or a client’s expectations won’t be met. And of course, there are always going to be a few clients who are having a bad day, who have an unclear understanding of what you do, or who are simply hard to please.

These can be difficult situations, but it’s important not to let it get you down. When you’re in the midst of an uncomfortable client interaction, always remember the vast majority of your clients who are happy with what you do.

Here are some things to keep in mind when dealing with difficult clients.

Listen: If your client is dissatisfied, listen to their concerns (do not interrupt them) if you need to take notes, do it. Your goal is to become clear on WHY they are upset. When it’s your turn to talk, start by recapping what they said. This lets the client know you have understood what they said and makes them feel heard. At the same time, however, keep in mind that you are not obligated to continue the interaction if a client becomes abusive in any way.

Take time: If you are communicating with the client primarily through email or another online platform, don’t respond immediately. Take some time to absorb what’s going on and to take the edge off your initial feelings. Give yourself at least an hour or two. You may also want to wait until the next day.

De-escalate: If the client takes an angry, annoyed, or short tone with you, don’t respond in kind; doing so will only make things worse. Be the level-headed one in the situation, and maintain an air of total professionalism throughout the interaction.

Find the kernel of truth: When a client responds to your work with harsh criticism, your natural impulse may be to deny that you did anything wrong and to dismiss the client’s concerns as unreasonable. Try to resist this impulse, and use this as an opportunity for a little reflection. Was there a breakdown in communication, and if so, where did it occur? Were you cutting corners or not working to your highest standards? What should you do in the future to prevent these situations? It could be that the client is indeed being unreasonable, but a little self-reflection never hurts.

Consider taking the loss: There’s no use getting into a drawn-out, tense situation over a relatively small amount of money. Dealing with difficult clients can be emotionally taxing, not to mention time-consuming. At some point, it’s just not worth it anymore. So if you can afford to give a refund and end the relationship, regardless of who is right and who is wrong, consider doing so.

Of course, you may also run into situations where the client is not necessarily angry but perhaps difficult in other ways. For example, dealing with scope creep (the phenomenon where a project that has already been agreed to continues to grow little by little) requires a special type of tact, especially when it becomes necessary to ask for more money. And then there are difficult situations such as when you need to extend a deadline or turn down a project from a regular client.

In each case, try to see things from the client’s perspective, and meet your client’s needs as best you can while looking out for yourself and your business. Be as honest as you can without getting too personal. Make sure your clients know that you value their business even if you cannot fully meet their needs at this time. Keep all your interactions professional and polite, and your clients will usually understand.

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