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It doesn’t matter what you do, who you work with, or how picky you are with your customers—every small company owner, independent contractor, freelancer, and self-employed individual must deal with problematic clients at some point.
But just because difficult clients are a part of running a successful business doesn’t make them any easy to deal with! Managing difficult clients is stressful, time-consuming, and, depending on what they’re difficult about, can greatly influence your business.
As a result, business owners must understand how to deal with tough clients. When you know how to deal with difficult clients, you can better manage your customers and sustain your client relationships—even when your clients persist in being a thorn in your side.
Not all difficult clients are the same
The task for agencies in every agency-client relationship is simple: provide skills, results, and good service.
Clients, on the other hand, aren’t always aware of their role. They regularly change their minds, fail to reply to requests on time, and request too many changes too late in the project’s life cycle.
This type of behavior is rarely motivated by malice. Clients hardly, if ever, purposefully treat agency representatives (and the project as a whole) badly.
Rather, they frequently act in this way because:
- The sales/marketing staff sold them an unrealistic vision
- Something in their personal/professional life is keeping them busy.
- They don’t know better
Difficult clients are the kind you hear horror stories about. These are the people that seek too much work for too little pay, who will withhold payments, and who will be disrespectful to your employees. When you see them, you can easily spot them.
The vast majority, on the other hand, are unintentionally tough clients. These are clients who don’t realize they’re difficult. Consider clients who:
- Have not been informed clearly if something is out of scope
- Have not been adequately educated about the service to make rapid, informed selections
- Are burdened by professional or personal difficulties over which they have no control
- Are bound by their company’s policies (say, you want Net 30 payments, but their employer only makes Net 45 payments)
- Was oversold by the sales team and entered the agency-client relationship with conflicting expectations.
- Inherited a terrible scenario from a previous stakeholder
In these scenarios, it’s easy to use a wide brush to label such clients as “difficult.” But, more often than not, there being difficulty is the result of the agency’s shortcomings. Is it the client’s fault if they want too much or struggle with decision-making when the PM fails to communicate effectively enough or the sales staff gives them an unrealistic vision?
This is why you cannot use the same strategy when dealing with all challenging clients. Quarantine and manage the tough clients, but for the unintentionally difficult ones, exercise empathy and educate them instead.
Adopt this mentality, and you’ll discover that dealing with difficult clients becomes much easier.
How can I identify problematic clients?
Difficult clients can take many different kinds. They may be running around with their hair on fire, calling everything an emergency, or calling you on weekends and late at night to discuss insignificant matters. They may make your employees cry with their incessant rants, or they may simply be a bad fit for your firm.
Difficult clients cost businesses a lot of money, according to an article in CPA Advisor. Clients are not only more prone to dispute invoices, pay late, or not pay at all, but they are also a drain on processes and resources. Difficult clients contribute to staff turnover, stress-related health concerns, job satisfaction, and a bad reputation.
One or two unpleasant clients are normal in business, but it is critical to try to turn things around before it is too late.
Here are some examples of various types of challenging clients you may encounter:
- Know-it-all: They understands your business better than you do, and they’ll tell you everything you’re doing wrong at the top of their lungs until you wonder why they bothered to recruit you in the first place.
- Party member: They can’t make a single decision without talking with someone in their office.
- Emergency: Everything has to be done today. They has no idea you have other clients and expect you to space-time continuum to meet their unreasonable deadlines.
- It’s an easy job: Declaring that everything is simple and easy and that you will have no problems while demanding a million personalized details and sophisticated systems.
- Simply angry: Terry shouts down the phone at your staff members and berates you in public for seemingly small difficulties with your work. You sleep with one eye open.
- Complaining about the invoice: They scrutinize every element of your invoice and attempts to eke out as much free labor as possible.
Strategies for dealing with difficult clients
While a nice smile and a cheerful attitude can help, if you focus too much on these approaches, you risk ignoring deeper, more basic concerns.
If you have many problematic clients, you have to ask yourself why you have so many difficult clients in the first place. Is there something you’re doing wrong?
That is exactly what we will concentrate on in this part. Aside from specific approaches, we’ll go through some key strategies for dealing with difficult clients.
1. Reorient your pricing
Agency veterans will tell you that the more you compete on pricing, the more difficult clients you will receive. It also makes sense — a client on a tight budget will want to double-check every invoice and demand more from your team.
How do you avoid these clients?
Simple: you should reconsider how you sell your services, especially in terms of pricing.
Your customer base tends to reflect your positioning. Value-focused clients are often drawn to an agency that focuses on value pricing. If you position yourself as a less expensive option, you will attract clients who desire less expensive work.
This effectively traps you into a system in which your work is evaluated based on its cost rather than its quality.
It’s a vicious cycle: a “cheap” agency can’t hire top-tier talent, which means your work remains average, which also means your clients are never completely satisfied.
2. Establish clear expectations
Setting clear expectations at the outset of your client engagements (and ensuring that your client understands those expectations) can help you avoid misunderstandings in the future—and, as a result, problematic interactions with your client.
When you begin working with a new customer, organize a meeting to go over and establish all of the details of your working relationship. Walk through everything that could be significant (or perhaps misconstrued) in the future. This includes:
- Professional services. You and your customer must agree on what you are being hired to do. What services do you intend to provide for the client?
- Your business experience. You never want a client to say you misrepresented yourself or your company, so before you begin working together, outline your business background, including years of experience in your industry, the types of projects you specialize in, and your experience with the type of project or work they’re looking to hire for.
- Pricing. Setting clear expectations is one of the most crucial areas to avoid client difficulties. Your price structure. Before taking on a project, go over the whole price structure with the customer, including the total amount due upfront, payment conditions, the payment schedule, when the final payment is due, and what happens in the case of a late payment or unpaid invoice, including late penalties and interest charges.
- Timeline. Many clients become irritated when tasks are not completed within the timescales they consider appropriate—so make sure you define realistic timetables and project deadlines. And, to avoid ambiguity, be as explicit as possible. So, if you’re a general contractor hired to refurbish a kitchen, don’t just estimate a completion date; instead, walk through approximate time frames for each element of the job, such as demo, cabinet installation, and painting.
Once you’ve examined all of this information with your customer (this is critical! ), but it all in writing—and have the client read and sign it.
3. Maintain firm boundaries
Clients with a natural tendency to be difficult can (and will!) walk all over you without boundaries, and the relationship can quickly become overwhelming.
You’ll want to establish clear limits with your clients in several areas, including:
- The project’s scope. It’s simple for the project scope to expand if you don’t have clear boundaries on what your project comprises — and what it doesn’t. However, difficult clients will frequently request adjustments to the project and refuse to pay for those changes—so establish clear boundaries around the project scope from the start and be sure to put up a new contract any time the client requests a change.
- Communication. Setting communication limits is essential, especially if your client is tough. Inform your client of how and when they can contact you with project-related queries or issues.
- How employees and contractors are treated. If you have employees or subcontractors working for a customer, you want to ensure that your staff is handled with respect. Refuse to allow any disrespect, inflammatory language, or any mistreatment from your client against yourself and your team—and if they do, let them know the behavior is unacceptable.
4. Commit To professionalism
When you’re dealing with a particularly difficult customer, it’s tempting to let your emotions get the best of you. However, as a business owner, it is critical to remain cool, separate business from personal, and adhere to a professional demeanor in all contacts with clients.
5. Everything should be documented.
As earlier said, one of the go-to’s for difficult clients is the “he said, she said” game, in which they say you said, did, or promised one thing while you know you did, said, or promised nothing of the sort.
A formal contract at the beginning of the project will help to avoid many of these “he said, she said” misunderstandings. However, there are several potentials for misunderstandings once the contract has been drawn up, which is why it is critical to document all of your interactions with the client.
Keep a log of all phone calls with your client; following each call, note down the time, date, and topic covered. Do the same thing if you’re on a video call. Keep all of your emails and other written correspondence in a folder. Documenting all of your client interactions will not only help you address any future misconceptions with the client, but it will also be useful if you end up having to take legal action against the customer (or they decide to take legal action against you).
6. Listen actively
The most crucial phase in this process is actively listening to what your client or customer is saying – they want to be heard and have a chance to vent their issues.
Begin the conversation with a neutral phrase like, “Let’s go over what happened,” or “Please tell me why you’re upset.” This subtly establishes a partnership between you and your client and communicates to them that you’re ready to listen.
Resist the need to address the problem right at once or to draw hasty conclusions about what transpired. Allow your client to tell you their tale instead. Don’t think about what you’ll say once they’ve finished talking – this isn’t active listening!
Also, nothing should be allowed to disrupt this dialogue. Give your full attention to your client.
7. Remain polite
For those clients who become frustrated, you may encounter hostile reactions or agitated tones at some point. Responding with kindness will not only assist in diminishing their rage but will also give you a better opportunity of convincing them. Maintaining politeness in the face of demanding clients can also benefit your reputation and general pleasure. When you are continuously nice and considerate, a client will find it difficult to remain upset with you.
8. Accept responsibility for your mistakes
There is a distinction to be made between tough clients and unhappy clients. If your client relationship is strained because you dropped the ball or under-delivered on your project, you must own up to it.
Suppose a customer is dissatisfied because of what they perceive to be a problem on your end. In that case, it is critical to listen to how the client feels—and if their concerns are justified, it is critical to take every step required to address the client’s issues and correct the situation.
9. Thank them for drawing your attention to the issue.
When a consumer appears agitated and unhappy about a problem, thanking them for expressing their worry to you can go a long way toward creating rapport with them. A simple thank you will suffice to acknowledge their time and patience while you strive to resolve the situation.
10. Don’t accept blame when it isn’t deserved
It is critical to accept responsibility for any mistakes you make with your clients. However, some clients will want you to take the blame even when it isn’t your fault—in those circumstances, it’s critical to stand firm.
The point is, you should always listen to and acknowledge your clients—but you don’t have to take responsibility from a tough client for conditions beyond your control.
11. Review the promises you make to clients
Realigning customer expectations with reality is thus one of the first stages in dealing with problematic clients. Examine the promises made to clients by your business development team. Are you offering them outcomes you cannot guarantee? Do you accept your best-case possibilities as the norm?
Suppose clients come into the connection expecting the spectacular, the goodwill not enough. So, collaborate with your business development team and have them examine your sales pitch. Try to get a PM to join in on a meeting to bring things back down to reality.
12. When necessary, escalate the situation.
When working with challenging clients, you may do everything correctly, yet you still might not obtain the desired outcome.
And in those situations, sometimes the best thing to do? Increase the intensity of the situation. When dealing with a tough client, you may need to take things to the next level in a variety of situations, including:
- Fee disagreements. If you and your client disagree on the amount of money owed for a service or project and cannot reach an agreement on your own, the disagreement may need to be mediated by a legal firm.
- The client refuses to pay past-due invoices. A non-paying client who refuses to settle an outstanding invoice (despite your best efforts) can negatively influence your company’s cash flow. You may need to escalate the problem and write a demand letter or take them to a small claims court to collect and settle the nonpayment. You might alternatively send the unpaid bill to a debt collection firm and let them handle the debt collection/nonpayment issue on your behalf.
- Breach of contract. If your client is in direct breach of a contract (for example, by ignoring unpaid bills for an extended period or refusing to settle past-due fees), you have the legal authority to sue them for breach of contract.\
- Taking legal action against a client is not a simple decision; not only does it complicate an already tough client situation, but there are also considerable costs involved (including the time investment and legal fees to pay an attorney’s or law firm’s legal services). Before you decide to escalate a client situation, seek legal guidance from a lawyer to ensure that it is the right course of action for you.
- If your client is agitated, speak slowly and calmly, and use a low tone of voice. This will help to discreetly lessen the tension and prevent you from escalating the issue by obviously becoming agitated or irritated yourself.
- It is critical to deal with difficult customers professionally. Learning how to keep calm and cool under pressure can help you navigate difficult situations with elegance and expertise.
- If your client has given you a tough email or is upset with you over the phone, offer to meet with them in person if possible to resolve the issue. This not only diffuses anger (since it is more difficult for most individuals to be truly angry in person), but it also demonstrates that you honestly want to discuss and resolve the matter.
- Members of your team may be on the “front lines” while dealing with unpleasant consumers. Ascertain that they understand how to engage in emotional labor correctly. (This means they should be able to manage their emotions when dealing with unpleasant people.)
- On rare occasions, a client or customer may be verbally abusive to you or your team. Know ahead of time what you’ll put up with and what you want. If things get heated, you may need to be assertive and defend yourself, or you may need to leave the scene to allow the client time to calm down.
- Work on honing your conflict resolution abilities. These abilities will come in handy if you need to negotiate with your clientele.
- If you feel that your client is unreasonable, you might start to get upset, especially if they criticize you or your organization unfairly. So learn anger management skills so that you can stay calm in these situations.
Make an effort to listen to their difficulties or complaints actively, and avoid the impulse to interrupt or solve the problem immediately. Make an effort to be sympathetic and understanding, and make sure your body language reflects this.
If you’re at a loss for what to do, ask your client what will make them pleased. If it’s within your power, do it as soon as feasible. Follow up with your customer to ensure that they were satisfied with the way the matter was resolved.
If a client becomes too difficult to deal with? Walk away.
All of these tactics can help you handle difficult customer interactions more effectively. However, if you’ve exhausted every option on this list and the client is still too difficult to deal with? The good news is you can walk away.
When firing a client, you will need to:
Finish up important tasks. Leaving a client in the middle of an important project can leave you with a terrible taste in your mouth and may jeopardize your reputation. Whenever possible, attempt to finish crucial contracted work before terminating the contract.
Check your contract/engagement letter. You should have included termination clauses in your contracts, but it’s always a good idea to double-check before starting
Please direct them elsewhere. Just because a client isn’t a good fit for your company doesn’t imply they won’t get assistance elsewhere. Find some potential firms that the client could be interested in working with. Once they’ve signed up for a new provider, assist them with migrating their data.
Maintain your cool. We’ve already discussed the need to keep a professional demeanor. When communicating to the client why you are discontinuing the connection, use courteous wording. Don’t get caught up in social media brawls or debates.
How to prevent difficult clients in the future
Co. has drawn up a list of red flags to identify troublesome clients before they sign a contract. Among these indicators are:
- They have unreasonable expectations or are vague about deadlines – allowing clients to set strict deadlines to the point that it disturbs your other work suggests that they do not value your business.
- Their project is “simple” and will take “no time at all” — clients say they want a simple website, but nothing is ever as simple as it appears.
- They say, “I dismissed the last consultant” – it’s possible that they were innocent and the previous company was just horrible, but it’s far more likely that there were flaws on both sides.
- They argue about every facet of your charges — If they can’t afford you, they can go elsewhere. Trying to compel you to offer them discounts demonstrates that they do not value your time or expertise.
- Trust your instincts — Even if everything else checks out, if your intuition tells you that a customer isn’t a good fit, you should listen. There are always more customers to be had!
You have decision-making authority as a business owner; you get to choose who you work with and who you don’t. And if a customer becomes too difficult to work with, you can easily walk away—making room in your schedule for clients who will be easier to work with.