Today we are talking about a sensitive topic — difficult clients! What do you do when you’re dealing with a difficult client right now? Maybe they are angry? Maybe you are angry? And, you’re just defeated. If you’re struggling with the next steps and how to find a resolution, this is for you. I have been there, and in this episode, I’m going to teach you 10 specific tips on how to deal with a difficult situation with a client.
If you’ve come here feeling defeated and ready to throw in the towel, then I want to tell you first EVERYTHING will be ok. You’ve got this. This isn’t the end of the world, and I’m here to help you through it!
Maybe your situation is a really dramatic situation with lawsuits, refunds, and angry text messages. Or, maybe it’s more tamed, like the client being unsatisfied and frustrating you. There are many levels to a “difficult experience”, but no matter where you are you can manage this.
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How to deal with a difficult client experience:
1. Calm down and pause.
This might seem like a lame place to start, but hear me out! If you are in the thick of a situation, it is so important to pause and cool off.
Don’t message your client when you’re angry and heated! You might say things you will end up regretting if you don’t give yourself time to think it all through. A lot of times when a difficult client situation is happening, the client might be trying to contact you a lot or even outside of business hours. Hear me, it’s ok to WAIT to respond!
I encourage you to seek counsel from someone who is removed from the situation. They don’t have to be a business owner, maybe just someone with an outside perspective. This will help you take a step back and think about the best way to respond. When we are hurt we often say and do things we don’t mean. Stop engaging in the conversation until you have cooled off. Maybe even leave your office or the space you are in and go for a walk.
[Listen to this full episode to hear me talk through some of my own personal bad client experiences.]
2. Be a leader and set boundaries.
Remember, you are the boss and they are the client. Sometimes a client might think they want to be the boss of the project but they are really paying YOU to lead them to an end result through your service. Let that encourage you to be their leader!
Setting boundaries from the beginning is really important so you don’t end up in a bad situation. BUT even once something starts to feel difficult, you can step up and be a leader NOW, even if you weren’t doing this previously. You can still set boundaries later on if you start to have issues.
I sometimes have people tell me “Ugh! My client won’t stop texting me.” When I ask questions like, “Did you ever text them first? Did you tell them not to text you?” The answer is typically that they did not set these boundaries, to begin with. You are the leader of the project. If you start texting your clients, they will see that as the form of communication you prefer to use. If you don’t tell them how you’ll be communicating, but they personally prefer texting, then you can expect them to text you when they have a question. You have to set the boundary and expectations.
Many difficult situations with clients start with not setting boundaries. This doesn’t mean that you can’t still establish boundaries after the fact. You can start right now!
Here’s an example, let’s say your client is texting you at all hours of the day and night with questions. You don’t want to be texted. You want your communication to be on a different platform, here’s what you could say:
“Hey! Thank you for letting me know this! Quick question for you… I’d like to switch our communication from texting to emailing. Would that work for you? I think that by emailing instead of texting, I’ll be able to keep our project more organized and will be able to consistently respond during my normal business hours. I should have told you this when we started the project, so I take full responsibility. Would emailing work for you?”
Usually, with that request, the client isn’t going to be upset. You’re taking ownership of the situation and typically, they’ll respect what you’re asking. Look at your situation. Consider that maybe the client doesn’t realize they are doing anything wrong because you weren’t leading them. Forgive yourself for that, and start leading them now!
I want you to ask yourself right now, ”What new boundary can I set that would help things go smoother in this project?”
3. Ask: “How can we make this right?”
Be looking for solutions before you’re looking for a way out. Ask yourself, “What do I want out of this?” Consider what your ideal situation will be with this person and then try to make it right in that way. Here’s how…
Take the emotion out of it. Perhaps your client has said something really cruel to you. That cruelness might make you emotional. Try taking the emotion out of what they said and just hear or read the comment without the cruelty. Ask yourself if there’s any validity to what they’ve said to you. Is there anything you can take from it that will help you improve the situation or hone your skills better?
Affirm what they are feeling. When people are upset and acting out, they really just want to be heard. Show them that they are being heard by showing empathy and describing what you’re seeing. For example, you could say, “I’m sorry you’re feeling X.”, “I see and hear you that you’re upset about Y.”, “I understand that you are unsatisfied with Z.” Doing this will help affirm that their feelings make sense, while also making sure you are both understanding each other.
Tell them what you’re going to do to help the situation and suggest action steps. After you’ve affirmed that you hear and understand their need or concern, present them with options for what you want to do to fix it. I think it’s good to remind people that you’re on the same team as them. They might feel like it’s them against you, so reminding them “I understand that you’re feeling X and we are on the same team. I want you to have a satisfying experience working with me and an amazing end result.”
Maybe give them options for what the next steps could be. For example, “If you think we are no longer the right fit for each other, then we can do X or Y.” Or “If you want to continue working together then we can do X and Z.”
This does not mean that you’re letting them speak poorly to you or degrade you in any way. Every difficult client situation is unique and I think you can stand up for yourself kindly and gracefully. But if you are in an intense situation where you’re being harassed or bullied, know that I’m not telling you to just let that happen. But, in most situations, attempting to make it right and really hearing your client out will help tremendously.
4. Talk on the phone, video, or in-person when possible.
People are nicer on the phone than in email or text messaging. They will see the human element more when hearing your voice or seeing your face. It’s such a great way to bring the heat down and calm the situation.
Unfortunately, mean people are meaner when they can hide behind a screen. That might not be the case with your client, but it could be. It takes YOU being a leader and having some courage to talk on the phone or video chat with a person who is angry with you.
Just like it can be easy for the client to want to email you their complaints, it can feel easier for you to just email them. Really, talking is what solves things faster and better.
I know it might be scary and uncomfortable, but it will grow you as a leader and business owner and it is good practice and might be what saves the situation. So, pick up your phone and call your client.
5. Be honest, not defensive.
Similar to the tip #4, this takes courage. I’m calling you to lead with vulnerability in your situation. When you’re defensive, you make someone want to fight back and often create more drama.
This is not a time for your excuses. No one cares. I know that might sound mean, but really no one cares. I think excuses are the worst thing you can do for a client who is upset. When you can be honest and open, maybe a bit vulnerable, you can create healing. Even though it sometimes doesn’t feel like it when you’re hurt or angry, both you and your client are REAL PEOPLE with real lives, real businesses, families, and struggles. When you can drop the drama, you realize that both of you just want what’s best for the situation.
I know some of you might be thinking “No. My client is just mean. They don’t want what’s best for me and yes, they want drama.” — I get that.
I’ve been there.
But, I think in most cases and situations, honesty and vulnerability helps.
6. Don’t be afraid to offer a refund or end the project even if that means you are losing money.
Don’t be afraid of offering a refund. Refunds do not mean you are bad. They don’t mean you failed. They aren’t always the answer, but sometimes a situation is so bad that a refund or a partial refund makes sense as the way to exit the project.
I do not recommend leaving a project incomplete and then not giving a refund. If you are choosing that you need to discontinue with this person, you should do a partial refund or full refund depending on the situation with the exception of a violation of your contract.
Again, remember that giving a refund does not mean you are horrible. You’re always growing, so just make sure that the refund has a lesson in it that will prevent you from this situation in the future. Don’t refund and move on. Try to figure out how this can be prevented in the future. Sometimes a project can feel so defeating and so lost that the only solution seems like ending things. Do it then. Offer a refund. Only you know what is right for your business and your situation.
7. Apologize when you mess up and try to make it right.
Sometimes we can think it’s a difficult client that is the problem, but really we messed up and we need to own that. This is the same as it would be in any relationship! Genuinely apologizing for a mistake and owning it as your mistake, then making it right can be extremely healing.
Don’t be so blind and angry that you can’t apologize when you need to. Sometimes a genuine apology is all someone really wants and needs.
8. Remember that you are not always right and that this is a learning opportunity.
As Brene Brown says: “There is no innovation and creativity without failure. Period.” You are not always right. Try to see this difficult situation as an opportunity to learn, which I know isn’t what you want to hear when you’re in the thick of a bad situation. You might feel devastated and like you’re going crazy. You might be wondering if you have what it takes to be a business owner.
Sometimes in fights, we can get so wrapped up in seeing a client as “bad” or “wrong” that we miss the ways we messed up. This is especially important for preventing future issues. If you fall into a difficult client situation once, how do you not fall into another one next time? You learn from it by acknowledging that you played a role in it too.
9. Have grace, we never know what people are going through.
As difficult as it may feel when someone is hurting you, have grace for this person. We never know what is causing someone to act a certain way in these business relationships. They could be going through something horrible that you know nothing about because you only have a business relationship. You know this person in a unique way.
Because we don’t know, grace is VITAL here. We are called to love our enemies. This might seem like a weird place to go with this, but I think for those of you who are in a situation where you feel like you have the worst client ever and they are horrible and hateful, you need to hear this. They feel like an enemy and you are called to love them anyway (and I know not all difficult clients will feel like enemies, but if yours does, hear me out).
Jesus calls us, in multiple places in the Bible, to love our enemies and even pray for them. “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you.” (Luke 6:28)
My dad reminded me of this scripture when I was dealing with a hard client situation. I still remember being on the phone with my dad venting to him. He owns a business too, so he understood in a unique way, and I remember him asking if I had prayed for this client yet. He encouraged me to do that and then to call him back.
Through that situation, I learned more about what Jesus means by loving and praying for your enemy. Jesus makes it clear in scripture that loving those who love you is easy. By calling us to love someone who hates us or hurts us, he’s calling us to something contrary to our human nature.
We don’t have any control over other people’s actions, but we do have control over how we respond to their actions. If we knew someone’s whole story and their motivation behind what they did, we would realize that they aren’t actually our enemy.
Most people aren’t malicious. “Forgive them for they know not what they do.” (Luke 23:34) They aren’t our enemies. Pray over the situation and ask God for his guidance. Pray for your difficult client. Pray for resolution. I’ll tell you to go back to God time and time again as business advice because I believe that will change things for you.
10. Don’t let people who you don’t respect speak things over you.
When a truly difficult client speaks down to you (or even just tells you how they were unsatisfied with your work), it hurts. And, it can wreck your perspective on your skills as a service provider. Someone can have an opinion of you that you can decide isn’t true. It can be true for them, but not true for you.
“A lot of cheap seats in the arena are filled with people who never venture onto the floor. They just hurl mean-spirited criticisms and put-downs from a safe distance. The problem is, when we stop caring what people think and stop feeling hurt by cruelty, we lose our ability to connect. But when we’re defined by what people think, we lose the courage to be vulnerable. Therefore, we need to be selective about the feedback we let into our lives.” - Brene Brown
Try out this journaling exercise when you’re in pain from spoken words:
- Write down all of the beliefs that are holding you back or making you upset on paper. Write down your thoughts on what this person said.
- Ask the questions: “Can I poke holes in any of this? Are these facts or limiting beliefs?”
- Poke holes in it. Ask yourself what God says about you and what other clients say about you.
- You can look for truth in the client feedback as a way to improve your business, but don’t look at it as a way to define you.
- You know your situation well enough to know what’s true and what isn’t. With emotional maturity, you can decipher that and move forward with that information.
Listen to the full episode to hear me read through my own journal.
My final advice to you if you’re in the midst of a difficult situation with a client is to breathe, take a break, see the person as a human, not a monster, pray pray pray, and communicate with more intention than you ever have before. Your words really matter in these situations. You can do this. Everything will be ok. You’re strong.
“The way we love people we disagree with is the best evidence of what we really believe.” – Bob Goff
February 25, 2020
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