Customers—you gotta love ‘em. Really. The goal of any company is to keep its clients happy. But there are some clients who never seem satisfied or who are difficult to work with. Maybe they have unreasonable demands. Or claim to be perpetually unhappy about your work. Or are just unpleasant in general. But deal with them you must. Here are some ways to make things easier when handling clients that stress you out.
Listen to what’s being said: Client complaints are actually valuable information—they tell you what areas need improvement.
Let your contract do the talking: Before you take on work with a new client, draw up a contract that spells out your responsibilities as well as theirs. “Refer back to your contract as necessary…When starting a new business relationship, I supply a contract that includes my commitments to them as well as a short list of what I expect from them… It clearly sets up expectations in the beginning of the relationship which can combat future issues,” says business consultant Eileen Schlesier, owner of SleeveShirt Consulting.
Discuss problems in person: Don’t depend on emails to iron out your differences. If possible, meet with the client in person (or over the phone if necessary) to discuss the situation. “Meet with your client face-to-face. Instead of keeping them at arms’ length, difficult clients need face-time,” says Schlesier. “You can get to the root of their issues quickly, gain respect, and maybe even turn their frown upside-down.”
Have an interactive client relationship: Working in a void is never good. Check in regularly with your customers to see if you are meeting their needs. “Ask for feedback. Truthful 360-degree feedback may not be pretty. But asking your difficult client “What could I be doing better to serve you?” may enlighten you,” offers Schlesier. “Just posing the question will help you gain respect, but also keep an open mind about the feedback they provide. There may be a nugget of gold to help you start off your next client relationship on better footing,”
Bring in backup: Use your staff to help deal with clients who are difficult. “Clients who are frustratingly contentious or disagreeable by nature – strategically delegate communications to another employee,” suggests Ken Kilpatrick, president, Sylvia Marketing & Public Relations. “In this scenario, delegated employees are able to keep a level head as they know what to expect, that the experience with the client is intermittent, and that they serve as your ‘knight and shining armor.’ We have also found in some circumstances that clients become less difficult when they get diplomatically shuffled, particularly when you do not respond to their last hostile email or voicemail, but rather send someone else to take care of the matter—they get the unspoken message.”
Agree as much as possible: Instead of being defensive, try and find ways to agree with what the client is saying. “This allows the client to see you in a light in which you are there for him and willing to see his point of view,” notes María J. Torres-López, owner of Notary @ Your Door Co. “This practice will score good points with the client, which in the end will be necessary given that at some point you will disagree.”
Say “I’m sorry”: There are clients who just want to fight. In this case, strategically apologize. “When you know you’re not in the wrong, or the client is being flat out difficult for the sake of being difficult, apologize either verbally or via email. The purpose of this technique is to ‘embarrass’ the client into backing off,” suggests Kilpatrick. “Say something such as ‘I really did not mean to upset you, and I can understand why you are not pleased. I honestly thought my idea was the best solution, and I want you to know, whether I am right or wrong at times, I’m truly committed to doing my best for you.’”
Don’t take it personally: Just because someone is unhappy with your work, it isn’t a personal statement against you. “Clients are not disagreeing with us at a personal level,” says Lopez. “They are disagreeing with us at that moment, for the specific situation we are both in. Do not allow that moment to intoxicate your whole business relationship and all the other moments in which you had come to an agreement.”
Know when to draw the line: There is truth to the saying, “The customer is always right.” But it is not an absolute truth. “If a customer is persistently difficult and doesn’t hold up their end of the contract, doesn’t show up, doesn’t pay bills on time or at all, and a gentle, direct approach that says ‘hey, something’s not right here, can we fix it?’ doesn’t work, then you should let them go,” Matthew Kimberley, author of How To Get A Grip and founder of the More Clients Mastermind. “Fire them with impunity. Do it with grace, refer them to a colleague or a competitor.”