Relationships are hard work, and that statement is as true for the relationships you have with your clients as it is for marriage. Whether you own a company, work as an employee, or freelance, the chances are good that at some point in your professional life, you will have to deal with a client who makes you want to tear out your hair in frustration. These clients have a way of sucking all the oxygen out of a room. They demand the lion’s share of your time and energy, and it is essential to know how to cope with them.
Protecting Yourself up Front
The first and best thing you can do when it comes to dealing with a difficult client is to codify your relationship to establish clear boundaries and parameters. Entering into a client relationship is not something to be done lightly. Your contract should outline what you will charge as well as what the client can expect in return for their payment. Depending on your fee structure and business, it may help to walk potential clients through a hypothetical situation to help them understand your rates and fees.
Outlining your charges and responsibilities is essential, but it’s also a good idea to make it clear, with actions if not with words, that you will be the one leading the relationship. It’s a fine line to walk—the customer is always right—but you can and should establish early on that you are in the driver’s seat.
It is also a good idea to meet with a potential client several times before they sign up with you. Sometimes, a single meeting is simply not enough to get a feel for what it will be like to work with someone. If you spend a bit of time talking about expectations and requirements—and asking the client to explain what they value in a business relationship—you may be able to nip potential problems in the bud.
Finally, when it comes to setting expectations, it is always best to build extra time into your deadlines. You might be tempted to accede to a new client’s wishes when it comes to delivery dates and so on, but you will be best served if you build extra time into your promises and then deliver early. The client’s perception will be that you went above and beyond what was expected of you, and creating that feeling can help you avoid trouble.
The First Sign of Trouble
If a client is going to cause you trouble on an ongoing basis, it may become clear very quickly. Instead of tossing up your hands in frustration, try using some basic psychology to get them in line. Here are some suggestions:
- Address problems head-on as soon as you become aware of them. If you notice that a client’s portfolio is under-performing or that one of their vendors has run into an issue, don’t stick your head in the sand. Instead, reach out to your client immediately and talk through it. If you dodge problems as they arise, the client’s perception will be that you know you have done something wrong but don’t want to acknowledge it. If you take on issues directly, their perception will be that you are responsible and reliable.
- Deal with all disputes on the phone or in person, not via email. It might be tempting to use email because it feels less confrontational and upsetting than speaking to a client who is emotional. However, it is also very easy to misinterpret email or to “hear” a tone that simply isn’t there. When you speak to a client, you will be able to explain misunderstandings right away and make sure that your words and intentions are clear.
- If your company makes a mistake and the client is taking it out on you, don’t apologize—at least not in so many words. Instead, acknowledge their feelings (“It’s unfortunate that such-and-such happened and I understand why you are upset”) and then use the words that you hope will describe their response to your error. For example, saying something like, “I know this is disappointing, but I really appreciate your patience as we try to get it right,” can help because it sets up an expectation of patience that they may respond to.
- Never sink to the level of an angry or verbally abusive client. It can be very difficult to keep your cool when confronted with yelling or anger, but you won’t do yourself any favors if you respond in kind. Instead, remain calm and find ways to deflect their anger and reassure them. For example, a client who accuses you of not trusting them may be soothed if you can find a way to talk around the issue. Even if trust is the problem, there are ways to address it that don’t feel defensive. For example, you might say, “It’s not about trust, it’s about documentation. I need proof to put in my file. That’s all.”
- Escalate issues over your main contact’s head only when absolutely necessary, and never go behind their back to do it. If you feel that a problem merits involvement by additional parties, keep it aboveboard and let your client know. Nothing kills a client relationship faster than undermining their trust in you.
In many cases, even the most difficult client relationship can be managed by using these techniques. However, sometimes it can seem as if nothing works.
When All Else Fails
In spite of your best efforts, there are going to be times when it becomes clear that a client relationship is not salvageable. Perhaps there is a personality conflict between the two of you, or something has occurred to erode your trust in one another to the point where continuing makes no sense.
If you can’t make the relationship work, you have two options:
- Suggest to the client that they might be happier if someone else were to handle their account. Unless you work by yourself, this tactic may help you save the relationship—and the income it generates. You may want to give the client some choice if there is more than one option available. This option works best if the issue is due to a personality conflict.
- Fire the client. If you really feel that there is nothing to be gained by continuing the relationship, you may have to terminate it. Doing so can be difficult, but there are times when it simply becomes untenable to continue. Obvious examples include deception and fraud, but sometimes things don’t work out because you are incompatible in some way. If that happens, give the client plenty of notice (per your contract) and try to leave things on a positive note.
Dealing with difficult clients is part of doing business, but these suggestions can help you manage tough relationships in a way that helps you maintain your professionalism—and your sanity.