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Dealing with Difficult Clients

Most businesses have at least one of ‘those clients’ — they make you cringe when you see them heading toward the door, they never seem to be happy and they leave you feeling exhausted. They argue the price, are late to pay, but keep coming back for more!  How do you deal with them, and keep your sanity?
Prevent Issues from the Outset
Set realistic and achievable expectations right from the outset around all aspects of the transaction - timeframe, costs, result, communication channels. Getting these things right, and having everyone on the same page right from start, will go a long way to avoiding a potentially difficult situation. 

Under Promise and Over Deliver
By giving realistic time schedules, costings and conservative outcomes, you are giving yourself the best chance to beat them when you can. Telling a client their job will be ready in a week but delivering it to them in 4 days will delight even the toughest of critics. Securing a job by making unrealistic promises and then failing to deliver is not going to impress anyone!  

Acknowledge, but Don’t Agree
At times things are going to go wrong, and it may or may not be your fault, but agreeing with a client about the issues, saying sorry, and admitting fault can add fuel to the fire. Acknowledge their position and shift the conversation to the resolution - you may then be able to move away from the ranting and toward a solution.

Keep Calm and Maintain Control
You need to remember you are in control of the situation. Be assertive, maintain your composure, professionalism, tone and stick to your guns. Don’t stoop to anything that you wouldn’t be proud of after the storm has passed.  It’s important to remember that conflicts and mistakes happen — it’s not personal, it’s just a part of doing business. Most clients who seek conflict are actually looking for you to provide them with a solution. 

Choose Your Words Carefully
By adjusting the words you use and the manner in which you speak to mirror that of the client may put them at ease and reassure them you understand their needs. Never put anything in writing that could be used against you, and never send an email when angry – the tone and wording is more than likely to inflame the situation. Major conflicts are best dealt with over the phone and face to face - too many assumptions can be made via written correspondence.

Be Specific
At times difficult clients, even those who have legitimate concerns, just want to unload on someone – and you are it! Often they will make broad generalisations like “nothing’s working” or “you never finish on time,” this is when you need them to get specific. Consider asking them for specific examples of what troubles them and then offer specific, measurable solutions for the problem. Ask them point blank: “If we solve this problem, does that fix this situation?” Specifics may be your best tactic.

Recognise a Personality Conflict
If everyone got on with everyone it would be a boring world. Reality is there are some staff who won’t get on with a client, no matter how hard both parties try. In these situations be pro-active, recognise there is a conflict and assign the client to another member of staff. To go that extra mile, ask the client who they’d like to handle their account from now on. This shows you value them as a customer and hopefully, it will be the start of much smoother dealings. 

Do You Need Them 
When all else has failed, and you weigh up the effort versus revenue, it might be time to part ways. Your time and energy is better spent on less draining clients – let them become someone else’s problem. 

The majority of the time difficulties with clients can be resolved with a little effort and understanding of the issues at hand. If you are thoughtful, focused on specifics and speak their language, you should be able to keep everyone happy – well, most of the time. 

Sam Pratt