How to Handle Difficult Clients

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Don't get drawn into an argument with a customer.
Don't get drawn into an argument with a customer. (Image: CREATISTA/iStock/Getty Images)

Nearly every business encounters a difficult, unhappy or unreasonable customer from time to time. If the client is a good source of revenue for the business, you may want to tread lightly to preserve the relationship through tact, negotiation and active listening.

Listen Without Interruption

A client who seems difficult or hard to please may just want to be heard. Don’t dismiss concerns, no matter how trivial they appear. Instead, listen to what the client is saying, repeat what you believe to be the stated request or problem, then look for ways to validate, apologize and fix, or negotiate, depending on the circumstances. For example, “If I understand you correctly, you don’t feel your calls are returned in a timely manner. What would you consider to be an acceptable time frame for getting back to you when you leave a message?”

Protect Yourself

Left unchecked or continuously placated, a difficult client can become a tyrant. Decide what you are and are not willing to put up with, put your parameters in writing and stand firm. For example, “I know you want Sunday delivery service, but we aren’t open Sundays, so that’s not an option.” Or, “If you’ll refer to our written agreement, we require a 20 percent deposit before starting work on the project. I can process that deposit through cash, check or major credit card.”

Be Professional

Don’t let a difficult customer fluster you. A client who yells, belittles, makes outrageous demands or otherwise tries to engage you can be trying, but remaining calm and professional will help you navigate the rough waters. For example, “I understand you’re upset the project wasn't completed on time, but we're putting all resources toward completing it today.” When necessary, extract yourself from contentious or heated situations. “I’m afraid I’m not comfortable speaking with you when you use offensive language. Lets take a break for now and I'll give you a status update in an hour."

Let Them Go

Sometimes it’s not worth the aggravation and stress to maintain a relationship with a difficult customer. You may find you’re devoting too much time or energy to a single squeaky wheel or that the revenue generated from the customer is not equal to the effort. If you decide to fire a client, be courteous and firm in your approach. Depending on the type of problems the client presented, you may opt to be direct or be vague in your terminology. For example, “I’m afraid I’m no longer able to keep pace with the demands of your account and will therefore not be renewing our contract at the end of next month,” or, “I’m afraid your verbal abuse crossed the line, and I am no longer willing to do business with you.”

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