Have you ever wondered how much easier your job would be if you didn’t have to deal with difficult clients?
You’re not alone!
Unfortunately, difficult clients are part of the parcel when working in a client-facing role. So, what is the best way to deal with challenging client discussions? And can we decrease the likelihood of these conversations coming to pass?
Throughout this article, we will discuss everything you need to know, from identifying a difficult client and keeping your cool during a tricky conversation to regaining control during emotional meetings and avoiding troublesome clients in the future.
Does our ‘stiff upper lip’ prevent us from dealing with emotional situations at work?
It’s no secret that British culture has taught us to uphold a ‘stiff upper lip’ and leave our emotions at the door when we walk into the office. But perhaps this is why so many of us shy away from conversations with emotional clients?
The truth is that many of us aren’t equipped to deal with difficult clients. Their emotional outbursts and unpredictable behaviour go against all our cultural norms (leaving us reeling from their reactions).
So how do we identify and ultimately cope with such compulsive clients?
How to identify difficult clients
Each client comes with a unique set of traits, challenges and circumstances. So, naturally, there are several different reasons why a client could be deemed difficult.
However, there are a few red flags I often attribute to challenging clients. These include:
Indecisiveness – constantly abandoning work to start new projects is costly and time-consuming.
Aggressiveness – no amount of money can justify someone constantly screaming and shouting at you.
Last-minute deadlines – you cannot prioritise one client above all others just because they deem everything an emergency.
Invoice complaints – client’s that moan about how much you’re charging will always look for faults in your invoices or ways to get freebies.
Demeaning your work – these clients will claim to know better than you and minimise your hard work and contributions.
If you can identify any of these traits within your clients – this article is for you. Because although we wish we could afford to work exclusively with easy-going, respectful clients, that isn’t always the case. So, let’s explore how to deal with difficult clients.
How to deal with difficult clients
Although each client will present their own set of challenges, the way you handle difficult conversations should always remain the same. The aim is to maintain a calm, professional manner whilst doing your best to redirect their attention to the problem at hand.
So, to help you do so, I have outlined 6 tips to help you navigate emotionally charged conversations:
1. Remember it’s not personal
I am smiling as I write this article. Why? Because today I have woken up with yet another ear infection. (Needless to say, this makes me a relatively grumpy person.) Thankfully, I know from experience that whenever this happens, my best bet is to work in isolation. Why? Because I know that when I do encounter another person, it will take all of my efforts just to appear like my usual, friendly self.
So what’s my point?
My point is that our client’s outbursts often have nothing to do with us! They could be struggling with something in their personal lives. They could be under immense pressure at work. Or, like me, they could also have an ear infection. The truth is, we never know what is going on behind closed doors. So, try not to take their reaction too personally!
2. Control your emotions
When dealing with a difficult client, you must remember that the only reaction you can control is your own. Sure, you can try to influence their response and calm their emotions, but (at the end of the day) their behaviour will always be out of your control.
So, how do you control your emotions whilst your client is in the middle of an outburst?
Focus on your breathing. Try to slow your breathing down, and aim for a slow and steady rhythm – this will help you naturally reduce your stress levels.
Sit or stand upright. Whether you’re talking in person or over the phone, good posture will enhance your confidence and help you handle whatever your client throws at you (figuratively, of course).
Keep your voice calm and neutral. No matter how angry or upset you are, do not let your emotions seep into your speech. It will only add fuel to the fire.
3. Don’t engage with client’s during emotional outbursts
I am sure we have all been there, where suddenly the ‘red mist’ descends, and you are no longer in control of your actions, emotions, or the words coming out of your mouth. (It is a scary situation for both the person experiencing the outburst and the person witnessing it.)
But how do you deal with difficult clients in this state?
The truth is, you can’t reason with someone whilst their emotions are at the wheel. So don’t try to. Instead, try to defuse the tension so you can have a calm, constructive conversation. You can do this by:
- Recommending a 10-minute break.
- Remaining calm and centred.
- Not judging them for what they say in the heat of the moment.
- Not telling them to calm down. (It will only make things worse!)
4. Acknowledge their emotions
It can be very tempting to do the teenage thing and metaphorically say ‘whatever’ when you are coming under a hail of emotional and aggressive language. But as a professional (and as an adult), this is the last thing you should do if you’re trying to deal with difficult clients.
Instead, you want to demonstrate your understanding by actively listening to your client and acknowledging their emotions. For example:
- I can hear and appreciate your frustration.
- I am sorry to hear you’re upset.
- I understand how irritating this must be for you.
It may sound simple, but acknowledging your client’s emotions will help them calm down. After all, shouting is just a desperate attempt to be heard and understood. So make sure you’re really listening to what your client is trying to say and emote.
5. Be empathetic
As I said earlier, you never know what’s going on behind closed doors. So try your best to be empathetic with your client. After all, we all have bad days.
You can demonstrate your empathy by:
- Apologising for how your client is feeling.
- Showing you understand their point of view.
- Trying to find areas where you’re both in agreement.
- Listening to all of their concerns without challenging them or becoming confrontational.
Your compassion could make a difficult conversation much easier. So try your best to stay calm and remind yourself the goal is to find a solution, not to win an argument.
6. Stick to the facts
When emotions are high, it’s easy for things to get out of hand. So instead of engaging with argumentative statements or accusations, try to stay focused and address the issue at hand.
Once your client has overcome their initial reaction, redirect their attention to solving the problem. You can do this by:
- Clarifying what went wrong/where the issue arose.
- Explaining any relevant paperwork.
- Outlining a timeline of events that led to this exact moment.
- Referring back to your initial contract.
By stating all the facts (and not asserting blame), you’re able to regain control of the conversation, redirect their attention and focus on resolving the issue.
(It’s also worth noting that factual information can help you disprove any unwarranted allegations or professional slurs.)
How to avoid difficult clients in the future
Whilst this article’s primary focus has been understanding how to deal with difficult clients, I think it’s also worth mentioning how to avoid acquiring more challenging clients in the future.
Why? Because over time, these clients can become detrimental to your business. Whether that’s because they dispute their invoices, disrespect your team or negatively impact your health and happiness at work. All of these adverse effects come at a literal cost to your company. So it’s always worth evaluating whether their business is really worth your time.
With that said, here are some ways to avoid attaching yourself to another difficult client in the future:
1. Pay attention to red flags
Identifying a difficult client before you begin working for them can be a much trickier task. However, many of the same red flags still apply. So be wary of them disputing your rates, degrading your work or setting unrealistic expectations during your initial interactions.
2. Set clear boundaries
When establishing a new client relationship, you want to start as you mean to go on. So set clear boundaries that your client has to adhere to. Whether these boundaries are about deadlines, rates, or working hours is entirely up to you. The point is to dissuade difficult and disrespectful behaviour – if they can’t agree to your conditions, they needn’t sign the contract.
(You can also refer to these pre-existing conditions if a client starts to present unfavourable behaviour further down the line.)
3. Increase your rates
Increasing your rates won’t always save you from encountering a difficult client, but it can help.
Based on the premise that most difficult clients challenge invoices, ask for discounts and feel entitled to freebies, refusing to change your rates (or opting to increase them) will often send them looking elsewhere.
4. Ensure your contracts are air-tight
Check your contracts and any other documents with a legal professional. They will ensure your company values are instilled in your terms and conditions, so your clients are legally obligated to respect your boundaries and values.
They will also make sure you are legally protected if you ever choose to fire a client.
Take control of challenging conversations
Every professional advisor has to deal with difficult clients at some point in their career. So, we must understand how to handle those challenging conversations.
My best advice is to remain calm, don’t react to confrontational comments and try to be empathetic. If the conversation isn’t constructive, take a break and try again later. You only want to engage in these conversations when everyone is calm, collected and ready to find a suitable solution.
Similarly, if these difficult discussions are a frequent problem for you, you may want to pay closer attention to your client’s behaviour before accepting their business. After all, no amount of money is worth compromising your health or happiness. So try your best to identify problematic clients before they cause too much trouble.
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