Once in a while we work with difficult clients.
It happens—even after years of being in business and developing different ways to screen prospective clients.
Chances are you’ll work with a difficult client, too. Maybe that’s why you’re here in the first place. You’re already “in it” and you’re looking for ways to deal with it.
Or maybe you’re looking to avoid this experience altogether.
We’re covering both of these things in this 2-part post:
Part 1: When It’s Already Too Late – What to do when you’re in the midst of it. (The post you’re reading right now.)
Part 2: How to Prevent it from Happening Again – Tips for screening clients so you’re working with the right clients. (To be published next week.)
Here are a few ways to deal with difficult client situations when you’re in the midst of one.
What Makes Difficult Clients Difficult (and what part we play)
The ‘difficulty’ in difficult clients can come in all sorts of shapes and sizes, but it generally comes down to these two things…
- The client doesn’t have realistic expectations: This could be in how much you communicate, how quickly the project progresses, or what can be achieved.
- The client doesn’t understand their responsibilities: Chances are the client has at least some impact on the project. This could be in making decisions, providing content/materials, or coordinating with other parties that contribute to the project.
Whatever the case may be, it’s important to reflect on this at the outset:
What part do we play as the business in the client’s failure to understand expectations or their responsibilities?
It’s often more than we care to admit.
What I’m NOT saying is that it’s always the business’s fault. Sometimes clients are just downright difficult.
But—it’s important for the business to reflect on why things are difficult and to take ownership of the things they can improve on their end. That way it’s less likely to happen again moving forward.
Remember It’s Going to be Okay
Sometimes it certainly doesn’t feel like everything’s going to be okay.
But it will be.
Whatever that worst case scenario you think is going to happen probably won’t happen. And if it does happen, you can deal with it when you get there.
As Krista frequently reminds me, there’s no reason to worry about things twice.
Remain Above Reproach
This might be the most important thing to remember when things get tough, but you don’t want to do anything out of frustration.
Be kind and patient even if that’s not the client’s behavior.
One surefire way to exacerbate the situation is to act out of frustration and get nasty and cruel. Doing so will not fix the situation, but it will make things worse.
And it also makes it more likely that this situation will impact your business beyond the client project that’s difficult.
This does not mean, however, that you should let difficult clients walk all over you or abuse you.
It’s possible to be both kind and stern.
When It’s Better to Part Ways… Have the Tough Conversation
Depending on where you are in the project, it might be best to cancel the contract and part ways.
At this point, it’s important to ask yourself: Is there anything I can do that will change the client’s behavior before the end of the project?
If not, and the rest of the project is going to be a nightmare, consider having the “are-we-the-best-fit-for-each-other” conversation.
It’s hard. It sucks. But one tough conversation is better than a long, drawn out experience where both parties are miserable.
Plus—if you’re feeling like you’d rather not work with a client, there’s a good chance the client is feeling that way, too.
The benefit of having this conversation is two-fold:
If you decide to continue working with one another, it’s at least an opportunity to get on the same page, review expectations, and set a better trajectory.
And if you decide to part ways, you’re freeing up space for a more ideal client project (and giving that client an opportunity to find someone who is a better fit).
It might not be possible to break-up. Maybe you’re too far into the project for that to be a possibility, and it’s best that you just complete project.
Regardless, communication is still going to be important.
Take Communication to the Next Level
Chances are much of your communication has been over email.
See if you can chat on the phone or over video call. Sometimes actually speaking to the person (and seeing their face) can help prevent an already tough situation from becoming more difficult.
It’s an opportunity to really hear (or see) a person too, instead of trying to “read between the lines” of an email.
Jumping on a call and explaining what’s left in a project and coming to an agreement on how it’s going to get done will pave the way for a smooth(er) path towards completion.
From that point on it will also be important to continue communicating—perhaps more than you normally would.
This way any issues can be addressed immediately and you have written correspondence to fall back on if there’s any confusion.
Ask How the Issue can be Resolved
It’s usually unhelpful to argue about who’s wrong and who’s right during a disagreement.
This isn’t to say that it’s not important to explain your point of view or how you’re feeling about things. It totally is important and you should do so (kindly).
But at some point you’ll have to figure out how to move forward, and it’s generally best to figure this out quickly.
When I was a high school teacher, I occasionally had to have tough conversations with parents whose kids faced some sort of consequence for not following classroom policies. (Generally this meant they risked failing the class because they did not turn-in work and make it up within the granted time-frame).
I found there was one question that almost always de-escalated a tense situation:
How do you feel we can resolve this situation?
This question encouraged the parent to focus on the resolution instead of the issue, and resulted in more productive conversation.
Another byproduct of this conversation is that if often encouraged the parent to look at things from my perspective. (I’m sure there’s some sort of psychological reason for this response—anyone out there know? I’d be interested in learning about it.)
Simply asking your client how they think a situation can be resolved will usually lead to more productive conversation.
Usually—although admittedly not always—this will move you towards resolution.
Stand on the Contract (if you have one)
Sometimes at the end of the day you just need to point back to the contract and remind clients that certain things were agreed to at the beginning of the project.
This is especially important when a client is struggling with scope creep.
(Scope creep is when a client keeps making small requests outside the scope of the contract that quickly add up and get out of hand.)
And it’s also important to do as soon as you notice the signs (more on this in part 2).
Again—this can be done with kindness.
Hopefully you’ll be able to have a more agreeable conversation before having to “pull the contract card.” But sometimes, you’ll just have to do it in a straightforward way.
If you don’t have a contract in place, you might try putting one in place—even if you’re mid-project. This way you and your client can have a conversation about what was agreed upon. This might be a tough conversation to have, but remember—it’s better than having a long, drawn out tough experience.
You can purchase a super reasonably priced contract template from The Contract Shop (affiliate link). We use a bunch of their agreements/contracts in our business.
So how do I prevent this whole difficult client thing from happening?
We decided to start with the post about how to deal with it when you’re “in it” because—chances are—if you’re worried about difficult clients, you’re dealing with one right now.
And if you are struggling with a difficult client, hang in there! We hope this post helps you navigate it.
If you have a question that we didn’t cover, let us know in the comments.
More on how to prevent difficult client situations in Part 2, which will be published next week.