Dealing with difficult clients: Work things out or let them go?

Let’s face it; we are all in the business to make money, and making money comes from happy clients. So what do you do when nothing seems to make your client happy?

As a business owner, I know and understand the stress that unhappy clients can bring. In our industry, the “difficult client” is often the white elephant standing in the middle of the room that business owners don’t like to talk about in fear that they might offend someone.

But why not talk about it? We’ve all experienced it at some point in our business so why not share notes on what to do when you stumble across that particular type of client?

If you have a difficult client that you are willing to work things out with, here are my top three tips for making the best out of a difficult situation.

Assess the situation: Sit down with your client and get to the bottom of why they are unhappy. Ask them questions that might be otherwise difficult to ask in any other given situation. Are they not happy with whom they are working with in your office? Is it the quality of work? Is it the timeframe of getting things done? Really get to the heart of the problem by simply asking the right questions.

Ask them for the solution: This might be a shocker for some, but common sense for others. If you are truly in the business to do good work and have happy customers, ask them what they would like to see happen to solve the problem. If it’s doable, make it happen. If they simply say that they don’t know, offer different alternatives. Work together to come up with the solution.

Sweeten the deal: Once you have both come up with a doable solution, sweeten the deal by going the extra mile. It can be as simple as sending a handwritten note with a Starbucks gift card saying “have your next coffee on us”. It lets them know that you’re really are trying to make the best out of a difficult situation. It might also soften them a little bit.

However, no matter how hard we try, we need to face the fact that sometimes the relationship cannot simply be repaired. Regardless of your willingness to break your back by bending over backwards, it’s just not going to happen because of circumstances beyond your control. And that’s okay. If you’ve exhausted every avenue of trying to find solutions, but still can’t find one that suits both your needs, sometimes it’s just better to break ties and cut your losses.

Here are some exceptions to the above and when it might be best to let your client go:

Verbally abusive clients: If you have a client who is verbally abusive, rude or relentless in belittling what you do to you or your employees, it’s time to cut ties immediately. There are certain borders that just shouldn’t be crossed and such behavior shouldn’t be tolerated.

Expectations/Services mismatch: Typically when a client signs on with your business, these expectations and services should be discussed and agreed upon in the beginning. However, like all things in business and relationships, things can change and evolve over time. If they have unreasonable expectations, it’s time to re-evaluate if your services are best suited for them.

Frequent delayed payments: There are times when you need to give your client the benefit of the doubt. Perhaps they really did misplace that invoice or they truly did forget. It happens to all of us at some point or another. However, if you have a client who is consistently late on payments or says they mailed out a payment on more than one occasion and you never received it, go over your payment policy with them. You have bills and overhead that need paid just as much as they need your services delivered on time. No payment = no services.

Regardless of whether you decide to work things out with your client or to let them go, take action early. Don’t wait until things escalate and become more difficult to handle. The sooner you do, the sooner both parties can move on and get back to doing business. I suggest picking up the phone and having the conversation to make the transition easier. I know it’s not easy to do, but it’s all too easy to hide behind our computers and send an email detailing what went wrong. To me, that’s like breaking up with your significant other by text. You just don’t do it. Pick up the phone and remember that it’s nothing personal… it’s just business.


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