Should You Stay or Should You Go? How to Deal with Difficult Clients Without Losing Your Cool

If you run any type of business you’ve probably had at least a few clients or customers that give you a knot in your stomach when you see their email pop up in your inbox or their phone number flash on your caller ID.

They’re the “problem clients.” They never seem to have a good thing to say about your prices, products or services. They’re always looking for you to cut them a deal. No matter what you do, you can’t seem to satisfy them.


Set Boundaries

There are some boundaries you can set and steps you can take to at least calm the waters enough to make your interactions with problem clients tolerable.

Vivian Scott, a certified professional mediator and author of Conflict Resolution at Work for Dummies, provides her tips:

1. Listen first and talk later. “First and foremost, listen first and talk later. There is a strategic reason for doing that,” Scott says. “There may be something that the person is saying that can spark an idea for you, helping you to get to what they’re really wanting.”

By listening first, you’re letting the problem client have his or her say, and you’re discovering the root of the problem. In some cases, the issue might be on your end.

“If you don’t have the capacity to deliver what they’re asking for, tell them that,” Scott says. “If you are agreeing to do something outside the scope of your business’ capabilities, it’s not going to work. Also, check in once in a while to ask them what is going well. A lot of my clients want to concentrate on what isn’t working, and that’s a bad strategy. Ask what is going right, too.”

2. Never accuse a client of lying or exaggerating. “If they’re blaming a particular employee, instead of saying ‘Dave would never do that,’ say: ‘That doesn’t sound like something Dave would do, but I’ll check into it,’” Scott advises.

3. Don’t tell someone to calm down. “A lot of people need to vent,” she says, “so don’t stifle it. It can make matters worse.”


Part Ways Slowly

If you can’t deliver what the client wants or you feel the relationship is damaged beyond repair, the time might come to part ways. If that is the case, consider forming a transition plan that will help your company ease out of the relationship and end it on a somewhat positive note. The nature of the transition plan depends on the nature of the work you were doing for the client.

“If you are in the middle of making someone’s wedding cake, you can’t say you won’t do it outright,” Scott says. “You can take the opportunity to say that you can make the cake if the problems can be resolved, or if that isn’t possible or practical, you can put them in touch with another bakery. But give them control in terms of choosing options for a transition plan.”

If the problems can be worked out to the point that you choose to continue serving the client, establish boundaries for the relationship.

“If they like a particular employee of yours, let that employee work with them and be clear about the capacity in which you as the company leader would step up to the plate,” Scott says. “If you’re running a construction project, tell them you’d be willing to come by the job site twice a week to personally check in. The more you can be clear about what you’re willing to do, the more you can be clear about what you’re not willing to do.”