If you're a service provider, chances are that you've dealt with a difficult client. Even after talking your way through a 60 minute Discovery Call or emailing back and forth during your four day long onboarding process, it's still totally possible (and I say this from experience) to sign a contract with a less than ideal client.
Maybe you missed the red flags up front. Maybe you were short on cash that month and ignored the red flags up front. Maybe everything seemed a-ok in the beginning, but as time progressed, you found yourself in a situation that was less than ideal? Maybe it's a combination of all of the above! However you found yourself in this situation, this blog post is going to walk you through not only how to recognize it, but also how to fix it!
So, What is a Difficult Client?
In the past, when I started to experience those less than warm and fuzzy feelings with a client, the first thing I tended to do was blame myself (I'm still working on this!). I'd usually say, oh it must just be me, I'm being too sensitive. This is how it's supposed to be. This is a normal client/service provider relationship. Until I had a really good client. You know those unicorn soul mate clients that you've been waiting for since you started your business? I started working with one of those, and realized that I had been putting up with a lot that I didn't have to. But I just didn't know. I was new to owning my own business, and new to the online space, so I really didn't know what was acceptable and what wasn't.
Here's a quick run down so that you can see if you're dealing with a difficult client. A difficult client is one who:
➡️ Is always demanding and never satisfied. This type of client may be constantly making complaints, expecting immediate responses and never satisfied with the solutions provided.
➡️Is always late on payments. You feel like you're in bill collector mode three weeks a month. I mean, how many follow up emails or invoices can you send to one person?
➡️Is constantly changing their mind. They may be indecisive or frequently change their mind about what they want or need. They ask that you spend hours designing a new course, only to change their mind and scrap the whole idea two days later. It feels like it's impossible for you to keep up.
➡️Ignores your boundaries. You've specifically asked them not to DM you on Instagram, and they continue to do so. You've told them that you need to have email copy 72 hours in advance to meet a deadline, yet they continue to send the copy over to you with less than 24 hours notice.
➡️Doesn't trust you. There has to be a certain level of trust between a client an service provider. Having a client who tries to micromanage and question everything you do will make you start to question yourself after a while.
Dealing with difficult clients can be one of the most draining parts of owning a business. You have to be the one to assess whether or not it's worth it to try to save the relationship. Sometimes, all a client needs is some direct communication, and you'll be able to turn the whole relationship around. Sometimes, you'll have to suck it up because you're in the middle of a project, and learn for the future. Other times, you'll realize that it's not worth it and you need to cut ties.
I have been in all three of these situations. Luckily, most clients were responsive after clear and direct communication. Only once did I have to let a client go because I didn't feel like the relationship was salvageable. That's not an ideal outcome, because a) it costs a lot of money to let a client go mid contract and try to find another client to replace that income and b) it's emotionally draining. So Let's take a look at some steps you can take to deal with a difficult client.
1. If Your Client Is Unhappy
If your client has expressed that they are dissatisfied with your working relationship, the first thing you'll want to do is take some time to listen and understand their concerns. This will help you identify the root cause of the issue and attempt to find a solution that addresses their specific needs, while allowing you to maintain the boundaries that you need to feel comfortable. Here are a few tips to having a productive conversation:
Ask them to meet on Zoom or over the phone. It's much more difficult to gauge someone's tone or emotion via Slack message or email.
Reflect on what they are saying. Try to understand their perspective (even if it sounds ridiculous to you) and their problem or complaint. This will help you address their specific needs.
Avoid jumping to conclusions. (This is a tough one for me!) Listen to them fully before making any assumptions.
Show empathy and understanding towards the client's situation. This will help to build trust and a positive relationship.
Take notes during the conversation to make sure you understand the client's concerns and can follow up with them later.
Let them them finish expressing their concerns without interrupting them. This will show them that you respect their perspective and are willing to listen.
2. If You Are Unhappy
If you find that a client has been overstepping your boundaries, you'll want to discuss that directly. You'll use the same tips laid out above, but you'll also need to make sure you're clearly communicating your policies and procedures, as well as what you are willing and able to do for them during your call. Here are some strategies for setting boundaries with difficult clients:
Communicate your policies and procedures: This includes things like your hours of operation, payment terms, and any other rules or guidelines you have for working with clients. I do this in my Client Welcome Packet so that I can always make sure my clients know my policies up front.
Be clear about your availability: Let difficult clients know your availability and when they can expect to hear from you. This will help set expectations and prevent them from expecting an immediate response at all times. Again, I include this information in my Client Welcome Packet.
Be assertive and direct: When setting boundaries with difficult clients, it is important to be assertive and direct. Use a calm and respectful tone, but be firm in communicating what you are willing and able to do for them.
Use "I" statements: Instead of accusing or blaming the client, use "I" statements to express your own perspective and feelings. This will help to de-escalate the situation and make it less confrontational.
Know your limits: It is important to know your own limits and what you are willing to tolerate from difficult clients. If a client's behavior becomes unacceptable, it may be necessary to terminate the relationship.
Ask them: how do you feel like you could resolve this situation?
3. Find a solution that works for both of you
Once you have listened to and understood the client's concerns, work to find a solution that addresses their specific needs. This may involve compromising or making concessions, but it is important to find a solution that is mutually beneficial.
For example, if your client is regularly sending you messages via Instagram DM, you'll want to clearly state your boundaries as well as establish a system for how you'd like to receive communication from them in the future. Let them know that although it probably seems easier just to send off a quick DM when they think of something they'd like to tell you, they'll get a much quicker response if they send an email.
While It's important to be adaptable and flexible, it's also important that your client relationship feels good to you, and your boundaries and policies are being abided by.
After finding a solution, follow up with your client to reiterate what you discussed on your call. That way, there will be a record of the discussion if you need to refer back to it and (hopefully) prevent future issues. Send a follow up that is professional, empathetic and solution-oriented. Here's a sample email you could send out:
Subject: Follow-up on our recent conversation
Dear [Client's Name],
I wanted to follow up on our recent conversation regarding xyz.
As we discussed, [list specific issue]
I want to assure you that I take your concerns seriously and I am committed to finding a resolution that works for both of us.
[Outline proposed solution].
If you have any further questions or concerns, please don't hesitate to reach out to me. I am here to help!
Thank you for your patience and understanding.
If You Feel Like It's Better To Part Ways
Sometimes, even after you have taken all the necessary steps and communicated your expectations to your client, something still doesn't feel right. Maybe your client continues to ignore the boundaries you've set, or continue to make late payments, or just maybe just opening a Slack message from them makes you feel sick to your stomach (I've felt this one before!)
When you've exhausted all other means, and still don't feel like you have a positive working relationship, it may be time to let your client go. It may be a tough call, but will be beneficial to you in the long term. Here are a few tips:
Consult your contract - Before you take any action, review your contract to ensure you’re within your rights to terminate the relationship. Check if there’s a clause that outlines the circumstances under which either party can terminate the contract.
Try to finish out any projects - this isn't always possible, depending on the caliber of difficult client you're dealing with, but as a general rule, I'd try to always wrap up the current project you're working on. If you can't do that, delegate the tasks to someone else or leave a list of steps they'll need to take to complete the project for you.
Put it in writing - write an email officially terminating the contract, that way you'll always have a record of the interaction if you need to refer back to it.
Remain calm & professional - avoid blaming or being emotional (sometimes this is the hardest part!) Keep the conversation neutral.
Set expectations - be clear and direct with your client so they know what to expect next. What date will your contract be terminating? Are you in the middle of a project? When will be the last time they will be able to contact you? Make sure to include all the pertinent information in an email or Offboarding Packet.
Don't apologize - You haven't done anything wrong. Sometimes, as services providers, we can get sucked into an employee-employer relationship with out clients. This has happened to me before, and it took me almost two years to realize that I felt like I had to be on call and available to do anything my client wanted, even if it was outside the scope of our contract. It took my husband saying, "you know, she's not your boss" for me to kind of snap out of it and realize that this was MY business and I should be able to run it in a way that feels right for me, without apology.
Firing a client is never going to be your first choice, but sometimes it’s what’s best. Remember that even though letting a client go might feel icky, you are opening up space in your business for a client that you really love!
So there you have it, my friend! Dealing with difficult clients can be a challenging experience, but if you remember to stay calm, listen actively, set clear boundaries, and communicate clearly and respectfully, you may be able to turn the situation around. And if all else fails, don't be afraid to walk away from a toxic client relationship. Ultimately, your mental health and well-being should always come first. Just remember, every challenging situation is an opportunity to learn and grow. So embrace the challenge, stay positive, and keep on rocking!