Treading lightly – how to manage difficult clients
Managing a difficult client is a process that brings a bit of pain but can ultimately reward you with repeat business, word of mouth expansion, a profitable client and a set of tools you can use for future difficult clients. On the flip side, extremely difficult clients who tax your time and resources with no payoff need to be actively avoided.
Sometimes difficult clients may argue over payments, complain unreasonably about service, demand large slabs of your time or go nuclear on social. Such disruption can cause havoc to a business, advisory or consultant – poor reputation, high staff turnover, high stress environments, financial bottlenecks and time blackholes. Only you know where your line is, but it is always worthwhile trying a few techniques to see if you can’t turn your fortunes around.
1) Cuss privately
If a client is blowing up on the phone or testing their vocal range in your office you need to be the bigger person and retain your cool. People have a habit of mirroring the demeanour of the person they are interacting with so it is important to de-escalate through calm yet firm responses founded on the restraint of a saint.
By setting an example of how this interaction should be played out you stand a much better chance of getting rid of unreasonable arguments or high tension clashes which spiral beyond the issue itself. Such an outcome could cause irreparable damage to your reputation.
After you have practiced your monk like zen, go right ahead and rant to a close confidant or better yet mutter to yourself as you practice your martial arts on an unfortunate pillow or punching bag. Get it out and get back to sorting this client issue through with a clear head.
2) Are you really listening?
As with many contentious interactions, the ability to hear people out and get to the core of the client’s issue is paramount to closure. If a client feels they are not being listened to and are being treated tersely or without consideration the issue will never resolve.
It could surprise you that many clients simply need to be heard and may need nothing more than a sympathetic sounding board. Sometimes this is all they need and you can move right along.
Try not to anticipate or pre-empt everything they say (even if you know the issue and its resolution) or they will feel you are not truly listening, so don’t jump straight into posing a solution. To demonstrate you are listening ask clarifying questions and repeat statements back to them and try to sympathise with the issue (even if you think it is unreasonable). This will take some self control and gritted teeth but it’s worth it.
3) What the heck happened?
Find out what went wrong. Simple. Was their complaint valid or not? Is there an issue with your staff, product, service or is it in their head? Consult your staff, test the product, find a paper trail and verify their point of view.
Be patient and be self reflective at this stage, you don’t want to get stroppy and then find out later the client was right! Have evidence ready and communications noted so you can introduce a solution to the correct problem based in the reality of the situation.
4) The solution phase
First thing’s first – make your responses and solutions to such problems prompt! There is nothing that will ensure chaos and frustration more than taking your sweet time to respond to the issue. Not only does frustration fail to sprout but will be replaced by a sense of validation.
Since you now know what went wrong and whether you or the client is at fault, the solutions should now be evident.
a) They are to blame:
Be clear and fair in your explanation of the issue. Provide evidence, point to clauses in their contract and keep your cool. You don’t want to be right, you just want this resolved so don’t let it get personal. Let them know you can start afresh but with some more clear boundaries and understanding of expectations.
b) You are to blame
It’s grovelling time… just don’t lose your self respect! Admit you are wrong and apologise with sincerity without overdoing it. Clearly tell them how you will make amends and how you will get them back on track. Make a note to never do this again.
5) The rear view mirror method
It is always worth doing your best and giving reconciliation a red hot go. Sometimes you get a happy repeat client from then onwards and all is well in the world. It doesn’t always work though and sometimes you need to let them go as a client.
The Dalai llama himself would disassociate from such rare clients and so should you before the bottom line begins to really suffer. Make it professional and make it gentle, lament the lack of closure and wish them the best. After all, you can only spend so much of your time and resources before your practice begins to really suffer due to a single client.