In your career as a business consultant, you will encounter different kinds of clients. There are kind ones and not so kind ones, good days and bad days. Some clients will make you love your job while with others, you simply feel like quitting your job right away. Don’t quit yet, at least not until you finish reading this article.
The thing is that the relationship between a consultancy and a client is a lot like a marriage. Whenever there is a dispute, one party insists he/she is the right one. In the case of clients: they are your customers. Remember how the old saying goes? “Customers are always right”.
Now here is what you should know, irrespective of how good your customer service is, you will eventually encounter some difficult clients at one point. In fact, regardless of which industry you find yourself in at the moment, difficult clients are part of business. Even if you treat all your clients with absolute professionalism and rarely make mistakes, sooner or later you are either going to fail to meet a client’s expectation or make an error with a client. There is always going to be a client who is having a really bad day or having difficulty understanding what you do or in extreme cases, simply very hard to please. (I remember one who said that his employees’ work day has 12 hours while the consultants don’t have a limit).
So when you encounter them… keep your sanity and your peace. Avoid letting your guard down and then try one of these proven tips below.
Here are some proven tips to deal with difficult clients
When you found out that your client is dissatisfied with your service, it is important that you pay attention to their complaint. Do not interrupt them. You can as well record or make a note of what they are saying. This is important in order to figure out the reason why they are upset with your service. When they are done talking and it’s your time to reply; start by going over what they said. This is a good way to let the client know that you understood their problem and makes them feel heard. Note that you don’t have to keep interacting or trading words with the client if he becomes abusive.
Take Time to Figure Out a Solution
Assuming that you are dealing with a client through email, don’t respond immediately until you found a solution. You can let the client know that you understood their problem and you will get back to them shortly with a satisfying solution. It is important that you take some time to completely understand what’s going on and calm your initial feelings. Give yourself some time to understand the problem and the solution.
Choose Your Words Carefully
Some words you use can have either have a soothing effect or a negative effect on your clients. It is not unusual for a problem to escalate just as a result of the choice of words from either party. If your client is not being polite, you don’t have to step down to his level. Remember your client may be having a bad day or misunderstand you. So the words you use can actually make him feel better not only about the problem he has with your service but also make him feel better about his day. Your client’s problem may be a result of not completely understanding your service, after all this is a fast-paced world, no one nowadays actually read the whole Terms-of-Service before committing. Your client might also not be aware of the scope you agreed on initially or have a different view of what is in and out of scope. They just want the job to get done. Now. (Just FYI: Usually, the people signing the contract and the ones working with it are not the same…)
Try and mirror your client’s words in order to put them at ease and assure them that you understand their needs.
De-escalate and de-stress
Keep your cool (peace) when a client takes an annoyed, angry or short tone with you. Avoid stepping down to that level since that might be what the other person want. (If you like the project you are on, better don’t)
Take the high road so to speak. Avoid responding to them in the same way because doing so will only escalate the issue. Keep level- head and show an air of total professionalism in your interactions with the client.
Staying in the conversation does not always work. Your brain can only take so much before it goes into a fight or flight reaction.
A manager I know actually told the client he does not want to communicate like in the calmest voice possible after a client had screamed at him in a 1:1 meeting. And he left the meeting room. Another manager I know says she needs to use the bathroom. There she breaths. Just taking a few deep breaths stimulate the parasympathetic reaction and help release oxygen, thus reduce tension and relieve stress. Afterwards she thinks the situation through and then returns to the meeting.
This also helps to de-stress:
Imagine a relaxing scene: a vacation or a beautiful beach. You can even visualize yourself accomplishing a goal like getting through that difficult conversation with the client, shaking hands at the end.
Food. It does not always have to be bad to eat when you are stressed. Just avoid the vending machine and the meeting cookies. Instead eat some nuts or cereal bar. If you cannot avoid the sweet stuff, eat one candy. Make it a conscious process: how is its texture, how does it taste? How does it make you feel? That process helps your brain relax and help you to not go on directly to the next sweet snack.
Chew gum. It will help lower your levels of stress and anxiety. TV and gaming is supposed to have a similar effect. Just saying. Though you probably won’t have time to watch your favorite series or play a round of Tetris. Though you might have time to watch a kitten. See next tip…
Watch a short funny video. (If you work in a shared office space, better had for the bathroom or outdoor to do this). Fail compilations as well as cat videos will do the trick. Laughter improves the intake of oxygen-rich air and releases endorphins, thus first activating and then deactivating your stress response.
Listen to music. Classical music has a very soothing effect as it slows the heart rate, lowers the blood pressure and decreases stress hormones. Though you might feel like something different if you are angry. Heavy Metal and other styles have proved to be great outlets for sadness and anger in scientific studies.
Here are some all-time favorite songs for angriness:
Be Very Specific, Be Measurable
Some difficult clients when they are dissatisfied will tend to unload on you repeatedly and at great length. They will keep on making generalizations such as “your service is always so slow” or “nothing is working here”. When you found yourself in this situation, it is in your best interest to make them get specific. Ask the client to please name specific examples of problems and then suggest specific, measurable solutions for their problems. You can as well ask them: “if we solve your problem by next hour, will that be alright with you”. Demanding and giving specifics is in your best interest when dealing with difficult clients.
Acknowledge, but Don’t Agree
As a human being, when client’s respond to your work with harsh criticism, you may have that natural impulse to deny it or claim you didn’t do anything wrong and then dismiss the client’s concern as being irrelevant. Don’t deny it, resist the impulse to lie. You may also be surprised to learn that completely agreeing to the problem may not help either. It might even add fuel to the fire. After all you are dealing with a difficult client. Don’t start the blame game. Blame usually does not result in a solution. Problems tend to be too complex to have a single party to blame and even if you could blame someone: as a consultant you better avoid your client losing face. That client might not want to work with you again or worse even end a contract. Also, blame usually snowballs and wastes time and energy that could better be used for problem-solving.
What you need to do is to acknowledge the client’s position and gently shift the conversation to the resolution. Repeat “Let us concentrate on the solution.” This way, you move away from his ranting to providing solutions for him without implicating yourself further.
That does not mean that you should not try to figure out afterwards what or who caused the problem to avoid it from occurring again. Still, a situation can beyond anyone’s control.
The problem might be a lack of training or lack of information. Maybe a deadline was missed because one person failed. If a person just committed a stupid mistake which caused the problem, that person might feel bad enough already without having others making accusations.
If possible, solve the root of the problem and move on without bad blood.
Consider Taking the Loss and Fire Your Client
There is no need getting into a tense, drawn-out situation over a very small amount of money with the client. Dealing with difficult clients is not only time-consuming but also emotionally sapping. In the end, you may win the argument but the client will end up spoiling your business name among friends and potential clients. It is not worth it anymore at some point. If you can afford a refund, do it and cut your relationship with the client no matter who is right or wrong.
If you are not the engagement partner or an independent consultant, you probably don’t have that power. But you do have the power to leave the project. First you should talk with the partner responsible for the project as well as with the client. If that does not help, you can ask your partner and counselor to be removed from the project. There was an Accenture consultant on a project who regularly got yelled at by the client. There were no specific problems the client yelled about, it was just his way of communicating with some people when he was stressed out. After a while, the consultant asked to be removed from the project. Moves like these might harm your career (less though when the client counterpart is known to be a difficult person), though you should weigh in: career versus your sanity.
One more thing: I was once told by a partner from Hay Group that every consultant he knows was fired once in his career just because a client did not like him. So in case you do get taken of the project because the client does not get along with you, don’t worry. (That should not happen too often though. If you are not sure if you should work on how you come across, ask your colleagues and your counselor for feedback. Then get to work to improve your communication style in case there is room for improvement.)
Difficult clients are part of business. You may have to deal with them at some point. You might have to unleash all the tactics and tips above to deal with them satisfactory. In every case, try to see things from the perspective of your clients and do the best you can to meet your client’s needs while at same time looking out for your business. Bear in mind that for consulting companies, client retention is all about managing client expectations. In dealing with difficult clients, keep all your interactions polite and professional. Try to let the client know that you are solving his problem and remember you have the right to leave the room – or even the project – when he proves too difficult. You should never make a client lose face, but you should also not lose your own dignity.
What where the most difficult client situations you came across? How did you handle them? We would love to hear your experiences! Just leave a comment in the section below.