Fortunately, pretty much all my clients are (and have been) amazing, but it’s the rare business owner who never deals with a difficult customer. Sooner or later, every one of us encounters this kind of icky situation.
If you’ve been in business for any length of time, you’ve probably had a client who…
- seems to think you’re working for them and only for them
- has completely unrealistic ideas about what you can do and the results they can expect
- hems and haws over every. single. decision
- calls or emails (and expects a response!) at 10 p.m. because of a new idea they saw on social media
- never gets you the assignment or information you need on time
- questions every expense and asks “how much will this cost?” for every 1 hr project
- completely ghosts on you in the middle of a project
Figuring out how to handle these situations is never fun. What’s the right thing to do?
How to Handle the Client From Hell
1. Take a deep breath and chill out
It’s natural to immediately flush with anger or get a sick feeling in the pit of your stomach when you read that nasty email or see their number pop up on your phone. But the first thing you need to do is step back and consider the big picture.
Misunderstandings (especially in emails) can happen easily, and we’re all human and make mistakes. What’s prompting this particular communication?
Before responding, consider whether their request is reasonable or not. Would you do this for another client? And is their request fair to you… and your other clients?
2. Consider it from their point of view
There’s a big difference between someone wanting something from you because they simply think they deserve it (or have a bone to pick with you, personally), and when they’re asking because they simply don’t know any better.
If it’s the first situation, you can usually tell by their language (hint: name calling, unjustified demands for refunds or more work are no bueno). In my opinion, there’s no excuse for that and you’re perfectly within your rights to drop them like a bad remix.
But if it’s the later, maybe they don’t understand how you work and your process, or maybe they can’t find the information they’re looking for. This is a great opportunity for you to both educate them and to look at your website/copy/contract/etc and see where those need improvement.
3. Apologize if necessary
If you’re looking objectively at the situation (hopefully you are by now), and see where maybe it is your fault, then yes, offer an apology. If you can, offer a solution… but don’t do hours of unpaid work simply because they didn’t make their expectations clear or decided they didn’t like the work you did after initially approving it.
4. Stick to the cold, hard facts
It’s soooooo tempting to want to justify why something happened, but as soon as you start offering explanations, it comes off as defensive, and gives them an opportunity to ask for more concessions than you’re willing to give.
Stick to the facts, go back to your contract, and restate what you’re including, what deliverables you provide, and the timeline you’ll provide it by.
5. Remember that clients are not friends
This can be really hard to remember, especially when you’ve worked with a client for the long haul and you know their hopes, dreams, and the names of all three dogs they post pictures with on Instagram.
Clients are people you’re doing work for… and that work should have clearly defined boundaries and expectations. If they cross the line, it’s not about you or them personally, it’s just upholding (or reinforcing) the agreements you already made.
6. Proactively set boundaries
As soon as you realize the relationship is going south, it’s time to speak up and remedy the problem. It’s much harder to convince a client that you really don’t want them calling you on your personal phone when they’ve already done it two, three, or four times without repercussion.
Sometimes you don’t know you even have a boundary until it’s been crossed. When that’s the case, address it post-haste and set policies in place to prevent it from happening again.
The best way to not deal with a client from hell? Keep it from happening in the first place.
The vast majority of these situations result from a mismatch in expectations… and usually they weren’t made clear in the first place!
So what’s the ultimate solution to all your client troubles?
7. Make those expectations crystal clear!
Document the project, what services you’re providing, what results you do and do not guarantee, payment details, timelines, and any other questions they come up with — in a contract written in plain English. Do NOT start work without one!
What client-from-hell stories do you have, and how did you deal with the situation? Lay it all out in a comment!
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