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How to Deal with a Difficult Client

In a perfect world, every client would be happy and appreciative of the work you do all the time. But in the real world, challenging and difficult clients are inevitable at some point down the line, regardless of how great the work you’re putting out is.

The key is to understand how to handle these situations swiftly and painlessly so that you can continue to have a successful working relationship. It starts with having confidence in your your expertise, and being careful about what you do and don’t say.

Specificity Counts

Sometimes clients have legitimate concerns that need to be addressed and rectified, but other times your client may just need to unload, and is looking for a sounding board to unleash their frustrations on.

So how can you tell the difference?

The need to vent frustrations is often marked by overly-generalized and definitive statements such as: “You never give me what I want”. In these instances, you need to consult three faithful friends – reason, logic, and specificity.

If you’re unable to get to the real root of the problem, consider asking your client for a specific example of when something didn’t go as they expected, and then walk them through a solution that successfully addresses the issue. You’ll find it’s much easier for them to argue when they’re tossing generalizations around, so kindly ask for them to justify their accusations.   

Use Surgeon Language


So much of handling a challenging client is in the way you speak and the groundwork you establish at the beginning of the relationship.

But even if you’re well past the point of establishing the relationship, you can still adjust not only what you say but how you say it to help combat challenging clients.

To give you a better idea of how to put this into action, consider the way a surgeon speaks to his patients. Does a surgeon offer up his best recommendation before operating and then ask: “Is that okay with you?” Of course not! Can you imagine being asked if you thought it was okay to take out your mother’s kidney and replace it with a new one? You couldn’t possibly know the answer to that because that’s the surgeon’s job, not yours. After all, you’re paying him because he’s the expert in this area. So when you hand over your money, you should also be handing over your trust that he’ll do whatever needs to be done to get the best possible results.

And it’s exactly the same when it comes to you and your clients. They’re paying you because they need your expertise; they need something that they can’t do on their own, whether that’s a kidney transplant, a dental cleaning, or making an iced quad venti cappuccino with 4 pumps. They pay you, and in exchange, you provide your expertise.

Keep this in mind when you’re in the midst of working with a challenging client. You’re the expert, and so you need to position yourself as such.  The amazing thing is that clients will be much more apt to trust you and feel more confident in your services when you do use this surgeon language, and the sooner you can start this, the better the working relationship will be.

Know When It’s Appropriate to Apologize – and When It’s Not

Sometimes mistakes happens, balls are dropped, and you need to own up. And then there’s other times when people apologize for something they shouldn’t, thinking it will save the situation. More often than not, this isn’t the best way to go about things.

Apologizing, especially for something that isn’t even your fault, can make you appear weak, the last thing you want your clients to think of you as. It also gives the client an often unfair advantage and makes it much more difficult to use your surgeon language and position yourself as an expert.

The key is to have the confidence to speak to your clients openly, but not be rude. Remember, you want to rectify the situation, not diffuse it with apologies.

For instance, saying: “I hear your concerns, and we are taking specific steps now to ensure that this won’t be an issue for you moving forward” is a perfect response.

Acknowledge their frustration and provide a solution. By keeping it simple and doing your best not to involve emotion, you’ll keep the upper hand – and keep the peace.

Under Promise & Over Deliver

One of the simplest and best ways to continue to provide results that your clients are happy with is by under-promising and over-delivering. We talked about this concept recently when we discussed how big brands delight their customers, and the idea is that you need to manage your clients’ expectations up front and then make a point of delivering beyond what they were expecting.

For example, let’s say it’s Monday and you’re finishing a website for a client. They asked when you thought it would be done and you responded with “by week’s end.” Now let’s say you finish the site on Wednesday and deliver the good news. Your client is going to feel like you went above and beyond to get this site ready for them because they weren’t even expecting it to be done until the end of the week.

But if you had said Wednesday, they wouldn’t have thought anything special of you, and worse yet, if something came up that prevented you from having it ready by Wednesday, it would have had very much the opposite effect.

Remember, you’ll have a much easier time delivering pleasant surprises than unexpected disappointments.

So by managing expectations and continuing to demonstrate your expertise, you’ll remind your clients why they decided to work with you in the first place – and that they made the right choice in doing so.