8 tips for dealing with difficult clients

It’s evitable, you may have the greatest clients in the world, but from time to time you are going to end up with that one client who tends to be a little more difficult than the rest. Perhaps they are reaching out to you more than is expected and asking too much of your time, or perhaps they are unhappy because the deliverables weren’t clear from the start. Either way, we’ve reached out to a panel of digital marketing entrepreneurs and experts who’ve weighed in on their tips for dealing with difficult clients to uncover ways to prevent unhappy customers and also do damage control when you have an unsatisfied customer on your hands.

  1. Manage client expectations before an issue arises

Vicky Wu of Vicky Wu Marketing advises “Have guidelines outlined and shared as part of the onboarding process. For us, the document outlining how and when to communicate, and expected response times, is one that goes the longest way to setting expectations for our clients. It has also helped us remind clients that want immediate discussions multiple times a day that they will be better to book an appointment using our scheduling tool so that we can focus solely on their project during that time.

Going beyond some of the more basic onboarding documents such as this, we have also outlined working boundaries of things that we absolutely will not do, which we update from time to time as needed. This document covers health and safety for us, our team, and the client; using copyrighted materials; and a couple of other one-off situations that have actually arisen during work with various clients that we may have never thought would be an issue. This allows our team to have a hard stop whenever something arises that may be questionable, and refer the client to that boundary document which they sign that they have received and read during the onboarding process.

We always keep in mind difficult clients are usually just trying to get things done that help their business, and we support that. The ones we actually consider difficult are those that repeatedly push in one of these two areas, even bullying and harassing our team at times to try to get their way. We do not allow this. Clients who refuse to abide by these boundaries we may need to bless and release, although usually if we simply remind them of these boundaries that they agreed to, it allows everyone to stay on the same page and maintain a healthy working relationship.”

Richa Nathani of Dialed Labs says “More often than not, the customers are half-educated or do not have any knowledge about the situation. Hence, they make unreasonable demands which might seem reasonable to them. Suppose your client wants something to be done within an unreasonably short period, you can sit down and explain to him why it takes that long and that is the best you could do. This solves most customer-employee problems.”

Valentine Okoronkwo of Passive Secrets adds “Having the scope of work clearly defined from the start helps eliminate any confusion or misunderstandings. You and your client will know exactly what to expect and when to expect it.”

David Sides of Second Eclipse shares the example “If you are a white-hat agency, then you are constantly competing with marketers who resort to easier black-hat strategies. It’s like being in the MLB in the early 2000’s and competing with players who take steroids. These marketers can buy 50 links overnight where you have to build a link building strategy over the course of months. If you manage expectations and prioritize to your clients that this process takes months not days or weeks, you may have a much easier time in the long run with difficult clients.”

  1. Pinpoint the issue

Owain Powell of OCP Digital Marketing says “Request for the client to document their concerns. Understand all client concerns and empathise with their situation – regardless of whether you think the client is justified. Next, call the client to discuss; never deal with issues that may escalate via email for a number of reasons. It lacks sincerity, tone of voice is lost and it’s less personable. Reaffirm what was discussed on the call via email to the client following the call. It is critical to document as a difficult client could potentially end up not paying or breaking their agreement/contract. If a dispute between agency or freelancer and client can’t be resolved amicably and goes to small claims court communications need to be documented.

  1. Choose your words wisely

Jason McMahon of Bambrick states “Speaking from vast experience, the best way to deal with difficult clients in your digital marketing agency is to choose your words wisely. When a client began to complain about a troublesome customer, I was counseling him on how to execute better business strategies. I sat in on one of their meetings and could tell right away that the stress was being created by my client’s comments, and my client was completely unaware of it. My client, for example, said he would ‘hash out the details’ at a later time, which made his customer cringe. Instead of ‘hash out,’ his customer preferred to use less confrontational words like ‘add clarification.’ In their next meeting, I advised my client to pay close attention and repeat his customer’s words. It was successful. They were on the same page, doing what needed to be done, and there was no tension between them. Mirroring your customers’ words will make them relax and feel like you understand what they’re going through.”

SEO & Online Marketing Specialist, Josien Galama advises “My number 1 tip for dealing with difficult clients is pretending that my email replies are being sent to all my other clients and that they can all read along. It makes me more aware of my tone of voice and the words that I choose. It keeps my brain cool and my replies professional, even when I’m upset.”

  1. Really listen to your client

Paul Oppong, Management Consultant says “Frequently, a tough client believes the process has gotten away from them and they want to be heard. Simply listening to their concerns without being defensive may be all that is required to resolve the situation. Assure your client that you are focused on their issue (even if it is an imagined issue). Inquire further, repeat their statements back to them, and express your appreciation for having heard and understood.”

  1. Remain cool headed

Ryan Stewart of Webris says “When a client lashes out, it’s usually not entirely your fault. They’re dealing with a ton of stress and pressure, your error is usually just the tipping point. Whatever happens, take a deep breath, remind yourself that it’s not personal, and do what you can to remain calm and patient. Nothing good comes when you fight fire with fire. Swallow your pride, let them vent and live to work another day.”

  1. Empathize

William Torres, CEO of KeyForge Digital Marketing advises “Empathize and then provide specifics on what you can do to resolve the issue. For example, if a client is unhappy with their account manager, say, ‘I’m sorry to hear that your manager isn’t meeting your expectations. Let’s take some time and think about what you’re looking for in an account manager.’ If the problem continues after following these steps, it may be best to let them know that we’re looking for a new client.”

  1. Maintain regular communication

Geoff Hoesch of Dragonfly Digital Marketing advises “One of the best things you can do is set recurring meetings that happen at the same time each month or bi-monthly. These a) help the client stay engaged, b) keep the agency’s work front and center, and c) answer any concerns that may be making them a difficult client. Client communication is key to keeping clients, even difficult ones.”

  1. Don’t get defensive

Emily Baker of Move Over Media says “Many people are quick to jump on the defensive when dealing with a difficult client and that can often exacerbate the problem. Most of the time, when someone is truly angry and aggressive with you, the specific problem they have with you is only one in a series of problems they are dealing with on that particular day (because, let’s face it, bad days seem to attack us from all angles). View the situation objectively, as well as from their perspective, and be honest as well as firm when addressing their issue. There are things you can do, things you can’t do, and things you have no control over. Make sure that you fully explain what is going on, what action steps you are taking to resolve the issue, when they can expect a resolution, and what you are going to do to make up for any downtime they may experience as a result. Then, keep your promises. If you can’t keep your promises, let them know why. Over explain if you have to. Don’t let it ruin your day, but if their problem is legitimate, do let it change your business so you never have to deal with that same issue again.”

When it comes to client success, managing difficult clients can be a combination of doing some preventative work upfront by clearly stating the deliverables, timeline and communication policy in your onboarding process. Additional ways to manage a difficult client includes keeping a cool head, empathizing and ensuring you get to the root of the issue by listening to your client’s concerns and working to effectively resolve the issue and prevent it from happening again. Of course in the event that a client is extremely challenging to manage and is verbally aggressive to you and your team it might be best for all parties to politely explain that you are just not the best fit to deliver their marketing services and part ways.