Strategy

The Four-Step Guide to Dealing with Difficult Customers

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In 30 years of serving clients, I’ve seen all sorts of situations, from clients who communicate poorly to those who seemingly can’t be pleased.  Oftentimes, there were steps on my end I could take to make the situation better with any relationship. In this post, I’ll share with you the three core best practices I’ve learned for dealing with difficult customers.


1. Write a Great SOW

Your statement of work (SOW) is the first and last word of your agreement with any client. The SOW sets expectations for what you’ll deliver, how much you will charge, and the type of interactions your client — and you — can expect. This makes this a great opportunity for shaping the language around your relationship.

Your SOW is a contract, and it can set the stage for your more personable conversations later on, during the project. If you need to address a behavioral change mid-project, you can point back to your SOW for authority. You let your SOW do the hard talking, and you reference it for support in your conversations.

"If the problem is clearly your issue, admit it. Tell them how you’re going to fix it." — Ray Grainger, Mavenlink CEO

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2. Communicate Openly

If your team has contributed to an issue, do acknowledge your contribution to the situation. Your client may be angry and reluctant to do so first, because they expect you would have guided them to success without issue. 

Set up a meeting specific to the issue. To start, acknowledge your part in the issue. From there, you can offer a solution. What I found worked well for me was to offer several solutions, so the client could pick which worked best for them. Once they take ownership of a solution, they become part of making it work. From there, your conversation turns into a negotiation. Be willing to give a little, and acknowledge that you’re offering more time and expertise than was in the original SOW. That tends to open your client to negotiations, which puts you both on track to fix the issue and retain the relationship.

"Offer several solutions, so the client can pick which will work best for them." — Ray Grainger, Mavenlink CEO

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3. Differentiate Yourself

Your SOW sets a clear expectation for how you’ll meet your client’s initial needs. In my career, I also liked to make a habit of going above and beyond expectations, to differentiate superior service.

One of my go-to strategies was to bring in an expert in an area outside my specific expertise. I’d offer that the expert meet with the client and share an additional value added. This could be a best practice or strategy. I set the expectation that I was regularly looking out for my client’s interest outside my core expertise, based on their unique needs. That differentiated my service in a valuable way.

4. Stay Positive


If you are dealing with an angry customer it is imperative to stay calm and positive—do your best to not take the situation personally. This way, the client is likely to react in a negative manner. It is your job to satisfy the client, regardless of the difficulties. Involving emotions is the quickest way to let a poor relationship with a client escalate.

Key Takeaways

At the end of the day, clients want to work with service providers who are more than experts. They are also easy to work with and truly have their client’s best interest at heart. Rely on these three best practices to make sure that’s you.

  1. Start with and rely on your SOW.
  2. Be willing to negotiate to preserve the project integrity.
  3. Differentiate yourself by looking out for your client’s interest in unexpected ways.

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This post was originally published July, 2016 and has been updated for accuracy and relevancy. 
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