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How to deal with difficult clients (and avoid them altogether!)

Bill Gates once said, “Your most unhappy customers are your greatest source of learning.” And knowing how many times I’ve wanted to throw my PC out a window, I suspect Bill’s done a lot of learning over the years.

Difficult clients are part of the cost of doing business. Most often, they’re difficult because they’re unhappy with the service you’ve provided. Sometimes, they could simply have a personality that clashes with your company values, or they have expectations that are way out of whack with reality. Sometimes, they are simply a bit too odd.

When you’re faced with a difficult client in your service business, it can be hard to know what to do.

How do I identify difficult clients?

Difficult clients take many different forms. They may be running around with their hair on fire declaring everything an emergency, or calling you on weekends and late at night to discuss pointless details. They may make your staff cry from their constant tirades, or they may simply be a poor fit for your company.

According an article for CPA Advisor, difficult clients have a huge cost to business. Not only are the clients more likely to dispute their invoices, pay late, or not pay at all, but they’re also a drain on workflow and resources. Problem clients contribute to staff turnover, stress-related health problems, enjoyment of your work, and a poor reputation.

One or two difficult clients are common in business, but it’s important to try and turn things around before it’s too late.

Here are some common types of difficult clients you may encounter:

  • Party-member Patrick: He can’t make a single decision without consulting with someone back in his office.
  • Know-it-all Nancy: She knows your business better than you do and she’ll tell you everything you’re doing wrong, at the top of her lungs, until you wonder why she’s bothering to hire you in the first place.
  • It’s a simple Job Jason: Declaring that everything is simple and easy and you won’t have any trouble, while asking for a million customised details and complex systems.
  • Emergency Edith: Everything needs to be done yesterday. Edith has no concept of the fact you have other clients and expects you to bend the space-time continuum to meet her impossible deadlines.
  • Bitching-about-the-bill Bill: Bill scrutinises every details of your invoice and tries to eke out as much free work as possible.
  • Terrible Terry: Terry screams down the phone at your staff members and berates you in public over seemingly minor issues about your work. You sleep with one eye open.

7 steps to dealing with difficult clients

No matter how your client is being difficult, the steps to managing them are still the same. Here’s how we recommend calming the waters or a turbid client relationship.

1. Stay calm (or rant in private)

Even if a client is screaming at you down the phone or making a scene in the office, you’ve got to remain cool and collected. If you stoop to their level of hostility, you put your reputation on the line. You get your point across much clearer with a calm voice and stern demeanor.

Stay Calm
Stay calm comic by

According to the psychology of human interaction, people will often mirror the emotional signals you emit. When you’re angry, you’ll often get an angry rise out of someone else. But if you’re calm, you can often encourage them to be calm, as well

2. Listen to their concerns

Often, a difficult client feels as though the process has run away with them, and they want to be heard. Simply taking the time to listen to their problems without getting defensive could be all that’s needed to solve the issue.

Make sure your client understands that you’re focused on their problem (even if it’s an imagined problem). Ask follow-up questions, repeat their statements back to them, and acknowledge that you’ve heard and understood.

Anita Ferguson from the Balancing Books website recommends asking for specifics. When a client feels their questions or concerns aren’t being dealt with, they often fall into language like “everything’s wrong” or “nothing’s working!” Ask them to clarify so you can get to the root of the issue.

3. Deliver a prompt reply

Do you know what doesn’t help sate a difficult client? The passage of time.

As soon as a client raises an issue, make it a priority to get it sorted out. When you do this, you validate the client. You’re not accepting blame (and you should try to avoid saying you’re sorry at this stage), but you are establishing a good communication from the start.

Try this email template to help you establish and acknowledge that you want to fix the issues:

Dear Client Name,

Thank you for your email listing your concerns about this project. I think there may have been some misunderstanding around the original brief and the project’s outcomes.

I’d like to call you this week to discuss before we proceed any further. Would 3PM tomorrow suit you?


Your name

4. Figure out what the hell happened

Often, client problems arise when they have expectations that are out of alignment with the service you deliver, or when a communications issues has made them believe one thing, when actually the opposite is true.

Talk to the relevant parties in your office, and check your records. Find out where things went wrong (if they did in fact go wrong), and how you might be able to improve processes or communication in the future.

5. Offer a solution

Again, this isn’t about admitting you’re wrong (in many cases, you won’t be), but in finding a way to solve the problem for the client without losing your head in the process.

If you’re in the wrong, admit it upfront, and show the client how you’ll make amends and get their project back on track.

If the client is in the wrong, then point to the relevant clauses in their contract or letter of agreement, and explain that you’re happy to wipe the slate clean, but with a careful outline of what they can expect from here.

Customer Is Always Right
Customer is always right by

If a communication breakdown is to blame, then offer alternative ways to communicate so the client feels included. Give them options – a monthly phone call, email update, face-to-face meeting, or regular check-ins via your client management dashboard – so they can choose what works best for them.

6. Cut your losses

According to Hootsuite CEO Ryan Holmes, finding a solution to a difficult client will often cut into your bottom line. At the end of a difficult client’s job, you may come away without any profit for all your efforts.

Your reputation and integrity are more important than your bottom line. Fixing the problem – even if that solution comes at a loss – will have benefits for you in the future. Your previously-difficult client may turn into a dream client, fiercely loyal and excited to tell all their associates how you went the extra mile.

Sometimes, you won’t be able to fix an issue, and you’ll have to terminate a difficult client. This can be heartbreaking (especially if it’s the first client relationship that’s gone sour), but if you keep your dealings professional, you’ll come out stronger and smarter.

7. Review and learn

Take a step back and evaluate what happened. Ask yourself:

  • Why did this problem arise in the first place?
  • What could we have done to prevent it?
  • What lessons have we learned that we can apply in the future?

There may be simple solutions – clarifying communications, changing workflow processes, re-wording contracts – that could prevent a repeat situation.

Having a sense of humour about the experience will help you pull through. Check out the site Clients from Hell for horror stories from agencies and designers.

When worst comes to worst... firing a difficult client

Sometimes, even if you follow the steps above, things between you and your client don’t get any better. Prioritize your client list to focus on the clients who bring in the majority of your revenue, while also being the easiest to work with. By getting rid of your “D-and-E-list clients,” you free up space to bring on more A-list clients and improve your bottom line.

You're fired gif from Back to the Future

In order to get rid of these clients, you may not have to fire them individually. You may be able to

  • phase out a certain service or business process that only D-list clients use.
  • change your pricing structure in such a way that they drop off naturally.

When firing a client, you will need to:

Check your contract / engagement letter. You should have included terms about terminating the agreement in your contracts, but it’s best to check before proceeding.

Wind up important work. Leaving a client in the middle of a vital project will give you a bad taste in your mouth, and may harm your reputation. Where possible, try to complete important contracted work before proceeding with the termination.

Keep calm. We’ve already talked about the importance of maintaining a professional demeanour. Use diplomatic language when explaining to the client why you’re terminating the relationship. Don’t be drawn into shouting matches or arguments over social media.

Refer them elsewhere. Just because a client isn’t the right fit for your business, doesn’t mean they won’t find the help they need somewhere else. Find some potential firms the client may wish to engage. Once they’ve engaged a new service, help them to move their data across.

How to avoid difficult clients in the future

Though Co. have created a list of warning signs to help identify difficult clients before they even sign a contract. Some of these signs include:

  • Their project is “easy” and will take “no time at all” – clients say they just want a simple website, but nothing is ever as simple as it seems.
  • They have unrealistic deadlines or are vague about deadlines – if you let clients dictate tight deadlines to the extent it disrupts your other work, it demonstrates they don’t value your business.
  • They quibble over every aspect of your rates – If they can’t afford you, then they can look elsewhere. Trying to force you to give them discounts shows they don’t respect your time or skills.
  • The words “I fired the last consultant” come out of their mouth – it could be that they were completely innocent and the last company was just terrible, but far more likely there were issues on both sides.
  • Trust your gut – Even if everything else checks out, if your gut says a client isn’t a good fit, then you should listen. There are always more clients to be found!

There are other things you can do to avoid picking up more difficult clients:

Under-promise and over-deliver

If we go back to psychology for a moment, think about this: it’s much easier to impress a client if you first give yourself the room to provide exceptional service.

Saying yes to every deadline, extra feature and demand creates the expectation that you’ll meet those demands, even if for you, they’re actually quite a stretch. The client assumes their demands are the norm.

However, if you tell the client, “actually that’s not a reasonable time-frame. You’re more likely to be looking at this,” you set their expectations from the onset. And then, you can blow their expectations out of the water.

As designer Addison Duvall suggests, try not to let your clients see your superpowers. Instead, impress by under-promising and over-delivering every time. If you manage to meet their deadline after all, you get to be the hero, and the whole dynamic between you and the client shifts.

Don’t compromise your values

According to the IRS Oversight Survey in the US, 11% of taxpayers believe it is acceptable to cheat on their taxes.

If a client asks you to do something that’s against your professional ethics, or you feel yourself morally challenged, then go with your gut and move the client on. Your integrity is worth more than what any client could pay you to try to cheat the system.

Increase your prices

It is a truth, universally acknowledged, the difficult clients also tend to be those clients who pay late, dispute invoices, or try to wheedle more work out of your for free.

Raising your fees will help you to move these clients along and new clients to avoid you, while the resulting increase to your bottom line from your remaining clients will help your cash flow while you fill the gaps in your client schedule.

Improve your contract/engagement letter

Check all your contracts and engagement letters with a legal professional. Make sure you are protected against litigation if you fire a client, and that all the terms and conditions are in line with your processes and company values.

You want to make sure that should you end if with another difficult client, you’re able to get out of the contract with your integrity and company intact.


Difficult clients drain resources, energy, and money from your business, but the way you deal with them also provides a valuable learning experience for anyone in business. Clients are just people, after all – people with a very specific set of needs you’re trying to fulfill – and learning how to deal with all types of people makes you a stronger, better business owner.

What’s the most difficult client you’ve had to deal with, and what did you learn from the experience? Share your horror stories.

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