5 tactics for handling difficult customers

In any business, developing and maintaining customer relationships is one of the fundamental aspects of success. As a small business owner in the professional services space, that means developing the right skillset to seamlessly handle difficult customers, writes Kellie Byrnes.

As someone working in the professional services arena, your success relies heavily on your relationships with clients.

You must build amicable and supportive bonds that lead to your customers re-hiring you and recommending you to their contacts.

However, sometimes problems occur with these relationships, and customers become difficult to work with.

They might start ignoring your communications, not paying bills, being rude, or badmouthing you publicly.

If this happens, it may be tempting to part ways, but it’s usually better to turn things around if possible.

Here are ways to handle testing customers when the situation arises.


Listen


You won’t be able to solve a thing until you work out why your client is acting differently. To do this, listen closely to what they say.

Engage in active listening, whereby you repeat back to people what you feel you’ve understood from their words.

Doing this reduces the risk of misunderstandings and makes it easier to tell where frustrations stem from.

Plus, by showing you’re carefully listening to their concerns, customers will feel heard.

Much of the time, this is enough to make a difference to their behaviour.


Stay calm


When taking in the problem(s) a client has, the information you hear can be hard to handle.

This is particularly so when people vent in frustration and seem to be attacking you.

It’s also upsetting when customers have a problem with the quality of your work or some other factor that feels related to who you are as a person.

No matter what’s causing your clients to be difficult, though, stay calm. Don’t react emotionally to their feedback and say or do things you regret.

Take deep breaths, and ask for time to consider their words if you feel like you need to walk away to collect yourself.

Finding a resolution is more likely when you always act professionally. You’ll keep people on side and won’t give them ammunition to use to talk about you negatively elsewhere.


Acknowledge your customers’ issues


Always acknowledge customer concerns, too. When you mention, either verbally or in writing, that you understand someone is unhappy and that things haven’t proceeded how they hoped, you validate their concerns.

It’s natural to find this hard to do if you don’t agree with the things said, but keep in mind that the problems seem real to your clients.

Acknowledge this, and you should immediately find the situation calms.

Try to put yourself in your client’s shoes so you can see things from their perspective. Then, find a way to move forward together.


Chunk problems


While sometimes you’ll discover your customer is upset about a small problem you can rectify in a few minutes, other times things are more deeply rooted or complex.

If a client has a wide array of issues, don’t try to address everything at once.

“Chunk” things down into more manageable problems; these should then have manageable solutions.

For example, the root cause of a client’s problem may relate to you not understanding their business needs adequately, or it could be that they’re going through a slow period in their business and don’t have enough cashflow to pay you.

Something that could have tipped things over the edge, though, is if you haven’t been available to answer a client’s calls or respond to their emails quickly enough.

If so, the first step could be to give them more attention for the short term. Then they’ll know you’re taking their worries seriously and want to address the problem.

It might help to set up a time to meet with the client to discuss what exactly they require from your services. Or, perhaps they need to hold off on services for a time to get back on track financially.

Discuss, together, what types of changes they’d like to make.

You may need to negotiate on various terms to find the best solution for both parties, or you could find you’re not the best provider for their needs after all.

Either way, try to come to an agreement and move forward amicably.


Boundaries


Sometimes a client is difficult not because you’ve done anything real to upset or disappoint them, but because they need someone to vent external frustrations to.

People going through difficult times personally, such as a relationship breakup, financial hardship, or business downturn, may become snappy, negative, impulsive, demanding, or switched off.

When this is the case, it helps to put boundaries in place.

For example, mention that you don’t feel comfortable with the way they’re talking to you, and ask them to make a change.

Another idea is if you feel clients are demanding too much of your attention, delegate their queries to one of your staff members, or explain to them that you’re only available at limited times.

For people who don’t get the hint, advise them that you’ll need to charge extra for any support above and beyond the norm.

In some circumstances, too, it may also be in your best interests to let that client go.

Having to deal with difficult clients is not fun and can be stressful and time-consuming.

But by following the steps above, you should make the process easier and more positive for yourself.

Subscribe to be updated on all things MYOB

Congratulations! You've successfully subscribed to our newsletter!
Something went wrong
A valid email is required
You're also consenting to receive communications including by email. We value your privacy, please see our Privacy Disclosure Statement for information on how we collect and handle your personal information.