Dealing With Difficult Customers

by buttonhead

When you own a business, dealing with difficult customers is particularly challenging. Instead of getting hot-headed, here are a few tips to help defuse the bomb.

Dealing with difficult customers is always challenging, particularly when you own the business. Your reputation is on the line here. You don't want to turn away work, but you didn't become the boss because you like getting pushed around. At the same time, you can't pass the project off to someone else. You have to be the one to resolve conflicts. When these situations arise, there is one rule you always have to follow: Never engage in an argument with a client. You may win in the short term, but you will be damaging your business. So, instead of getting hot-headed, use these tips to defuse the bomb:

Take a Deep Breath

Uh oh!  We have a 'situation', and it doesn't look good.  So, what do you do?  First step: Stay calm! Don't make a move until you have had a chance to think.  No matter how much you may want to mass your troops and fire a missile, nothing good will come from an emotional response.  You're the proprietor. It's your job to rise above petty issues and see the bigger picture. If you need to take time to release the steam, go ahead – but don't make a decision until you stop seeing red.

Try To See Things From Their Perspective

Ask yourself:  What if this situation were happening in reverse?  What if you were the client, and they were the vendor?  Taking a moment to honestly consider things from your customer's perspective may help you to better understand what is happening.  Making an effort to look through their eyes may also provide you with an idea for a fair resolution.

Apologize Without Admitting Fault

A little apology goes a long way.  Let the customer know that you're sorry the situation has become uncomfortable.  Apologizing for the awkwardness doesn't mean you're admitting to doing something wrong.  It just shows that you want to acknowledge the tension and move forward in a productive way. The olive branch might be just what you need to get you through another day. 

Communication Barriers

Could a different method of communication help the problem?  Perhaps there are some messages that are becoming lost or unclear in an e-mail format that a phone call could help clarify.  Arranging an in-person meeting in a relaxed, neutral location might also help alleviate some tension.  Whichever method you choose, be sure to over-communicate.  In these types of situations, it's better to provide more information than not enough.  At the end of the day, you will need to make sure you have said everything that needs to be said.

Get a Second Opinion

Sure, it's highly unlikely, but have you considered the possibility that you might be in the wrong? Sometimes it helps to get the perspective of an outside 3rd party.  Present the situation and ask them to consider it neutrally.  They may be able to help to you see things in a new light, and it could make a huge difference in how you approach the situation from now on.

Document Your Actions

Every e-mail, every phone call, and every meeting with a difficult client should be documented.  Keep a spreadsheet detailing the date, time, summary of what was discussed, and the action takeaways.  If necessary, send a copy of the log to the client after the meeting, so that everyone can remain on the same page.  When things get heated, it's not always easy to remember what happened when.  It's best to have it in writing.

Don't Fan the Flames

Ok.  What if, no matter what you do, this customer is just impossible to please?  You want to tell them to go take a flying leap.  You want to prove to them that you're right and they're wrong.  Don't.  It's not worth it.  In the age of social networking, do you really want messages floating around on Facebook and Twitter about how unprofessional your company is?  Not to mention the damage it could end up doing to your professional reputation.  Don't make a bad situation even worse.

Know When To Cut and Run

Some things are worth more than money. There are times when nothing feels better than refunding a customer and being done with their insanity.  Unfortunately, this can't always be the case.  You have to weigh it out.  Is the financial gain more important than the amount of energy you will put into the problem? Will you be losing valuable time that could be spent on other profitable activities?  Make a list of the pros and cons and be able to identify when it's time to sever the relationship.


When a bad customer comes your way, it's easy to let it become all-consuming.  Chances are, this isn't your first negative client, and it won't be your last.  Try to stay positive!  For every bad customer, there will be hundreds of good ones.  Engaging with your good customers makes all of the other hassles worthwhile.

Updated: 03/08/2012, buttonhead
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