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Tips for Handling Difficult Clients or Clients With Complaints

Tips for Handling Difficult Clients or Clients With Complaints

We recently published a blog post that talked about knowing when to fire clients who have become a major agency hindrance. Though this is an important part of managing your digital marketing agency, you would probably prefer preventative measures to deal with difficult clients before the relationship becomes catastrophic enough to give them the boot.

Clients can become difficult or hard to work with for several reasons, some more justified than others. Regardless of fault or reasoning, it pays to know how to deal with difficulty when it arises in a way that best allows you to come out of the scenario with a trustworthy and authoritative stance during the resolution. Essentially it comes down to maintaining professional control of the situation.

How to deal with unhappy clients.

Here are some of our tips for dealing with difficult clients:

Prevention is the Best Cure

Let’s get the most cliché tip out of the way first. It can’t be stressed enough how important it is to set realistic and achievable expectations with all of your clients. This includes everything from results and performance right down to simple items like expected delivery dates of any promised work.

Formalize Promises

Make sure that all agreements and expectation setting is formalized clearly either in a contract, a project schedule or even just a confirmation email so that there is no confusion — and clients can’t claim false promises.

Under Promise and Over Deliver

This is another cliché phrase but it still holds true. Give realistic time schedules and conservative performance projections and then beat those dates when you can. Surprise and delight has been the cornerstone mantra of many successful service brands and it can be for you, too. Ask for two weeks and deliver the work in one week if it’s possible. Constantly beating or meeting your projections is more impressive than making glamorous upfront claims and then falling short.

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Never Say “Sorry”

This one will divide the room — no doubt. It’s similar to the advice you hear about minor car accidents and other similar scenarios in the sue-happy world we live in. Don’t openly admit you are at fault. A similar theme applies when dealing with clients who are voicing a grievance of some kind. Some account managers will naturally apologize having been surprised or overwhelmed at receiving a complaint or email from a disappointed client. Now, it’s not that apologizing is flat out wrong, but it does immediately put you on the back foot and arguably makes the person in question and the agency look weak at a time when authority and control are needed more than ever.

It’s also natural to want to point the finger somewhere and shift some of the blame elsewhere. This is certainly a no-no and will most likely be met with a serious loss of respect from your client-side contact.

In the face of mistakes your agency has made — however direct or indirect — the key is expressing remorse and express understanding of the scenario while not accepting blame or apologizing. Consider the following two responses to an underperforming campaign for which the client has expressed disappointment:

  1. “We’re very sorry the campaign hasn’t performed as well as we anticipated. We will do everything we can to ensure this doesn’t happen again.”
  2. “These are certainly unfortunate results and they are not to our expectations either. We appreciate your patience and understanding while we investigate what the causes or contributing factors may have been so we can make the required changes for upcoming campaigns.”

Both of these responses express remorse although one of them does so without being directly apologetic. The second response also appeals to the client’s rational and diplomatic side by referencing them being ‘patient’ and ‘understanding’, as well as alluding to how further investigation will help improve future performance. While some may argue that referencing future projects amidst a mistake or poor performance might be arrogant, as long as you have judged your relationship to date with the client correctly, it will more likely come across confident and positive.

Keep Calm and Maintain Control

Authority comes in many different forms. Most commonly in the world of business relationships, authority is the ability to be assertive or even heavy handed while maintaining your professional composure and a cool, calm appearance/tone. Clients hire agencies and consultants because they want experts and leaders, as soon as you lose either of these characteristics they will question you. The key is to maintain control as much as possible throughout the relationship, setting the scene right from the start.

  • Be the one who requests meetings before they ask you for a meeting
  • Be the one who sets the initial agenda, leaving room for others to fill in
  • Be the one who kicks off every session and sets the scene
  • If you know that something needs to be discussed, call your client before they call you
  • Always know all the details or have them to hand so that you are never unable to answer a question related to your services, pricing or performance

It’s important to remember that conflicts and mistakes happen — it’s not personal, it’s just a part of doing business. Most clients who seek conflict are actually looking for you to provide them with a solution or some kind of education about the subject in question.

  • Always remain calm and address conflict as a question
  • Work towards resolutions instead of defending yourself
  • Stick to your guns, don’t back track on statements you’ve made when things don’t go as planned
  • Never accept full blame or apologize – work towards rectification
  • Never send anything in writing that could be used against you – especially in a court of law
  • Address major conflicts over the phone or ideally face to face

What Are Your Thoughts? How Do You Deal With Difficult Clients?

Have you had any experiences where you have used any of this advice in the past or wish you had with difficult clients? Let us know! We’d love to hear your thoughts and approaches.

Sherry Bonelli
About the author
Sherry is the former Local Search Evangelist at BrightLocal. She led BrightLocal's Research and Content programs and championed the needs of their SEO Agency and SMB customers. Having worked in digital marketing since 1998, Sherry has a Master’s Degree in Internet Marketing along with numerous digital marketing certifications.