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I recently had a crash course in how NOT to deal with a cranky client. Luckily, I was the client in this particular situation, and consequently learnt a lot about what not to do when you’re faced with a client who’s less than impressed with your work.

Whether you’re in the right or the wrong (and it’s seldom entirely one or the other), here’s how to deal with the situation gracefully and professionally.


Step 1 – Don’t react, respond

It’s never nice when someone tells you they think you’ve done a crap job. But however bruised your ego is, don’t respond right away. Take some time to consider what’s actually being said, and whether there’s any truth in it. Once the sting is gone, respond thoughtfully and proactively.

What not to do

Respond immediately with the first thing that pops into your head. Whether your first reaction is to fight back or prostrate yourself at their feet, hold back for a sec. If you want to a) start a war with your client or b) be bullied into doing things you don’t want or have not agreed previously to do, then by all means, say exactly what you’re thinking right away.


Step 2 – Acknowledge the situation

The very first thing to do is to acknowledge how your client is feeling. Regardless of whether you think they’re right, wrong, or somewhere in between, your primary aim should be to keep the lines of communication open. It’s a horrible feeling when someone tells you they don’t like your work or that they think you haven’t delivered on your promises, but it’s equally unpleasant to be on the other side and not have your position acknowledged.

What not to do

Refuse to acknowledge your client’s position by either ignoring what they’re trying to tell you, by flying off the handle at them or telling them they don’t know what they’re on about. It won’t win your friends, or help you influence people.


Step 3 – Ask what’s wrong

If your client hasn’t gone into detail about what they’re dissatisfied about, ask them for clarification. What specifically are they unhappy about? What have you delivered/not delivered/misunderstood/stuffed up? Note this doesn’t mean you’re accepting blame for whatever’s gone wrong, but is a way of demonstrating to your client that you’ve heard them and you’re prepared to work with them to change things.

What not to do

Assume you’re in the right, have done nothing wrong and that your client is an idiot. And if you want to go a step further and really throw yourself into the fire, tell them that.


Step 4 – Ask what you can do and how you can work together to change the situation

You know your client’s unhappy and you’ve clarified why. The next step is to continue the dialogue and work with them to determine what would make them happy. It’s a delicate stage of the negotiation/communication dance, so start by suggesting a few ways you could change the situation. Make them part of the solution by making it clear to them what you need them to do and/or how you can potentially work together to sort things out.

If you’re not sure where to go from here, ask them what they’d ultimately like you to do next. Phrase it as part of your ongoing negotiation/communication and you’ll establish a position from which you can bargain your way into a better place. If there have been any miscommunications, misunderstandings or failures on your behalf that have led to, or exacerbated the situation, acknowledge them and then move on. If something was your fault, admitting it will go a long way with any reasonable human.

What not to do

Make no attempt to be conciliatory or helpful. Continue to assume that your client doesn’t know what they’re on about and/or that they’re the worst kind of imbecile. Make it clear to them that that’s what you think, and offer no suggestions as to how you could work together to change the situation so you’re both happy. Inflame the situation by being combative and/or by using inflammatory language.


Step 5 – Negotiate a workable solution

Ultimately, you want to walk away from this situation with both parties in a good place. In order to do so, this is the point where you may need to re-establish or set a new scope, amend deadlines and/or ask for the detailed information you need to complete the job to their satisfaction. You don’t need to bend over backwards or assume you’re completely in the wrong, but you do need to show a willingness to work together to sort the situation out.

Once you’ve sorted out a workable solution, get on with the job. The sooner it’s fixed, the sooner everyone can get on with their lives.

What not to do

Continue with the what not to do steps as detailed above. Deny there’s a problem that needs to be fixed and show no willingness to concede, negotiate or even communicate. You could send an email or two with no salutation and in the bluntest possible language. You could even call them names. It’ll really set the tone.


Step 6 – If you can’t find a way out that suits everyone, get out – gracefully

Sometimes these kinds of situations aren’t fixable. If that’s the case, extricate yourself with a minimum of fuss and avoid playing the blame game or making yourself subject to further recrimination. Remain completely professional and where necessary, re-iterate your terms and conditions (this is particularly important when it comes to non-refundable deposits) and wherever possible, demonstrate an understanding of where your client is at by either offering a reduced rate for work done over and above your deposit, or not charging for the remainder of the job. You might take a financial hit, but your reputation and professionalism will remain intact.

What not to do

Demand you be paid for your time thus far without making any attempt to justify why. Continue to refuse to concede that you had any part in things going awry, clearly demonstrating you couldn’t care less why your client is unhappy.


Step 7 – Avoid things going south in the first place

This should really be step 1, but it may not occur to you until things go badly wrong. To avoid things getting rapidly out of control, make sure you:

Charge a deposit – 50% upfront for jobs over a certain amount, or 100% for jobs under a certain amount. That way, if things go wrong you’ve still been paid for something and won’t walk away with an empty wallet and a bad taste in your mouth. 

Have a clear set of terms and conditions – Send it to each and every client at the beginning of the job, making it clear that they must agree to them or the work won’t get done. It can be as easy as a line in an email asking them to specify that they agree to your terms and are ready to work with you. As with all contractual issues, it’s best to get it in writing.

Use a contract – If you’re dealing with big clients and even bigger budgets, you might want to get a contract together. Make it part of your client on-boarding process so your legal position is assured from the get go.

Establish a clear working process – Send every client the same information at the same time, ensuring your working process, expectations and legal position are clear from the very beginning.


The bottom line

If things progress to a point where a mediator or tribunal is involved, you want every piece of communication to demonstrate how reasonable and professional you were throughout the entire affair. So stay polite and professional at all times – even when your client is being entirely unreasonable and all you want to do is scream at them (it happens). It’s not easy to do, but will always pay off in the end.

Have a horror story to share? How did you deal with it? Pop it in the comments section below.