How to Respond to a Disgruntled Client and Stay Sane While Running a Business

Do you remember how you felt the last time things got heated with a disgruntled client? Perhaps there was a misunderstanding about payment or pricing and the client got upset. Or your work didn’t match the client’s expectations and they criticized you for it. Sometimes it seems that a client is simply having a bad day and taking it out on you. Does any of this sound familiar?

Difficult client interactions can be unsettling and upsetting. They can also be dangerous for your business if your client leaves the interaction feeling unsatisfied and motivated to tell others about their negative experience with your company. As an emotional wellness consultant, I recommend the following conflict deescalation skills to help you cool down a difficult interaction with clients and get back to a professional relationship. These strategies are also essential for preventing professional burnout and making your business sustainable.

1. Use a gentle approach. Show your client the same kindness you would if you were talking to your best friend on their worst day. Soften your tone. Make gentle eye contact. Lean in slightly to show that you are listening, while giving your client enough personal space. Keep your body relaxed and avoid intimidating physical gestures, such as crossing your arms or inadvertently clenching your fists. Sit if your client is sitting and stand if your client is standing. You don’t want to be towering above or below your client. Notice if you are feeling tense or nervous, and tell your whole body to relax. Showing your client that you are relaxed will help you feel more calm, and will subliminally suggest to your client that they do the same. And, of course, breathe….

2. Genuinely try to view things from your client’s perspective. Why are they so upset? What do they feel went wrong? Don’t get sidetracked by a client’s nasty tone or eye rolls. Stay focused and try to understand what your client actually wants. We all have bad days and don’t always express ourselves well. Give your client a pass on mildly annoying behavior this one time and try to get them on track for the purpose of this conversation. If bad behavior becomes a client’s pattern, then you might want to consider discontinuing their business. In this one moment though, just stay focused on clearly understanding your client’s priorities.

3. Repeat back a client’s objective to them to show that you understand. It doesn’t count if you think you know your client’s viewpoint, but they don’t know that you do. Say something like: “Let me make sure I’m hearing you correctly.You are upset because you thought the pricing was going to be lower.” OR “You don’t like the way this product came out and you want it to be better.” Clarify with your client to make sure that you understood them correctly. “Did I get that right?” OR “Did I miss anything?” When you can accurately reflect a client’s sentiment back to them, you give your client an opportunity to de-escalate and get to yes. “Yeah, that’s right.” Again, breathe…

4. Stay mindful of your goals for this interaction. Are you trying to be RIGHT, or are you trying to be an effective entrepreneur? Are you trying to keep this client’s business? Are you trying to preserve a professional reputation? Do you want to feel good about how you handled this conversation after the fact (rather than feeling upset or guilty about how you behaved)? It can be helpful to keep your long-term goals in mind to help you get through this difficult moment. Keep your personal safety in mind as well, and always use emergency resources if you ever feel threatened. Keep your personal and business goals at the forefront of you mind when interacting with a difficult client.

5. Turn the tables. If you are still having difficulty finding a solution for your client, turn the tables and ask for their ideas. “It sounds like you really want me to offer a service that we just don’t have, how do you think we could resolve this?” OR “I hear that you are frustrated and not feeling satisfied. Is there anything else I can do for you?” Sometimes clients will be able to help you brainstorm a helpful compromise. Or, it may become clear that you will have to agree to disagree and turning the tables can sometimes help a client see this.

6. Give you and your client a break if you are still feeling stuck. This is called Assertive Delay. “You have given me a lot to think about. Let me try to come up with a solution and give you a call back. Would that be OK?” OR “I really value your input, but I can’t think of the perfect solution right now. Let me consult with one of my colleagues and get back to you. What’s the best way to get ahold of you?” Giving both you and your client some time to cool down gives you both the opportunity to collect your thoughts and come up with a better compromise.

7. Take care of yourself during and after a difficult interaction with a client. The reason that I strongly encourage business entrepreneurs to breathe deeply during difficult interactions with clients is not only to improve the experience for the client, but also to protect their emotional health. We know that memories are encoded more permanently when we experience emotional extremes or high stress. This is why so many individuals describe a kind of instant replay when they recall stressful experiences. Incorporating a healthy routine of relaxation exercises both during and after the work day will help you separate from stressful experiences with difficult clients. It will also help your business stay sustainable.

My wish for you is to be well and help ensure that your business is healthy as well. Your clients will thank you.


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Anna Lindberg Cedar, MPA, LCSW #64284 is a Bay Area psychotherapist who specializes in burnout prevention. She is an expert practitioner of Dialectical Behavior Therapy — a counseling style that combines Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and other change-based skills with mindfulness and other acceptance-based strategies. Find out more: www.annacedar.com .

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