How to Build Positive Relationships with Difficult Clients

Difficult clients are an inevitable part of doing business. We’ve all had to work with them. It’s frustrating, time-consuming, and stressful.  Most of us want to complete our work with them as quickly as possible and say sayonara. But that is not what’s best for your brand.

We’re doing a series on building relationships with difficult people, and in our last post, we talked about how to develop a positive relationship with your difficult boss. This week, we’re going to discuss how to not only manage but also engage and build strong relationships with tough clients.

Most of your difficult clients are reasonable people, who are unhappy because your services or products didn’t meet their expectations. High-maintenance, low-return clients can drain your resources, so you have to decide when it’s appropriate to prioritize developing a relationship.

However, in most cases, winning over your challenging customers is worth it. If a customer has previously made a purchase from your company, there is at least a 60 percent chance that the customer will make at least one more purchase.

Look at building relationships with difficult customers as a challenge and an opportunity to learn.

Follow these steps to help you break down barriers and create positive relationships with difficult customers.

  1. Engage in Active Listening. Active listening is the process of listening intently, paraphrasing what is being said for comprehension, and withholding judgment and advice. It requires you to be fully present and focused on what the other person is saying. This is rarer than you think. The human brain can process up to 500 words per minute and the average person talks at about 225 words per minute. With all that extra processing power, we let our minds wander and only half listen. This is especially true in a tense discussion, in which your instinct is to defend yourself and problem solve. You’re thinking about what you’re going to say next rather than really listening to your customer. Participating in active listening shows empathy and respect. Active listening takes practice and discipline, but can dramatically change the dynamic between you and a difficult customer.
  2. Resist the Fight-or-Flight Response. When you feel like you’re being attacked, human instinct is either to defend or retreat. Go against your natural inclination, and make a choice to stay engaged without getting defensive. Show empathy, ask for specifics about their concerns, actively listen, and don’t defend your work or product. If an immediate solution is available, promptly offer it. If not, assure them you will work to resolve the problem, and then prioritize finding out what happened and fixing it. Whether or not their complaints are justified, ignoring or fighting them will damage your relationship and credibility. Staying engaged, empathetic, and calm regardless of how your customer is acting can help diffuse tension and prompt them to act the same way.
  3. Figure out what happened and offer a solution. You’ve heard your customer’s side of the story, now dig a little deeper to find out what happened. It could be miscommunication, misalignment between expectations and reality, or poor performance. If you discover your customer’s complaint is indeed warranted, own up to it, and do what’s necessary to make it right, regardless of the cost. Admitting when you make a mistake and generously fixing it will pay off in brand loyalty and praise. Brands like Amazon, Chick-Fil-A, Nordstrom, Ritz-Carlton, and JetBlue have loud and loyal customers because they value keeping customers happy more than losing money on a single transaction.
  4. Review and Follow up. As Bill Gates once said, “your most unhappy customer is your greatest source of learning.” Once you’ve taken care of your customer, review what happened, and see if there’s an opportunity to improve your process, work product, or communication. Follow up with your customer and let them know what you discovered, thanking them for bringing it to your attention. Even if you are not at fault for your customer’s dissatisfaction, follow up and ask for feedback on their experience. The follow-up is where you can develop a relationship with your customer that extends beyond their transaction.

Of course, there are clients, with whom you do not want a relationship. If you follow the steps above and your client is still unhappy, you should respectfully end your time with them. You can waste a lot of resources trying to please problematic clients, who can’t be pleased. If that happens, evaluate your client and their project. Ask yourself if it was a good fit for your brand in the first place. Sometimes it’s better to pass on an opportunity than to accept a client, who isn’t the right fit.

Difficult clients can be a drag, but they can also be an opportunity to learn and improve. Look at difficult clients as a challenge, rather than a nuisance. Use the steps above to help you build positive relationships with them, and watch your most difficult clients become your best clients and your biggest cheerleaders.

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