8 tips to expertly communicate with difficult clients
| June 11, 2021
Whether you work in small business e-commerce, as a freelance copywriter, or as a construction contractor, there’s some form of client relationship in every sector. As with any relationship that can come under a little pressure, sometimes client communications can also get a bit frosty.
There are a few tips and tricks to make your client relationship sail smoothly from the get-go — and how to deal with it when it hits a bump in the road. This article will take look at the top eight tips to ensure you have expert communications with even the most difficult of clients.
1. Ensure You Fully Understand the Brief
Our very first tip when dealing with a difficult client — or any client, really — is to make sure you thoroughly understand the brief.
You might feel stupid asking clarifying questions, but it’s much better to get all the information you need now rather than doing the wrong thing entirely.
You want to make sure your relationship with a client gets off to a smooth start — even more so if they have a reputation for being difficult. Engage in the conversation by affirming that you’ve understood: “I understand,” “I see,” etc. Make sure you’re also giving your client your full attention — there’s nothing more frustrating than trying to talk to an uninterested party!
Once your client has talked through a point in the brief (or the entire brief, if it’s a relatively short brief), repeat it back to them, paraphrased. This will reassure them that you’ve understood at least the gist of what they’re after — and if you haven’t, it will give them time to correct you!
Finally, make sure you’re taking notes or recording (with permission) throughout the meeting. This way, you can look back on any finer points that may not appear in the written brief itself — and meet all your clients’ needs without them having to reiterate them.
2. Utilize Different Forms of Communication
It’s difficult to understate the effectiveness of using multiple forms of communication. While you don’t want to bombard your clients through every medium you can get your hands on, it’s vital you know when to deal with things in written form and when to pick up a phone.
It can be tempting nowadays to avoid meetings entirely, but when there is such excellent and readily available web conferencing software out there, you really have no excuse.
Ideally, your first meeting and ongoing progress meetings should be in person or over a video call. This allows you both to pick up on nonverbal cues and avoid a lot of potential anger. Ever met someone who is particularly blunt over text? We all have. In this instance, don’t let that lack of nuance color your relationship before it’s even off the ground.
That said, written forms of communication like email certainly have their place, too. Emails are the perfect way to follow up your in-person meetings with a list of key points that you discussed. Not only will you be able to refer to it later, but it gives the client some reassurance that you have fully understood what they’re asking for.
Let’s be honest, if we’re talking about difficult clients, there are going to be times when your frustration might leak into your behavior. In these instances, emails can be a great way to keep the conversation calm.
You can even write a first draft containing all your annoyances and come back to it an hour or so later. It’s almost guaranteed that your irritation will have subsided, and you’ll be able to edit it into a more collected, professional message.
On the other hand, if you suspect that the client is misinterpreting your meaning — and reacting negatively — grab that phone, clarify what you mean, and smooth things out.
3. Schedule Progress Meetings
One of the top tips in project management? Schedule regular progress meetings with your client to discuss what work has been accomplished over the previous week/month, and what your priorities should be going forward.
Client relationships often span months, if not years, and ongoing projects can shift and evolve. Having a regular check-in session allows both sides to stay up to date, and lets the other party know about any past or potential snags that might cause the work to extend or differ from what was initially discussed.
It’s a good idea to have easily navigable reports ready that you can send on to the client after each progress meeting.
This will solidify what you discussed together, hopefully reassuring them that you have the project under control.
Have you ever had a really difficult client, one who might deny ever discussing something with you? You’ll have the written proof so you can (politely) refer them or any third parties back to your email.
4. Create Boundaries — Even if You’re Willing to Bend Them Sometimes
In this age of remote working, we’ve all been tempted to stay at our desks a little longer than we should or pick up the phone during our lunch break. More often than not, had we been in an office, we would have been away from our desks — giving ourselves some much-needed breaks.
Whether you work remotely or not, setting boundaries of where work begins and ends is crucial to maintaining a good relationship with a client — especially one inclined to be difficult.
And while yes, you might still have to stay late on occasion to meet upcoming deadlines, it certainly shouldn’t be a regular — or expected — thing.
In your first meeting with your client, discuss your boundaries — whether that’s finishing at six on the dot, not working weekends, or simply being unavailable between the hours of one and two for a lunchtime stroll/meditation/episode of “Grey’s Anatomy.”
Then, try your best to stick to them — mostly for your own benefit. Clients are a necessary part of many types of work, but decompression time is essential in all sectors.
5. Be Accessible During Set Hours
As a counterpoint to the previous tip, you should make sure you’re mostly accessible to clients during your working hours. Setting up a simultaneous ring system will mean that you’ll know about incoming calls whether you’re looking at your laptop, tablet, or phone.
Similarly, if you’ve promised to be available until a certain point and you have to step away from your desk, using a call forwarding service can ensure that your client can still reach you.
It might be that they have some urgent news about the project: a new sudden deadline or change of plans. Maybe they’re in a meeting with an outside supplier and need some information from you ASAP. Or perhaps they’re just the type to panic and need a little reassurance that everything is going to plan.
Either way, being able to pick up that phone will put their minds at ease — and save you a headache later down the line.
6. Check That Your Employees are Set up to Work to the Best of Their Abilities
If you’re in charge of a team that is dealing with a difficult client, it’s important to make sure that your employees are supported and able to do the work to the best of their ability.
If they’re working remotely, a cloud platform could help them communicate with colleagues, keep track of who’s working on which project, and access the materials they need to do their jobs.
Equally, try to iron out any wrinkles with the technology they’re using. Preventing dropped calls, for example, will mean that your clients are less likely to be calling back in a fit of rage. But it doesn’t have to be like this.
Meanwhile, you should be encouraging productivity for both remote and in-office employees by ensuring that they’re engaged in the project at hand. You could accomplish this by giving them ownership of some aspect of the work that they’re interested in learning more about.
If that’s not feasible, fall back on one of the best ways to keep someone engaged: showing that you appreciate their hard work. Eighty-two percent of employees are happier when they have been recognized for their work — and therefore are more likely to work harder and stay longer with your organization.
7. Take a Lead from Customer Service
Clients are essentially just like loyal customers. So why do we often ignore the tools that help businesses connect with customers when we’re dealing with clients?
Contact Center as a Service (CCaaS) platforms can streamline the customer experience. Some use AI to automatically do tasks like making transcripts during the call so that whoever answers the phone can concentrate on calming down the customer.
They can also help to gather data, i.e., are there sticking points that come up every time you interact with a new client? This kind of data can help you to have a more cohesive relationship with your client from the very beginning, helping to prevent clients from becoming difficult in the first place.
8. Release Stress
It can be tempting, especially if you’re a freelancer, to assume that you have to take on all the work and stress yourself. This simply isn’t true: Intelligent Personal Assistant (IPA) software can help to alleviate some of the pressure by automating some tasks, particularly administrative ones.
Some IPAs pull data from your calendar and send you reminders so you’re unlikely to miss a deadline or meeting. They can be a really easy way to offload some of the organizational burden of dealing with clients.
That said, some clients are going to add a huge amount of stress to your work life. If you’re in a position to have a stable enough income and/or are in charge of deciding who your clients are — it’s perfectly acceptable to decide you can no longer work with that client.
No matter how calm you remain and how many problem points you identify and iron out, some people are just rude and entitled, or perhaps they’re just having a bad day. Hopefully, in this instance, you have the option to walk away.
Maybe next time they need to work with someone, they won’t be quite so difficult. Well, we can live in hope.
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