Tips for Dealing with Difficult Clients in the Age of COVID

It doesn’t matter what industry you’re in, whether you’re selling insurance, a real estate or mortgage broker, digital marketing or IT consulting, we all get them sometimes. You know who I’m talking about:

Difficult clients…

Everyone loves those clients who are a dream: who love our work, give us all the work we can handle and recommend us to others. Those are the clients we all want. But sometimes we end up with clients who aren’t so easy to deal with. What do we do with them?

In this blog I’m going to give six pieces of advice about how to deal with those clients who are more difficult. Maybe they’re micromanagers, maybe they’re indecisive, maybe they’re going through tough financial times (lots of that going around lately!) but whatever the case, this is about how to work with those customers who make you crazy at work.

Know When to Walk Away

In the immortal words of “The Gambler,” sometimes you gotta “know when to fold ’em. Know when to walk away, know when to run.”

The truth is, although the customer is always right, there are a few who are not worth keeping as part of your business. Sounds harsh, but it’s true. They’re worthwhile as people of course, but as clients, you just don’t mesh well together.

In my line of work, there are people who won’t take the time to do a brief, or want to play “find me a rock” (that’s someone who can’t tell you what they want or why; they can only tell you what they don’t like). These people will waste a lot of your time and money if you let them, so you need to either learn how to manage them (more on that below) or learn how to let go of them.

Another type of client you need to learn very quickly how to let go of, is the one who asks you to violate your ethics, or do something that you believe will be harmful to their or your business. This can be hard if it’s an established client you’ve generally had a good relationship with, but ultimately it’s your job as a professional to know when it’s an inappropriate ask, and to respond accordingly.

Lastly, there is the client who doesn’t value your work enough to pay you what you’re worth. Believe in yourself, and walk away.

Assume Positive Intent, Always

The flipside of my “Gambler” rule is that sometimes it’s not the client causing the difficulty. Sometimes we are doing it to ourselves by assuming negative intent, or putting words into our clients mouths. For me, because I am a words person, I do this sometimes when I send some work for feedback and don’t hear anything back. I think to myself, “oh, they hated it.” Or I email them and don’t hear back. I tend to read a lot into those silences.

Then the next thing you know I’ll see the content on the website and the check shows up in my inbox. So I guess they were happy.

Why do we do this to ourselves? I think there are a couple of reasons. One is, if you’re in a creative line of work (which freelance copywriting, web design and similar fields are) or a personal service like real estate or insurance brokerage, you’re probably pretty personally invested in your work and client relationships. It’s also likely that you’re a people pleaser (I know I am!).

Whatever the cause, most of the time if there’s a problem, you’ll know. Short, bordering on curt, responses simply happen because people are busy. These days, with COVID, they’re probably overwhelmed. No response likely means the same thing. It’s worth asking when you can, whether people are happy with your work, but generally it’s best to assume positive intent if you’re not sure there’s a problem.

Let Them Be Wrong (Sometimes)

Here’s another thing that happens sometimes. As freelancers or creatives, maybe we get into a discussion with a client over some work, and we’re just sure we’re right. Maybe the client has ideas about the logo that you don’t like, or wants things said a certain way, even though you think another phrase would sound better.

This happens in other kinds of businesses, too. You don’t have to be creative to get overly personally invested in your clients’ preference and choices. But, once you’ve said your piece and let them know your thoughts, then it’s time to let go. Make the change, move forward, let it go.

Of course, this advice doesn’t hold for the important stuff. If it’s an ethical or legal issue, and the client refuses to budge, refer to The Gambler Rule.

Get to the Bottom of Issues

Often when it seems like a client simply won’t budge, there’s a good reason. That’s why listening to understand, not just respond, is such a critical skill in any services business. Listening to understand (rather than just hearing what your client is saying and waiting to say your piece) will allow you to get to the bottom of their concerns, so you can solve them.

For instance, say you’ve been writing one-off content for a client for months and you’d like to move them to a retainer, but they keep putting you off. They’ve kept you on board and seem happy with your work, but they’re hesitating to deepen the relationship. You need to find out why – time to ask some questions!

A great question to ask is, “I sense you are hesitant, would you mind explaining why?” And from there, you’ll usually get several reasons. Some may have to do with their past experience, others may have to do with things you are – or aren’t – doing. Either way you need to address those issues so things can move forward.

Seek Clarity

Sometimes the reason a client seems difficult is because there’s lack of clarity with regard to roles, goals or methods. This is why a good period of discovery is essential before beginning any project. If you’re in the midst of a project and are experiencing conflicts, difficulty making decisions or personality challenges, it may be worthwhile to revisit some of these project basics – especially roles and objectives – and gain agreement before proceeding further.

Give Grace When You Can

Finally – and I think this is especially important during tough times like we are experiencing now with the COVID-19 pandemic – simply extending grace whenever you are dealing with a difficult customer (or really, any difficult person) goes a long way toward easing difficulties with them.

If you’re a small business owner, or a person who works with small business owners – it’s important to remember that so many of our clients are experiencing difficulties and worried about the future for themselves and their families. A recent U.S. Chamber survey found that 57 percent of small businesses they surveyed are worried about a permanent closure due to COVID-19. 71 percent are worried about financial hardships due to prolonged closure. And 55 percent think it will take 6 months or more for the economy to return to normal.

So, people have a lot on their minds right now. That’s why it’s so important to extend grace to our clients – and to ourselves – in these times.

In these challenging times, it’s so crucial to put the relationship aspect of the business relationship front and center. Someday, Covid-19 will be nothing but a memory. But if we handle them correctly now, the relationships we build and keep through this time will remain long after life returns to normal.