You sign a contract with your client. You talk on the phone and exchange emails to discuss your services and the work you’ll perform. You do the work. You stay in touch with the client. You deliver the final project, inviting questions and discussion on the work. Weeks go by. You finally receive an email from your client – he hates your work, wants his money back, and rants on and on about what a horrible editor/photographer/artist you are.
Whether you’re just starting out or a seasoned vet, chances are good that you’ll encounter a difficult client. I’m not talking about making a mistake (and yes, that will happen to the best of us), I’m talking about the client who cannot be pleased. Before you meet that person, you may want to form a strategy.
But isn’t the client always right?
I grew up in a tourist town where customer service was king, and I can assure you that the customer is most definitely not always right. There are people who will try to work the system so they get something for nothing. They will complain, insult, and threaten until you surrender and give them what you want. You can cave, or you can set a standard for good service without compromising the standard and value of your work. I don’t believe in “making it right at all costs” – I believe in offering your best at all times. If you’ve done your best work and provided your best service, that’s all anyone can ask of you.
So what do you do?
- Do not respond right away. Take a deep breath and walk away. The worst thing you can do is respond out of anger, shock, or frustration. Give yourself a day or two to process what happened.
- Double check everything. Make sure you didn’t make a mistake. You want to make sure you delivered everything as you said you would – double check your contract, emails, and notes.
- If you made a mistake, apologize and make it right. If you didn’t make a mistake, apologize for the confusion (even if everything looks good to you, make sure your clients knows that you recognize that there must have been some type of miscommunication).
- Positively focus on the client. This isn’t about you – it’s always about your client. Don’t point fingers. Don’t accuse. Acknowledge how difficult it must be for your client; remind him that your job is to help him. Let him know that you’re still working for him.
- Make a phone call. It’s tempting to limit confrontations to emails, but it’s too easy to misinterpret intentions and motivations. Pick up the phone and call your client. A personal touch goes a long way.
What do you say to your client, especially if he’s already fired you and stated his intentions to move on? Again, focus on him, and show him how important he is. Tell him that you respect his decision, and you’d love to get some input from him:
- What could you have done differently to make it a better experience for him?
- How does he wish your interactions had played out?
- Does he have any other thoughts on your work together?
As you ask these questions, don’t respond. Just listen. You’re not defending yourself or trying to talk him out of his decision – that makes the interaction about you. It’s not about you. It’s about him. Let him speak. Listen. Acknowledge his concerns, and thank him for his input.
What about the money?
If you hire someone to paint your house blue, then don’t like the way it looks, you still need to pay for the work done. If you’ve done the work you were contracted to do, payment is, in fact, due (hopefully you signed an agreement/contract outlining payment). You can offer a discount on future services, and you may even consider offering a partial refund on the work you completed, but you are under no obligation to return the money or accept non-payment.
Let it go.
Dealing with a difficult client is never easy, but it happens. You don’t need to lose sleep over it. Know that it will happen, and know how you will respond. Then move on. You have other clients waiting to work with you. Give them your time and get back to work!