Updated October 2019

A digital marketer’s clientele typically consists of a diverse group of individuals from a wide array of industries. And, since digital marketing is a service-based business, it requires you to be flexible and creative in communicating and collaborating with different personalities. Most of the time collaboration is easily achievable because the majority of clients are enthusiastic, professional, respectful and as excited to work with you as you are with them.

But even the best digital marketers occasionally must deal with difficult clients—who are constantly skeptical, easily agitated, inconsistent and difficult to manage.

Fortunately, there are strategies you can employ to keep your sanity, and your company’s integrity when dealing with these challenging clients.

Effective Strategies To Handle Difficult Clients

Always approach meetings with positivity and a clean slate: Let’s say you have a meeting with a client who is frustrated with the changes you made to their website. You’re not surprised by their frustration because they change their minds frequently and never seem to be 100% satisfied with the work they requested that you do. By approaching the meeting free of negativity and with no expectations you can better position yourself to gauge the real reason for their frustration. Focus on action-oriented solutions and large goals. Often, these constant minor changes are masking concerns or frustrations a client may have about their business that are farther reaching. 

Take the high road: If a frustrated customer becomes angry or verbally abusive it is critically important to stay calm and take the high road. Psychology of human interactions shows that in conversations, the listener subconsciously mirrors the speaker’s emotions, expressions, and attitudes. If you return your client’s anger with more anger, it will simply escalate the situation. When you are faced with an angry email or phone call, stop to take a few deep breaths and focus your attention to understand what your client is trying to say. Always aim to respectfully resolve the root of the problem with logical actions. When you are unsure about the reason for the client’s anger it can be helpful to ask questions that show you are listening to them. “I’m hearing that you are upset about X…is there something specific we can do to fix the problem?”

Jekyll and Hyde: Some clients may surprise you because one moment they are enthusiastic and excited about the work you are doing for them and the next moment they seem to draw back and express doubts about the value you are bringing to their business. When the client is happy and things are working well look at it as an opportunity to be productive and proactive. This is the time to talk strategy and move forward with new plans and projects. When they begin to express doubts, calmly remind them about their original goals and show them the data that you have to support your work. Some clients may need to be reminded of the value that your work is bringing their business. If you are keeping good data, it will be easy for you to show them these results.

Be prompt with responses: When a client raises a complaint, aim to address it as quickly as possible. Delaying your response can cause the client to become even more annoyed or agitated. You should also aim to provide your difficult clients with regular updates about the progress of their project. This becomes even more important if you face any setbacks that could get in the way of you meeting a deadline. Your client will appreciate your proactive effort to keep them in the loop and if the client misses a deadline, you will have documentation of your efforts to get what you needed from them in a timely fashion.

Establish clear guidelines: Frustrations often arise from unfulfilled promises. Setting clear guidelines before starting a project defines the scope of work you will do under the contract. Having the scope of work clearly defined from the beginning eliminates any confusion or misunderstandings. You and your client will know exactly what to expect and when to expect it. Also, when setting ground rules, such as contact hours or pricing structure, makes sure that you remain in control. If the client pressures you to do work out of scope, then you will be able to reference the contract and ask that the client pay extra for additional services. If you make a mistake due to a misunderstanding, don’t backtrack on what you promised to deliver, instead express remorse and move forward to make it right.

Stand your ground- Interacting with difficult clients from a place of fear can significantly influence the quality of your work. If your client expresses dissatisfaction towards something, don’t react in fear, and don’t rush to fix the situation without first outlining exactly what is wrong and what will make it better. Rushing can lead to additional mishaps. Instead, actively listen to your client and calmly figure out what the next step should be. That said, be assertive. You are a business owner just like them and an expert at what you do. Act as an authority in your field and know that you deserve respect.

If a client becomes extremely toxic, abusive, or so demanding that you stand to suffer financial losses, it might be time to end the relationship. If they are a contract client, do your best to fulfill the contract and decline further work. If they are a maintenance client, you’ll need to give them sufficient notice that you will no longer be available to take their business. Always make sure that when severing ties with a client, that you do not sabotage any aspect of their business and that you maintain your integrity in the parting.

Avoid Problems with a good Onboarding Strategy

Growing your business means scaling your operation, including how you deal with clients. The best time to establish protocols with your clients is when you onboard them. According to HubShout’s 2019 Agency Growth Survey, 85% of the agencies surveyed agreed that successful customer onboarding ensures long-term customer loyalty. Set yourself up for success by establishing a good working relationship from the beginning.

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Elijah Litscher
Elijah Litscher is an author, educator, entrepreneur, and marketing innovator with over 18 years of experience in digital marketing. He has traveled extensively as a professional speaker while educating thousands of business owners across the country in online marketing best practices. Elijah is committed to empowering small and medium-sized businesses to reach their full potential online as founder and Chief Digital Strategist at The Loop Marketing Inc. in Chicago, Illinois.