How to Deal With Difficult Clients
So just in case you think it’s only you that’s had a difficult client, let me clear something up really quick:
ALL of us in the service business have had a difficult client or two (or 7…) in our day. If you own an online business, customer service is inevitable: you’ll experience unhappy customers at some point, and it will feel like a bad day in your business.
Since we know that dealing with difficult clients is inevitable in your online coaching or service-based business, I think the biggest challenge is to stay calm and know what to do with difficult customers.
Do you “fire” them as clients? Can you?! Should you talk with them face-to-face before you do? And what about refunds? Do you owe them their money back if they already paid for your products and services?
Knowing strategies for dealing with difficult clients comes down to a few basic things:
- Having your legal stuff together so you can at least take a deep breath, knowing you’re legally protected with legit contracts, policies and insurance.
- Knowing what your rights & responsibilities are as a business owner. So you’re not left wondering what you can do with your PITA client &
- Making an empowered decision about how to handle your difficult client relationship, based on what you know you’re allowed to do.
If you’re ready to know what to do about difficult clients (besides practicing deep breathing), let’s get into it…
There are a number of things you can do to try to avoid difficult clients. But even with all the preventative tips in the world, sometimes things just happen and you get a difficult client anyway. Here are a few tips to dealing with a difficult client:
Attract the Right Clients from the Start:
As much as you can, it’s really important to try to work with the right clients from the start. That way, you can avoid any issues around misunderstandings of who you are and what you do, what’s included in your program, etc.
When I taught you about what to do if a client doesn’t pay you, I shared about how a non-paying client is often an invitation to reflect on how and why you ended up there. Sometimes there’s nothing we did “wrong” persay. Sometimes it’s that we worked with someone we shouldn’t have to begin with.
Attracting the right clients really comes down to you:
- Being really clear on who you’re here to serve and who you’re not.
- Knowing exactly what offers you have, what they include and what they don’t.
- Clearly communicating who you’re able to work with and truly help.
- Turning away or referring out clients you can’t help, because of your scope of practice or the client’s needs.
- Having an onboarding process that “weeds out” the clients who aren’t a good fit.
By setting the right expectations with clients from the start, you can avoid a lot of the “I thought you were going to…” types of conversations down the line.
There are a number of places in your business that you can set expectations with clients before they turn difficult:
- In your copy and language you use to attract customers. Are you doing or saying something that could potentially attract difficult clients?
- Make it not-super-easy to sign up to chat or work with you. You should want to work with people who really need your help and who are excited to sign up with you.
- Talk it out. If you have a discovery call or connect with someone before they work with you, clearly communicate what they can expect from you or your program so there are no disappointments later on.
Communicate with Your Clients:
If you want your client relationships to run smoothly, you should make sure your relationship is built on a foundation of trust and communication from the start. Make sure your client knows that he/she should come to you with any questions or concerns about your work together.
At the same time, you have to build rapport and make it comfortable for your client to feel like he/she can come to you safely. You want to practice active listening and really hear how your client feels.
If your client feels like you’re going to shut them down or get angry if they share their concerns, they may never come to you with it in the first place. Sometimes these miscommunications are the ones that lead to client problems.
Anytime you can meet with your client face-to-face (even via Zoom or FaceTime!) and actively listen to how your client feels, your chances of effectively communicating and working through an issue skyrocket.
Keep it Professional:
It’s easy to fall into a habit of communicating with your clients in really informal ways: voice notes, Voxer, DMs, text messages etc. But for the purposes of dealing with a difficult client, you really should start to move towards professional communication (I.e., email, snail mail if stuff gets really serious) instead.
That way, if anything ever heated up, you weren’t able to resolve the issue, and the client wanted to cancel their contract or ask for a refund, you’d have the (legal) proof of communication you’d need to defend yourself. (Many times, things like DMs or texts aren’t going to be legally “valid” and so they won’t protect you.)
Know your boundaries & stay there:
So much of dealing with difficult clients has to do with actually knowing your boundaries as a coach and staying in them. After 6+ years in online business I can tell you. Sometimes people will push and try to get more out of you than they paid for.
Sure, it’s easy to get mad at them and think, “why would they even ask me for that?!” Or “why would they request a refund when I said ‘no refunds’?!” Or “why does this lady keep not showing up for our calls… doesn’t she know I’m sitting here waiting for her? And now she wants to reschedule next week without losing her session?!”…
But really, it comes down to us. It comes down to us:
- Having the legal policies clearly written and in place so that people know what our boundaries are; and
- Remain calm and uphold our boundaries when push comes to shove.
Know When To Terminate Relationships with Difficult Clients
It’s hard to know when you should actually say bye bye to a difficult client. And when you should hang on and work through out. I actually get a lot of questions from people wondering whether they *can* say goodbye to a difficult client.
Here’s when to terminate a relationship with a difficult client (in my humble opinion):
When You’re Outside Your Scope of Practice:
Hands down the #1 most important time to get out of a relationship with a difficult client is when they’re asking you to do something outside your scope of practice. Your scope of practice is what you’re legally allowed to do/not do based on how you’re certified, licensed, educated, trained, etc. And what the laws are surrounding your qualifications. (Learn what your scope is here.)
Legally speaking, this is by far the most important step. Because it won’t matter that you had someone sign a contract or that you have a website disclaimer saying “I’m not your doctor/lawyer/therapist/accountant/advisor/etc.” — all that will matter is whether you actually gave them advice on a topic that’s outside what you’re legally allowed to offer.
If a difficult client isn’t listening to you about something being outside your scope (and especially if you communicated that clearly at the outset and didn’t advertise otherwise), it’s important to cut ties.
Threatening or Abusive:
I think this one goes without saying, but if your client is threatening you or your team members in any way or making you uncomfortable to work with them, it’s important to sever that relationship.
You’re wasting emotional & mental energy:
So many people reach out to me asking whether they can legally cut ties with a client. Or whether they can legally go after a client who owes them money. But after looking at what you’re “legally allowed” to do, I always ask:
“Is it worth it?”
If a client’s taking up loads of mental and emotional space from you AND they want to be let go of their contract… let them. Say bye bye and thank them later. Honestly, they’ve done you a favor.
I know, I know. You were depending on the money you thought you had coming in from that client. But I’m telling you, by letting this difficult client go, you can buy back so much mental and emotional space. You’ll feel so much more energized to attract a new client who’s actually a good fit. (And who wants to pay you on time, show up to calls, respects your scope of practice, etc.)
Dealing With Difficult Clients That Want A Refund
You should and must have a clear refund policy in your website policies (for online purchases) and client contracts (for client work and program sales) if you want to enforce any refund policy at all.
But even with a rock solid refund policy like the one that’s built in to all of my DIY Legal Templates, difficult customers will still ask for a refund.
The question then is, do you really want to give them one?
There’s a difference between legally having the right to deny someone’s refund request (which, if you have things setup properly, you’re probably within your rights) and wanting to keep someone around and try and problem solve.
If a difficult client asks for a refund AND you don’t want to work with that person anyway, I say let them go (and DON’T feel bad about having to do so). Not because you don’t have the legal right — but because you’re actually costing your business money in the long run. Hear me out.
If you deny this difficult client’s refund request, you’re almost guaranteeing yourself that they’re going to threaten you with a lawyer or actually go to a lawyer to send you a nasty letter. Worse case scenario, they go to a lawyer and try to sue you to get their money back.
It’s not worth your time or energy and to escalate the situation because it will cost you money to defend yourself AND you’ll waste loads of energy that could’ve gone towards attracting new clients instead.
Of course refunds are really case-by-case scenarios.
There are times when you shouldn’t honor a refund request. And you should let the difficult client have her temper tantrum.
But I think more often than not, in the cost benefit analysis of “do I really want to deal with this person,” it’s best to let them go.
Just like you should when a client doesn’t pay you, I also think difficult client situations calls for reflection and self evaluation. Ask yourself:
- What could I have done differently in attracting this client?
- What could I have done differently in communicating the issue at hand with this client?
- Were there any legal pieces I was missing that made me feel like I didn’t have the right to enforce my refund policy? How can I fix that?
- Is there anything I can take away from this experience that would prevent a future client from requesting a refund?
Every experience you have in your business is an opportunity to reflect and see how you can improve for the next time. If we can stay calm and think through what role we played in this relationship, too, then we can move towards healing.
But more than anything, dealing with difficult clients is mostly about:
- Having the right legal pieces in place to protect yourself (since you can’t control everything)
- Knowing what your legal rights are
- Staying in your boundaries AND scope of practice
- Taking action to protect yourself and your business.
Next Step: Watch my free legal workshop
If you’re ready to legally protect your business and have the legal knowledge you need to know what to do with difficult clients, watch my free workshop ‘5 Steps to Legally Protect & Grow Your Online Business’ right now by saving your seat here.
In that workshop, you’ll learn:
- How contracts can actually save your (vegan, GF) bacon — if you have the right one.
- What your website needs to be legally protected.
- How to keep copycats off your content.
- The mindset shift you’ve got to make if you want to actually grow your business without looking over your (online) shoulder.
- The only way to form your business so that you’re personally and professionally protected.
Ready to watch? Sign up for my free legal workshop right here:
And before you go, drop me a comment below and let me know if this post was helpful in helping you learn how to navigate difficult client relationships. Any questions? Drop those too!