How to Deal with Difficult or Rude Clients Professionally: Tips for Small Businesses

Elizabeth Lockwood

Not every client is going to be ideal to work with. Some clients, in fact, create more trouble than you might expect. Clients’ poor behavior can have a damaging effect on your staff, your other clients, and your overall brand and dealing with the issue of a bad client can take away time that should be spent on work. To avoid allowing difficult clients to hurt your business, it’s important to address the issue promptly, appropriately, and fairly while, at the same time, protecting your team, your clients, and, of course, your business.

In a webinar recorded November 6th, 2020, Maddy Martin, Head of Growth and Education at Smith.ai, lists the ways in which a business can go about dealing with disruptive, rude, or generally unpleasant clients without sacrificing their staff’s morale, their other clients’ satisfaction, and their business’s reputation.

For a deeper look into this discussion, feel free to read our transcript of the webinar below, edited for readability. You can watch the full webinar here. To learn more on the processes your business should put in place to properly serve clients, or hear other business related tips, subscribe to our YouTube channel. 

Speaker

Maddy Martin

Head of Growth and 

Education at Smith.ai

WHAT DEFINES A BAD CLIENT

MADDY, HEAD OF GROWTH AND EDUCATION AT SMITH.AI:

All right. So very often, we see questions from business owners, not just about receptionist services, but about all sorts of business communications. 

And one of the most common questions is, “How do I get clients in line when they behave badly?” when they speak to the team in an inconsiderate way or rude way, when they swear at them, or when it's just impossible to get anything out of them. 

And they’re not a good client. 

You see this with law firms, we see this with IT consultants, with marketing agencies, who we work with, you name it. Do you know what I'm talking about? 

There is a client who is calling too often or responding too little. Or when you do talk to them, it's extremely unpleasant.

COMMON SCENARIOS AND HOW TO HANDLE THEM

How do you get them in line without losing the client?

Because you want to maintain your reputation, but you also want to have boundaries and standards that not only do you hold your business and your staff to, but that you also expect from your clients

Now, one thing you could do is you could have a client agreement and you can say that you expect certain standards and you reserve the right to move on without them or just continue business if they don't behave in the following ways. 

And you can lay those out. 

But no matter what you do in setting yourself up for success and your clients for behaving well, we come to these situations and there needs to be a solution. 

Many people are very uncomfortable with finding the right words when a client is a sort of misbehaving. 

Now, there are a few different options here and none of them involve speaking badly to the client or losing your cool.

So how do you keep your cool? There are a couple of situations that I want to go through. 

NON-RESPONSIVE CLIENT

And one situation is where you actually need something from the client. You're sort of chasing them down. They're even late on payment potentially or they haven't given you the documents you need or the resources you need to get your work done.

[A recent 2019 report shows that small businesses spend upwards of 56.4 million hours a year chasing down overdue or late payments, and 56% of those hours were spent outside of regular business hours, during personal time.]

So what do you do in that situation? 

Often it relates to just leveling with them and explaining the consequences and the impact that their actions or inactions are happening. 

Obviously, if they are late on a payment, that prevents you from being able to complete work for them because you don't have faith that you're going to be paid for the work that you are doing.

Now, if you are owed documents or you need to meet with them and they are unresponsive, communicate the impact that that is having. Maybe you won't be able to solve their business issue. You won't be able to fulfill your end of the agreement that you have with that client. 

Take a law firm, for example. Even if it's a lawyer who's doing the work, they still need documents. 

Take a divorce. You need the person to fulfill their obligation, to fill out the documents accurately for their financial situation. Their assets that they have so that you can proceed with dividing the assets, just as an example, but you see where I'm going. 

If the client is not giving you what you need, the best way to solve it is to say, “If you don't provide this, [insert what you need], by the following deadline (which may have already passed), we are going to be in this situation.” 

It will also have this effect of not being able to do the next things in the process or meet certain goals that you have identified with that client. 

Basically explaining to them that they are blocking you from doing the job that that client hired you to do.

VERBALLY EXPLOSIVE CLIENT

Now the other issue that we often see is that when clients are misbehaving by speaking badly to your staff – maybe they swear at them. 

That's a situation where you really need to catch it and tamp it down immediately and speak to them very clearly and confidently and directly that you will not tolerate any abusive behavior, misbehavior, any mistreatment of you or your staff. 

And I suggest putting that in your policy as well. 

Maybe there is a warning system and then, there is the firing of the client. 

Or there is a period where you say, “We will see how this goes.”

If you're in long-duration agreements with clients and you want to try and make it work, maybe you give them a week. If you have a year-long agreement to see can they rectify, can they fix their behavior? 

Now, sometimes it's not possible to do so. And you do need to discontinue work with that client. 

If you're able to, make sure that it's not just you who is empowered to say these things to your clients, but also that your staff can do so. And if it escalates to you that you back your staff, who you've trained to confirm that yes, you won't tolerate any abusive language or behavior from your clients. 

That any sort of sexual misconduct, anything egregious like that, you have a policy for things that absolutely won't be tolerated under any circumstances. 

And don't even permit a grace period or a warning – ensure that those clients are dealt with immediately

Some things in situations are more severe than others. Someone loses their cool. Maybe you have them on a monitoring plan and you give them a warning. Hopefully, they change their behavior. 

If it's something really severe, then you need to be able to get rid of that client. And you also need to make sure that you're safe.

Make sure that your staff is comfortable communicating with you and telling you that they just had a situation with a client that needs to be resolved immediately

Now, even if it's not an immediate resolution, it is just a warning to the client or a stern talking to. You should absolutely document it in your communication records with that client so you have the history there and you can go back and reference it and always write down how the client responded. 

Were they remorseful? Were they apologetic? Or were they obstinate? 

OTHER SCENARIOS

Sometimes, other shenanigans are going on and it's a mix of the different scenarios that I've mentioned. If you can't put your finger on it, you can still communicate and level with them that you have limited time and energy. 

And one of the things to emphasize is that they hired you for a reason. And if they are nagging you or annoying you or otherwise interrupting your productivity and inhibiting your ability to get work done, then you must communicate exactly that to them. 

That's completely reasonable to say, “I need to get work done for you. I am the professional that you hired. You hired me for a reason. I am an expert; please don't micromanage me. Please work with my processes and with my staff; we know what we're doing and you need to trust us to get our work done, but interruptions prevent us from being as productive as we need to be. 

Not to mention the fact that we do have other clients. You're not our only client and we need to work on other things sometimes. 

So if you have an urgent need, such as (list the scenarios you define as urgent so they can understand what urgency means), then contact us in this method.”

Maybe you even have a solution where your clients can log into a portal and send you a message instead of a call, text, email, Facebook message—whatever way they're trying to communicate with you.

So I hope that this has been helpful.

Absolutely stand up for yourself, your business, and your staff when dealing with difficult clients.

Questions? Contact Us.

Have any questions about Smith.ai's virtual receptionists services or anything else mentioned in this webinar? Call us at (650) 727-6484 or email us at support@smith.ai.

If you’d like to learn more about how Smith.ai’s virtual receptionists can help your business, try out our 14-day/20-call free trial – no credit card required! 

To watch more webinars like this one, check out our YouTube channel or access articles, guest blog posts, and other resources on the Smith.ai Blog.

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Elizabeth Lockwood

Elizabeth Lockwood is the content marketing associate at Smith.ai. She focuses specifically on writing and editing engaging articles, blog posts, and other forms of publication.

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