6 Tips for Dealing with Client Conflict

Client Conflict


If there’s one thing you can count on when it comes to client conflict, it’s this: Conflict happens. And while it probably won’t happen often, learning how to deal with and resolve conflicts is just a part of doing business.

Handling business disputes is a delicate art. Do it the right way, and you will prove to your client that you’re attentive, dedicated, and capable ─ all traits he or she should find desirable for a continued relationship. But handle it poorly, and the result could spell disaster for an important partnership.

The following tips will help you approach client conflict intelligently, professionally, and with an eye toward effective resolution.

1. Keep your cool

Take a deep breath. There’s no reason to lose your temper. Showing anger or even raising your voice demonstrates a lack of self-control, which is something that could seriously damage your relationship with the client.

So keep your cool ─ even when doing so seems difficult.

Let’s say you’re a designer who’s creating a Website for a new client. As per your discussion with the client and his management team, you designed the site around several pre-approved stock photos that appear on the main pages. Now the client says he doesn’t like the stock photos and doesn’t think he should have to pay extra for you to redesign the entire layout.

This situation obviously isn’t fair to you. And if the client gets angry at the prospect of paying you for a new design, matching his frustration with your own may emerge as a natural reaction.

But think about what would happen if you suppressed that reaction. What if you calmly explained why it would be unfair to do more work and not be paid for it? What if you reminded the client that the stock images were, according to your agreement, the basis for the design?

If he still doesn’t see your point of view, at least you tried. It might be time to request payment for the work you completed and move on. On the other hand, your calm, professional attitude could help you work through the situation and let you bill accordingly for the additional work.

2. If it’s your fault, admit it

Sometimes, it’s not the client’s fault. It’s yours.

When you make a mistake, admitting fault is the first step toward resolving the conflict. In most cases, clients probably want you to own up to your errors before moving forward. And you know what? They’re right to do so.

Because admitting you made a mistake can be the best way to stop a fight before it starts. Nobody wants conflict to escalate ─ not you, not your clients ─ so acknowledge any mistakes and move on.

3. Let your client speak ─ and listen carefully

When your client is upset, he or she will want to do the talking. The best thing you can do is let it happen. Don’t interrupt. Just listen carefully to what’s being said. Eventually, the client will get tired of speaking and you will have time to say your piece. You may even be invited to interject, in which case you should oblige the offer.

Being a good listener will show your client that you care about the problem and want to help. Think back to the stock photography example. Instead of blowing up on your client and offering a rant about how you can’t afford to work for free, why not hear his take on why he would ask you to do such a thing?

You might learn that his department has a limited budget. They really like your style but just can’t afford to pay any more. Or maybe he’s being pressured by superiors to talk you into working for less. Whatever the case, something is motivating him to push you in a particular direction. Finding out what that something is could help you reach some kind of reconciliation.

4. Use positive language

Instead of saying, “Don’t get upset with me,” try, “I’m ready to hear what’s bothering you.” And while it may be easy to say, “You shouldn’t feel that way about x,” it’s probably better to say, “It’s clear that x is bothering you. Let’s see what we can do to straighten this out.”

For many people, the use of negative language ─ in particular, the word “not” ─ has negative associations. Why? Because we associate it with warnings, rules, and limitations on freedom. And when a client is upset, the last thing you want to do is speak in a way that makes anyone feel wrong, unwelcome, or discouraged.

5.Dedicate yourself to resolution

Let your client know that you want to work this out ─ that figuring out how to make things “work” for both of you is a priority.

And really dedicate yourself to resolving the problem. It may take more than one meeting to do it, but it will be worth it in the end. Assuming you reach a détente, the next step should be creating a resolution that pleases both sides as much as possible.

As the service provider, the ball is in your court here. Your clients count on you to bend over backward to please them. Assuming you can come up with a reasonable fix for whatever it is that’s plaguing them, let them know that you’re ready to put the fix in place as soon as humanly possible.

Just remember that not all clients are reasonable. If you’re being asked to do something that’s unjust, outside of your control, dishonest, or unprofessional, explain to the client how you feel and leave it at that.

6. If things get overheated, walk away

Let’s face it: Some people have terrible tempers that are nearly impossible to quell. If your client is so angry that he or she can’t be reasoned with, it’s time to call it quits.

Say that you’re willing to revisit the issue as soon as everyone has had time to calm down. Don’t let angry clients abuse you ─ especially when they don’t respond to your behaving reasonably and professionally. Talking things over always works better when both sides really are ready to talk ─ not scream at each other, but talk.

If things get out of hand, you’re always in the right to walk away. Starting a fresh discussion at a later date, assuming both parties are prepared to admit any faults, be good listeners, and control their tempers, is a better way to approach the conflict.

It also increases the possibility that you’ll resolve the problem, which is what both of you were after all along.

How do you handle client conflict? We’d love to hear your personal tips in the comments!

Photo by FreeDigitalPhotos.net.


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Luke Clum is a Seattle based designer who specializes in web design and online marketing. He’s fascinated by the power of the internet to act as a catalyst for creative ideas. If he’s not pounding away at his computer, he’s most likely hiking or climbing in the mountains. You can follow him on Twitter @lukeclum

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