I’m pausing in our series on terrible business advice to talk to you about what to do when dealing with difficult clients.

I think the worst I ever had was a bride who yelled at one of her bridesmaids to “get that video lady out of here!!” – even though I was hired to shoot her while getting ready. Oh well, her loss, but I really did want to let her have it. She’s not the only difficult client we’ve had, and she probably won’t be the last, so here’s what I’ve learned in reading what psychologists suggest as the best approach:

  1. Keep your cool...always

Here in the midwest, we're fairly polite. As a long-time Colorado resident and business owner, I can thankfully say I've gotten into very few ugly situations with clients. But...it has happened and it will probably happen again. When normally polite people who've held their anger in all year finally explode, it can get really ugly. At the moment when you feel like yelling (because you KNOW you are right and they are wrong) – that’s the moment you need to back down. If you escalate, they will escalate more, until one of you throws a punch…or cries (me), so if you can just keep your mouth shut for a few minutes, you’ll be doing the both of you a huge favor.

  1. Acknowledge their feelings

People tend to calm down if you simply acknowledge that their feelings are valid and deserve to be heard and understood. Try some phrasing like:

  • “I understand this situation is frustrating for you.”
  • “I know this is a sensitive topic, and that you’re worried about your business.”
  • “I understand this has caused you real stress and concern.”
  1. Wait for the calm

Let them run out of their yelling tantrum before you attempt to address their issues. If you try to talk too soon, they may see that as a verbal attack and a reason to yell louder. Let them have their say before you begin yours.

  1. Practice active listening (also called mirrored listening)

This is actually something I learned in marriage counseling and it’s really effective. I know I naturally try to formulate a come-back rather than really listening when I’m in an argument, so active listening or “mirrored” listening is key.

  • Put aside distracting thoughts
  • Don’t mentally formulate your rebuttal while they’re speaking
  • Never interrupt
  • Make eye contact
  • Ask questions for clarification
  • Repeat their points to show understanding
  • Keep an open posture (no closed arms)
  1. Find common ground

After listening to them and repeating it so that you know they are listening, establish your desire to work towards a mutually agreeable solution by starting with phrasing like:

  • “I know we are both eager to find a mutually beneficial solution to this.”
  • “We both want to get the best results from this project. Let’s make a plan that works for everyone.”
  • “I know we’re both interested in getting these delays resolved as fast as possible.”


  1. Establish control with facts

Show paperwork that demonstrates that the client is getting what they paid for. If they point out in the paperwork how they think they’ve been wronged, they might have a good point OR they may have simply misunderstood the wording of the document. Either way, establishing facts and leaning on that rather than heated feelings will go a long way towards finding a solution.

  1. End with a concrete plan

Once the facts are understood you should make a plan based on the facts. If you actually WERE in the wrong, apologize and offer to make it right. If they are in the wrong, apologize if the contract wording was not understood but make it clear that now that the client DOES fully understand the contract, you will keep your agreement to fulfill your part of the contract, as should they. Never leave this type of situation open-ended. If you do, they’ll be back to complain again. Always end with a solution.

  1. Pay attention to red flags

Before you take them on as a client, try to pay attention to things like:

  • Asking for a discount
  • Being vague about requirements
  • Wanting to change your contract a lot
  • Reluctance to pay a deposit
  • Your gut intuition

I’ve had numerous situations where I just didn’t feel right about a client and I usually end up being right. You can avoid many awkward and painful experiences with clients if you’ll just trust your gut and watch out for the above red flags!

Hopefully you and I won’t have very many of these encounters in our time as business owners, but when we do we’ll now be ready for them!

Now...while we don't provide relationship counseling services, we DO provide all kinds of other business solutions. CLICK HERE to see the many ways we can help!