How to Handle a Tough Conversation With a Client

October 20, 2020 Jamie Johnson

How to Have a Tough Conversation with a Client: Illustration of two speech bubbles, one with an exclamation point and one with a question mark

No matter what type of consulting business you run, you will eventually have to face difficult client conversations. Even if you rarely make mistakes and deliver top-notch customer service, problems will occasionally arise in client relationships.

A client might get upset because they aren’t happy with the work you’ve done so far. They may not think your strategic plan is working quickly enough.

Or you may have to let them know that you can’t meet a deadline, or that what they’re asking for will cost more than they budgeted for. You may also have to give a client some tough insights about their business. All of these scenarios will require difficult client conversations.

For that reason, knowing how to have difficult conversations will determine the success of your business. There’s no easy answer to dealing with demanding clients, but with the right strategies, you learn how to navigate them more effectively.

How to Have Difficult Conversations With Clients

When you work remotely with clients, it’s a matter of when not if you have to deal with a difficult client and have a tough conversation. Conflicts and problems are bound to arise, so you need to be able to effectively navigate these situations.

Here are six steps to managing difficult client conversations.

1. Determine the Outcome You’d Like

Before you try to work things out with your client, take some time to think about what you want to come from the conversation. What would a favorable outcome look like to you?

Knowing what you want ahead of time will help you stick to your boundaries, and let go of any emotions that might come up in the heat of the moment. Plus, know what you want makes it more likely that you’ll get it.

2. Schedule a Phone Call

Most of us spend a lot of time communicating with our clients through email and Slack channels. And while this has its advantages, it’s easy for misunderstandings to arise.

For instance, a client may have misunderstood a due date. Or perhaps they keep trying to add little tasks to your to-do list, and the scope creep is adding up quickly.

At this point, it helps to get your client on the phone to talk through the details of your contract. A phone call allows you to have a two-way conversation and eliminates some of the potential for miscommunication.

3. Don’t Take it Personally

If a client comes to you because they don’t like some aspect of your work, it’s hard not to take it personally. But it’s important to leave your emotions out of it and adopt a customer-first mindset.

A customer-first mindset means that regardless of the quality of your work and whether or not you’re at fault, it’s up to you to work with the client and solve the issue. It means that you set your feelings aside and focus entirely on your customer and the situation at hand.

And always try to look for the kernel of truth in what the client is saying. If they don’t like your work, is it because you cut corners or rushed to get the project done? No matter how unfounded it seems, criticism provides a good moment for self-reflection.

4. Ask Specific Questions

Anytime you’re dealing with an unhappy client, it’s important to ask very specific questions and then listen to their response. If a client is dissatisfied with the results of a project so far, asking questions will give you ideas for how you can fix it.

But don’t make the mistake of jumping in with solutions right away. Just let your client air their concerns, and actively listen to what they have to say. Active listening will fill in any communication gaps and form a partnership between you and your client.

Once you have given them a chance to talk, reflect their concerns back to them and be empathetic. Repeating their concerns back to them shows the client you were listening, and it makes it easier to come up with a solution.

5. Work With Them to Find a Solution

Now that you understand how the client feels, you need to offer a solution. If you think you know what will make them happy, then you can just tell them what you’d like to do to fix the situation.

If you’re not sure exactly what they want, or they don’t like your suggestions, then you can ask them what they think will fix the situation. From there, you can come to an agreement about what needs to happen next.

Once you’ve reached a solution, make sure your client understands what your next steps are. Follow up after a few days to make sure they’re happy with the results.

6. Be Willing to Walk Away

Unfortunately, some client relationships are not worth saving, so you should always be willing to walk away. Dealing with tough clients is emotionally draining, and it takes your energy away from spending your time on the work you enjoy doing.

In every client interaction, try to see things from their perspective and meet their needs as best you can. But you also need to stay focused on what’s best for your business.

And if a client becomes too much of a drain on your time and resources, be willing to set boundaries or even walk away if necessary.

Wrapping Things Up

Communicating with clients can be challenging, and problems are bound to arise along the way. Whether you’re an experienced consultant or just beginning to look for consulting work, it can be helpful to have support along the way.

When you join Business Talent Group’s talent community, you not only get access to Fortune 500 companies, you’ll have ongoing support throughout the project. This support will help you and your client work together more successfully and can lead to ongoing work.


Skilled professionals are becoming independent consultants to capitalize on their strengths, gain ownership over how they work, and select projects that interest and excite them. You can too! Become an independent consultant today!

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About the Author

Jamie Johnson

Jamie Johnson is a freelance writer who teaches others how to start their own freelance writing careers. She covers topics related to small business, entrepreneurship, and personal finance. She currently writes for clients like Business Insider, Bankrate, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and Quicken Loans.

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