If a client isn’t always right, how do you tell them when they’re wrong?

- Entrepreneurial Skills

by Louise Brace

At Christmas I had a rather unpleasant conversation with a client. Although I had bent over backwards to accommodate their needs and received due praise and thanks at the time. A couple of weeks later when I had to remind them of our agreement, which it seemed they might be reneging on; my client was, to say the least, disagreeable in their response.

Problem was, when I came to research the subject, I found some pretty comprehensive articles already out there. Not least, this great article by Geoffrey James for Inc.com, ‘No the customer isn’t always right’. And as Geoffrey rightly comments, this famous sales maxim is only true when customers also behave in a reasonable and ethical manner.

Undeterred, and still with a need to vent my frustration. I decided that I would focus the article on, “How to tell your client they’re wrong, when… they’re wrong.” After all, that’s what I needed to do, and didn’t do with a great deal of dignity.

Let’s look at some do’s and don’ts, when it comes to taking on a client who is acting in an unreasonable or unethical manner:

Do: Plan your conversation

Write down the issues you want to raise with them. Make sure you have a compelling argument to put to them and, importantly, a solution to fix it.

Don’t: Pick up the phone and shout at them!

Ringing them up in the heat of the moment to tell them what you think of them, is a really bad idea. And one you will most likely regret. Sit back, take a deep breath, and plan your strategy.

Do: If you can. Hold the conversation face-to-face

If you plan to hold your conversation by email, you will have both sides of the argument recorded, which is good. On the other hand it’s impersonal. And the way we communicate by email can often be construed as too blunt.
A better plan might be to send an initial email to establish your concern. From there agree a time to speak, ideally face-to-face (if you’re in the same country). If not, you could Skype or Zoom it out with them.

Don’t: Hashtag #MyClientIsAMoron

It’s so not a good idea to criticize your clients on social media. At least before you’ve tried to resolve the issue anyway.

Do: Meeting in person? Make the location neutral

Choose a place where you can talk with little interruption and where the coffee is on tap. I don’t recommend a lunch meeting, it’s no fun eating lunch with an atmosphere, and you will keep getting disturbed by waiters.

Don’t: Meet in your office

Meeting on your territory will put your client on-guard. They’ll be less likely to relax and open to suggestions.
If you’ve planned your argument well, and your client is intelligent enough to understand your reasoning, the conversation shouldn’t become too heated. But if it does, you may be overheard by your team and this will be unsettling for them.

Don’t: Meet in their office

This way round, it will be you on-guard, on their territory, and you may be less confident in your argument.

Do: Be proactive

Proactive management of any situation means taking responsibility and control. In this situation it should be you suggesting solutions that will take your relationship into the future, on even ground. Make your argument a convincing one, but if you have to, be prepared to walk away

Don’t: Be reactive

Ring them up in the heat of the moment and tell them in no uncertain terms what you think of them. Did I already mention this? Just don’t do it!

Reactive people tend to take less responsibility for their actions. And although we have identified it’s your client that’s wrong on this occasion, you still need to take responsibility for your position as the ‘service-provider’ and look for a resolution.

Do: Get straight to the point

Once the conversation is underway. Be direct. Be firm. If you’ve planned as above, you’ll have all the ammunition you need to get straight to the point.

Don’t: Beat around the bush.

If you don’t have a convincing argument, you’ll lose it.

Do: Listen

Put your argument across and then give them space to speak and explain. Take notes, so you can respond once they have finished. At this point, be prepared. Your client may be very persuasive in their argument and potentially threatening (to take away the business). If you are sure you’re right, don’t back down. Again suggest the solution.

Finally. If you have to, walk away

If you’re client is not prepared to accept they’re wrong. If they can’t move on in a reasonable manner, they’re probably not the client for you (or anyone else for that matter!)

To avoid uncomfortable situations with clients, it’s important to communicate your parameters from the beginning. A client contract should establish rates, payment terms, usage rights, hours, delivery times, returns. The content will depend on your business. But if your client has signed an agreement, then it’s hard for them to justify acting outside of that agreement.

I would love to hear about your client experiences. How did you deal with a client who acted in an unethical manner? Let’s keep the do’s and don’ts coming!

Photo: Jason Hafso (Unsplash)

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