Figuring out how to deal with difficult customers is one of the most arduous and painful parts of running a small business. And we’re not just talking about handling online customer complaints, which is bad enough. No, we’re talking about the kind of customer who calls you up threatening to fire the company, constantly complains that you are under-delivering even as you meet their unreasonable demands, or always frets about the status of a project.

When you’re trying to grow your company, each client plays a major part in your business’s success. This means that you need to figure out an effective strategy for how to handle difficult clients so that they do not become drains on your physical and emotional resources and so that you can continue to profit from the relationship.

There are many approaches to how to deal with difficult clients, but we have broken down five highly effective strategies that should work for any small business and just about any challenging customer.


Make Them Feel Heard

One of the best tricks on how to deal with difficult customers is to listen patiently so that they feel as though their concerns are genuinely being heard. Often a customer is causing issues and getting angry because of their own weakness, insecurity, or fear. Fighting back will just make them feel like you’re invalidating their emotions while making them feel heard and understood will work wonders for your relationship.

The truth is that, deep down, they may just be looking to vent their frustrations and fears and you just happened to be there at the wrong time. Lending a friendly ear and positioning yourself as someone who will offer solutions to their concerns is an incredibly powerful way to diffuse tensions and build strong client relationships out of situations that often lead to burned bridges.

Plus, when you show real empathy, as hard as it might be when responding to difficult customers, you can establish strong rapport which will help in this situation and in all future client interactions. Having given the client your sympathy, you can play upon theirs in return. You can show them how their demands are unfair to your business (totally unintentionally, of course) or why you cannot do exactly what they demand of you in human terms. They might actually understand, especially if you then work with them on more reasonable methods to address the same concerns.


Maintain Emotional Distance and Control

If your customer is getting emotional and you can keep your own feelings in check, it will place you in a position of power – they’ve made themselves vulnerable while you’ve stayed strong. When you match a difficult customer shout for shout, anger for anger, then you’ll burn bridges that could have helped you build your business. Instead, it’s better to weather the storm and then continue the conversation and relationship. And when they’ve burned themselves out and are ready to talk about the real issues, you’ll have the emotional upper hand.

At the same time, it’s important to protect yourself against feeling those negative emotions in the first place, not just from showing them. Growing a small business is hard enough without letting difficult customers drag you down. Just remind yourself that your difficult client’s concerns and anger are not personal unless you let it be. If you fight back and develop real animosity, not only will your working relationship be threatened, but conflicts will get personal in the future. Plus, not only will taking a more ‘zen’ approach to dealing with difficult customers protect yourself from burnout, but it’ll also make it easier to maintain emotional control and power. It’s easy to keep from showing emotions that you’ve avoided feeling in the first place.


Handling Difficult Customers Without Fear

The worst part about dealing with difficult clients is the power that they have over you. As much as they might be a pain to do business with, they still contribute to your company’s success and growth. When figuring out how to diffuse an angry customer, it’s very natural to be afraid about losing their business. It can often feel as though a wrong word will send them over the edge and get your company fired. In fact, some customers try very hard to make their vendors or partners feel that way in order to get the emotional upper hand.

So it is important to remember that your customer needs you too. If they’re working with your company then that must mean that you solve problems that they need solving, or offer opportunities that they need to succeed. Breaking off your relationship will hurt them as much as it hurts you. Unless your relationship really has degraded to the point that neither business is benefiting from it, it’s highly unlikely that your client will actually terminate the contract. Keep that in mind so you don’t overreact and escalate things, or give your client too much power over you.

Plus, operating from a position of fear of losing the client is a great way to develop a toxic client relationship. Scope creep and unreasonable demands will just get worse as the client realizes their hold over you, consciously or unconsciously. You’ll always be on your toes, your fear will just get worse, and the relationship will turn rotten. Eventually, it will get to the point where working with the client actually does more harm than good to your business. You’re better off cutting ties yourself instead of spending valuable resources managing the relationship and meeting unreasonable expectations. So giving in to the fear, no matter how well-founded it is, isn’t in your best interest in the long term.


Draw a Road Map

Once you’ve diffused the tension and have the client’s attention, it’s time to go into problem-solving mode. You should have gained their trust by empathizing with them, now you can seal the deal by showing that you are the person to make their issues go away. The first step is to outline a road map of the next steps to resolve the problem underlying their current concerns. This outline should include what you’re going to do to get to the root of the issue and start addressing it, as well as what the client can do on their end.

When handling difficult clients, you should outline the next steps even if you believe that there isn’t a problem and that the customer is just acting out. Just start your outline with steps to find out what the issue is on your end. There’s always a chance that the client will turn out to be right, in which case you do want to correct any problems within your operation, and if not then you will have improved the relationship by showing them that you conducted due diligence.

Also, don’t forget to actually follow up on the steps you laid out for the difficult customer. The last thing you want is to have to deal with another angry interaction because you didn’t do what you promised. If you write down the steps with the customer and follow them, then you can always refer back to the road map whenever the concern crops up again. Because it will: difficult customers tend to obsess about the same issues and talking them down one moment is no guarantee that they won’t get up in arms about it a day later. Having a concrete solution to show them when it does is the easiest and most effective way of diffusing future conflict and building a strong ongoing relationship.


How to Deal with Difficult Customers Proactively

Once you have taken the time to listen to your client, you will probably have a good sense of what their triggers are – what makes them pick up the phone to give you an angry call, or what makes them threaten to take their business elsewhere.

Use this information to build a proactive strategy for how to deal with difficult clients. Specifically, think about how you can avoid those triggers that set each of your difficult customers off. After you have diffused a flare-up and outlined the next steps with the customer, reflect on what you can do to head these issues off at the pass. It can also be useful to think about common customer complaints and how to deal with them.

More often than not, the solution won’t require to do much as a business. Generally, the issue is about communication rather than about actual problematic practices, so you won’t have to change what you are doing but rather how to manage the client and tell them about what you are doing. Taking an extremely proactive approach to client communication, informing them about progress on issues that they have expressed concern about in the past before they have to bring them up to you, will work wonders for your relationship and your blood pressure. This does sound like a pain – it can be hard enough to juggle multiple client projects, now you have to handle their neuroses? But any effort will pay off big time in avoiding future headaches.

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Jeremy Pearlman | Jeremy is a New York native enjoying the good life in the Big Easy. In his writing, Jeremy covers a wide-range of topics, but his specialties are personal finance and business leadership.