It’s inevitable in agency life — at times you’ll have to communicate with problem clients, resolve tricky client issues, or talk with clients who are unhappy. In these situations, sweeping problems under the rug is the worst thing you can do. Instead, make sure you engage with your clients in a professional, constructive manner — even if the problem seems unfixable. Navigating difficult client conversations is an art form, and we’ve put together some tips to help you achieve more successful outcomes in these discussions.

First, let’s go over some common scenarios and highlight what can be done to best resolve them.

Scenario 1: Your client is dissatisfied with the work and wants a refund.

When a client is dissatisfied with the work your agency has done for them, you’ll likely want a chance to fix the situation. In this scenario, the client wants a refund rather than additional work or revisions. You want to keep their business and make them happy. Because you each have different desired outcomes, you need to acknowledge their concerns and negotiate a solution that will satisfy you both. In a moment, we’ll talk about techniques that can help you convince the client to let you keep the contract — and when to let it go.

Scenario 2: Your client doesn’t know what they want and can’t provide essential details.

Sometimes, clients have a general sense of the scope of work but aren’t able to articulate their specific preferences or needs. Maybe they don’t know what audience they want to target, or maybe they haven’t yet decided what their core messages should be. When you ask questions about these topics, they may become frustrated that you don’t immediately have the right answers. In this scenario, encourage them to make decisions that help you serve them. In a moment, we’ll talk about how you can elicit a response — or change the scope of work to accommodate new tasks.

Scenario 3: Your client is frustrated by the product or service and wants a cancellation.

Perhaps your client is having trouble getting something to work and is ready to throw in the towel. When clients are ready to cancel over operational difficulties, your customer service skills are crucial in retaining them as a client. In this scenario, the client isn’t seeing how your agency meets their needs. That means it’s important for you to couple your troubleshooting with a soft sell that reinforces the value you bring to the table. We’ll go over some ways to achieve this.

Scenario 4: Your client doesn’t want to pay or is angling for a discount.

It’s happened to the best of us: A client changes their mind about paying or tries to haggle on the price, even after agreeing to a quote. These situations are delicate, but a careful approach can help you get paid. As a worst-case scenario, you may need to take legal action. We’ll provide a brief overview of how to handle this situation.

How to Negotiate Solutions

A client who wants out of a contract, a cancellation, or refund isn’t necessarily someone who’s changed their mind about the value of your agency’s services. Rather, they might feel frustrated by the idea of having to “fix” something, and they simply don’t want to spend any more of their precious time. That’s where you come in with solutions.

Step 1: Acknowledge their concerns

You should start any conversation in which you plan to negotiate solutions by acknowledging the other person’s feelings. Here is some language you can use:

  • “I understand you’re having an issue with [Product or Service]. Let me see if I can help.”
  • “That does sound frustrating. I’d like to try to find a solution.”
  • “It sounds like you’re having trouble with [X]. Let’s see how we can resolve it.”

These phrases all start by acknowledging the client’s problem, then proposing that you work toward a solution. It’s important to not make any firm promises, e.g. “I can fix that for you,” because if for some unexpected reason you cannot immediately correct the situation, you’ll likely leave the client feeling that much more frustrated.

Step 2: Offer a soft solution.

If the “solution” the client wants is not one that you want, you’ll need to soft-sell them a compromise. The key to retaining a client who’s ready to run is to give them a “quick fix.” If you’re selling a service, it’s easy enough to offer a discount for their trouble or X days of free service. However, if you’re producing strategic solutions or creative work for them, it gets a little trickier. You do not want to offer to work for free. Instead, you’ll need to get creative with your solution. Think of a way that you can immediately meet their needs. Perhaps they’re dissatisfied with the results of an email campaign. Rather than offering a new one for free, you could offer in-depth and extensive analysis at no extra cost.

Step 3: Know when to quit.

If the client continues to reject your solutions and insists upon canceling, it’s best for you to accommodate their request while leaving the door open. Don’t tell the client that you’ll never work with them again. Instead, make it clear that it’s easy to come back (e.g. “We’ll keep a backup of your site, just in case”), and encourage them to leave feedback. It may sound counterintuitive, but lost clients still have the potential to drive new leads to you. By leaving them with a positive impression, you make it more likely that they’ll have nice things to say about you to their friends and colleagues.

How to Get Information out of a Client

A client who can’t decide what they want can be frustrating, but it’s essential not to show your frustration. If they’re not providing you with the information you need, it’s up to you to rephrase the question in a way that helps them understand — or ask the right questions to elicit a helpful response.

Step 1: Check your language

Many clients simply don’t know the industry lingo and may feel confused or embarrassed that they can’t answer your questions. Never assume that a client knows terms specific to your agency or even your industry. Instead, ask direct, practical questions to obtain the information you need. Once you know what they’re looking to achieve, you can use your agency expertise to provide the best strategic answers for them.

Step 2: Help them work through their thought process

We’ve all heard the agency horror stories of clients who keep changing their minds about strategy or design until eventually, they end up so frustrated that they take their business elsewhere (or, even worse, they try to do all the work themselves). What these stories don’t usually convey, however, is that a breakdown in communication between the agency and the client is usually what leads to these less than ideal scenarios.

When clients are flip-flopping on their priorities or specifications, or when they don’t seem to have a clear vision, you’re in a unique position to help them make up their minds by asking the right questions. Here’s some language to borrow:

  • “What do you want people to feel when looking at this logo?”
  • “Can you tell me the story of your company?”
  • “What’s the most important thing you want people to know when they read this email?”

Step 3: Give them a chance to fill in the blanks

If a client seems to have only a vague sense of what they want, they may not even realize that they’re leaving blanks. Give them a structured opportunity to provide information. You could prepare a scope of work document that literally includes blank spaces for them to fill in. For example, you could reiterate their vague request for an e-commerce site by creating a checklist for them to fill out, with your recommendations included.

How to Handle a Client Who Won’t Pay

A client who refuses to pay is a common enough problem that many agencies have implemented deposit structures so they’re not left completely adrift if a client ghosts them. Prior to starting work, both parties should sign a contract that defines the scope of work and rate of pay. The contract should also provide for all payment scenarios, as well as refunds and late payments. Most importantly, the contract should define what happens if the client refuses to pay. However, if you don’t have such a structure in place, or if you need to obtain the full amount due, here’s how to do it.

Step 1: Clearly state your needs

First, look at the reason that the client is not paying. Are they dissatisfied with the work? Are they struggling to manage their business expenses? Clients rarely simply refuse to pay. If the client is dissatisfied with the work, use the strategies discussed above to find a solution, while gently reminding them of your agreement.

If the client is simply unable to pay, offer a payment option that might work for them. Be flexible yet firm. For example, you could give them hard deadlines to pay a certain percentage of the amount due date. Never say something like, “Just pay me when you can.” They never will.

Step 2: Gather all documentation of the work completed

If you’re trying to collect payment and don’t have a contract, don’t despair: A combination of emails, texts, and shared documents might be sufficient to prove that you had agreed upon a working relationship. You should professionally communicate to the client that you have documentation that they agreed to the scope of work and to pay a certain amount. Never threaten to take them to court until you’re ready to take that step. Sometimes, just reminding a client of the existing agreement is enough to solve the problem.

Step 3: Look into factoring

If the client still refuses to pay or is ignoring your messages, one option is to look into factoring. A factoring agency will collect the amount due on an invoice for a portion of the amount. It might be worth it if the amount due isn’t enough to warrant small-claims court but is still an amount you can’t afford to lose.

If the amount is substantial, small-claims court is your best bet. Ensure that you have clear documentation, especially if you don’t have a contract. If you had most of your conversations over the phone and have nothing in writing, you might not have a strong case. Remain professional and non-emotional throughout the process: Focus on the work performed and the fact that you need to be compensated.

The Art of the Difficult Client Conversation

Now that you’ve got the techniques in hand, let’s review how you’ll communicate with your client. When preparing for a difficult conversation, it is always helpful to practice beforehand, whether in your head or with a friend. Take some time to ruminate rather than rushing into a confrontation. Never send or answer a message when angry, tired or hungry.

Navigating difficult client conversations is a little different than navigating arguments with a loved one. When addressing problems with a loved one, you should use “I-statements.” With clients, your “I-statements” should be cued in to the client’s concerns and should acknowledge their needs. For example, instead of saying, “I feel that you’re not giving me the information I need,” say, “I understand that you have some confusion about the project.”

Also, try to avoid becoming emotional. Don’t let on that you’re upset or frustrated with a client. Instead, exude rational professionalism and remind yourself that you are a representative of your agency. A deep breath is your best friend.

Wrapping Up

Navigating difficult client conversations is not much different than the greater marketing process. Make the client feel heard, offer them a solution, communicate clearly, and eliminate any hurdles for them. Above all else, remain professional and courteous, even if the client doesn’t.

Remember, the client usually has some need or frustration that’s going unresolved. When they’re dissatisfied, you’re in a unique position to offer them a new solution. Listen carefully to their needs and use your problem-solving skills to suggest a compromise or assuage their concerns. By communicating clearly and responsibly, you can reduce conflict and have a much better chance of retaining the client, or at least leaving them with a good impression.