How to effectively resolve client conflicts and turn negative situations and disgruntled clients into positive experiences and satisfied clients.
Proactive client management can remove nearly all project obstacles and client relationship hurdles, and clear communication can practically eliminate client confusion and uncertainty. But, if you’ve been freelancing for any length of time, you know that it’s nearly impossible to avoid all client conflict. It’s inevitable that sticky situations, disagreements, and the resulting tough conversations will happen and freelancers need to be prepared to handle them with grace, objectivity, and professionalism.
Client conflict occurs when the service provider and the client have a disagreement due to different ways of doing things, miscommunication, varying priorities, misaligned expectations, confusion, or unexpected changes.
A new client onboarding process can sidestep quite a bit of potential client conflict by communicating intentions, setting clear expectations, establishing boundaries, and explaining processes, especially when following client onboarding best practices. But while onboarding sets the stage for a successful project, it can’t possibly remove every potential hurdle.
The good news is that client conflict isn’t always a bad thing.
Managing client conflict the right way can turn a negative situation into a positive one. Your response can solidify your position as leader of the project, reinforce your expertise, and build greater trust with your client. Plus, by addressing potential conflict immediately, you can salvage client relationships worth saving and fire clients that are toxic before they devolve into a situation that could harm your brand.
Typical Approaches To Conflict Management
Often, the difference between a happy client and a disgruntled client is how client services mistakes and conflicts are handled. Unfortunately, many freelancers don’t run into client conflicts often, so they don’t have a lot of experience with conflict resolution. Rather than looking at the big picture and considering long-term effects, they take action based on emotion and short-term wins.
- Ignore And Avoid: Ignore the issue, wait it out, and hope that it will go away or resolve itself on its own, which often causes the problem to get worse, not better.
- Accommodate The Client: Resolve the conflict by giving in to the client demands or meeting their needs even if it means suffering in the process — if not managed well, this accommodation can lead to resentment of the client, erode the quality of service delivered, and damage the client relationship.
- Go For The Win: Pursue a self-serving goal to “get your way” but this may also mean burning the bridge and ending the client relationship.
How To Handle Client Conflict Like A Professional
To effectively manage client conflict, it must be handled quickly. Tough conversations with unhappy clients are never enjoyable but the faster the issue is addressed, the better the result will be. Responding quickly demonstrates that you care about the client and take the situation seriously and collaborating to find a mutually beneficial solution shows your willingness to compromise and create a positive outcome.
It is also important to move all communication about the conflict away from email. When communicating by email, the intention and meaning of your words can be misinterpreted. Instead, get on a video chat or a phone call with the client so your client can see, hear, and interact with you face-to-face.
If you’re running a freelance business, use the following step-by-step guide to successful conflict resolution:
- Listen: Give the client time to speak their mind, share their story, and explain their frustrations without interruption. Listen to what they have to say. Often, clients that walk away from one freelancer only to hire another do so because they didn’t feel heard or listened to.
- Acknowledge: When the client is done explaining the situation, acknowledge their feelings. Repeat back the key concerns they shared to demonstrate that you listened and understand. If you need to, ask non-judgmental questions to gather more information.
- Show Empathy: It is important to your clients that you care about their concerns and the problem they shared. Take a moment to consider the client’s perspective, why they are upset, and how the situation affects them. Let them know that you care about their feelings and will work with them to reach a positive solution.
- State The Facts: Objectively and clearly state the facts about the situation. Communicate the who, what, where, when, why, and how — and leave all emotion, judgment, and blame out of the conversation.
- Explain The Solution: If possible, present the client with a solution and explain why it is the best solution, how it will work, and what will happen next. If you don’t have a solution, need to think about it, or need to do some fact-finding, reassure the client that you understand the concerns, share what action you’re going to take, and tell them when you’ll get back to them.
- Remain Firm: It is critical that you remain firm, fair, and friendly at all times, and that once a solution is reached, you stick to it. Don’t waiver or let the client push you around if they later decide the solution isn’t good enough. If the client is still unhappy and reaching a mutually beneficial solution is not a possibility, be prepared to take the next steps as outlined in your freelance contract.
When Mistakes Or Clients Cause Conflict
No freelancer is perfect and you can’t guarantee you won’t make a misstep or that your work will be completely error-free. Your client always deserves your very best, but with that said, if you do make a mistake, follow these three steps:
- Own The Mistake: Alert the client to the problem or admit the mistake as soon as it is discovered and own it completely. Apologize right away. Don’t make excuses or assign blame because the client doesn’t care.
- Communicate The Fix: Don’t share a problem without a solution or confirmation that you’re actively working toward a solution. When you can provide a viable solution, or demonstrate that you’re actively working to resolve the issue, clients tend to be more forgiving of the initial mistake.
- Explain The Plan: Demonstrate your professionalism by explaining next steps. Share the plan of action, step-by-step so the client knows exactly what to expect and share what you will do to make sure the problem doesn’t happen again.
There will also be situations that arise where the client or their behavior is the problem. If this happens, first decide how important the problem or concern is and whether it is worth discussing with the client and creating conflict in the relationship. If the problem is serious enough to warrant a conversation with the client, explain the situation to the client and stick to the facts. Be clear and objective and keep emotion out of the conversation.
Positive Conflict Resolution Builds Trust
Experiencing problems and dealing with client conflicts is a normal part of freelancing.
While you hope to minimize and avoid conflicts with proactive client management, clear communication, and effective onboarding systems, at some point, conflicts will arise. The key is being prepared to manage conflicts effectively so you can reach a positive solution quickly.
When you collaborate with a client to overcome a conflict, it will strengthen the relationship and show that if any problems arise in the future, the client can rely on you to listen, evaluate, take action, and deliver a solution with grace. And that will earn you far more goodwill, continued business, and referrals than any selfish, short-term win.
This is an updated and improved version of an article written for Liquid Web.