Handling Difficult Conversations with Clients

Even the best studio with a rockstar team and history of success is no stranger to handling difficult conversations with clients. Whether it’s a client you’ve had for five months or five years, challenging meetings can always arise.

Tough client conversations happen for a number of reasons. Maybe you need to share that your team won’t meet a deadline, or a client tells you that they’re dissatisfied with your team’s work. While these discussions often feel like a breaking point, they can actually be an opportunity to increase trustworthiness.

Learn how to turn these relationship strains into relationship builders with our nine strategies:

1. Schedule a meeting
While emailing is great for sending quick messages and meeting recaps, it’s far easier for misunderstandings to arise. Messages can get lost in overcrowded inboxes, and your tone can be misinterpreted.

That’s why scheduling a video call is the best way to handle tough conversations in our increasingly virtual world. This way you easily see everyone’s expressions and understand their tone.

Plus, with a meeting and agenda set, everyone will be more prepared to talk about the issue at hand.

2. Come prepared
In an ideal world, we’ll always have a meeting scheduled for difficult conversations in the workplace. But what happens when tough conversations arise unexpectedly? This is where being prepared really pays off.

Every client meeting could potentially become a meeting about the relationship. Being prepared to talk about difficult topics in any meeting with the client can help you anticipate their needs and gain a deeper understanding of where the relationship stands.

Before every client meeting prepare a conversation strategy by asking yourself:
What is the meeting really about?
Who is in the conversation and what are their styles?
What are the key priorities and objectives?
What are the potential opportunities and challenges?
What are your insights, recommendations, and next steps?

Above all, ensure that you’re ready to listen, understand, and empathize with your client.


“Even with harsh and seemingly unfounded criticisms, look for a kernel of truth in what your client is saying.”

3. Control your emotions
Your client deserves your best self, the version of you who is ready to understand their challenge and work towards a solution. To present your best self to the client, you need to control your emotions.

Of course, that’s easier said than done when you have an upset client on one hand and want to defend your team on the other. While negative feedback can spark a wave of emotions, by entering the meeting with a calm mind, you can keep your emotions in check.

Remember, don’t take anything said personally. Emotional reactions are contagious. The client may be emotional when giving bad news and if you’re emotional about receiving it, these feelings will collide and the conversation will go nowhere.

It’s your responsibility to work with your client to resolve the issue. Even with harsh and seemingly unfounded criticisms, look for a kernel of truth in what your client is saying.

To control your emotional response:
Anticipate that it might happen
Stay open and breathe through the discomfort
Remind yourself that you’re there to listen, understand, and empathize

When you feel any emotions arise, take a breath, count to 10, and the heightened feelings will begin to subside for everyone on the call.

4. Acknowledgment goes a long way
Even in normal conversations, clients don’t always feel heard. That’s why it’s key to start every difficult conversation by assuring your client that you hear them.

Without a way to frame the conversation, it’s easy to get caught up in the moment and fumble over your words. Instead, focus on understanding and framing the problem from your client’s perspective.

Tell your client, “I’m glad you raised this point so we can talk about it,” or simply “I hear you.” This will let your client know that you’re on their side while also validating their feelings.

5. Slow down with clarifying questions
Instead of immediately jumping into solution mode to defuse difficult conversations, give your client the space to air all of their concerns. Your job at the moment is to say very little and instead, learn as much as possible. Help fill in any communication gaps by asking clarifying questions.

After the client stated their issue, repeat what they said and ask for clarification:
I just want to make sure I heard you correctly, you said …?
Did I understand you when you said …?
I hear you. Help me understand what you mean by …

This puts the burden of getting the root of the issue on yourself instead of your client. Also, asking clarifying questions is another opportunity for the client to feel heard, understand that you’re on their side, and have another moment to calm down.

6. Embrace truthfulness
Difficult client conversations are never the time to reassign blame. If your team made a mistake, own up to it and move on. If the client came in with unrealistic expectations, be patient with them and let them know you’ve heard them. What’s most important is putting your client first, setting your emotions aside, and working towards a resolution.

7. Work together to find a solution
Now that you know how your client feels, it’s time to work towards a solution. While issues like budget restrictions and timelines can be more easily solved, be ready for an open-ended discussion for more complex issues. Give your client the space to offer their ideas and don’t be afraid to propose solutions.

Even if you don’t have a solution at the moment, let your client know that you will discuss the issue with your team. Knowing that you’re working on a solution will also help ensure that your client feels heard, happier, and more supported leaving the conversation than when they first came in.

After the meeting, follow up with an email containing a quick recap of the discussion, proposed solutions, and next steps to make sure everyone is on the same page. Doing so lets the client raise any other issues that might have been overlooked, leaving them feeling satisfied about the call.

“Instead of feeling anxious or irked about having a tough conversation, honestly thank your client for investing in your improvement. These conversations can be one of the best opportunities to build trust with your client.”

8. Be thankful
Being thankful isn’t likely the first thing that comes to mind when it comes to difficult client conversations, especially after receiving harsh criticism. However, continuous improvement needs feedback.

Instead of feeling anxious or irked about having a tough conversation, honestly thank your client for investing in your improvement. These conversations can be one of the best opportunities to build trust with your client.

9. Maintain regular client conversations
Want to decrease the chance of difficult conversations from unexpectedly popping up? Schedule regular client conversations. Whether it’s weekly status calls or emails, give your client the space to share how they’re doing, any concerns they have, and upcoming plans.

For conversation inspiration when there isn’t a set topic, skip the small talk and ask your client:
How is the business?
Are you rolling out any new initiatives or projects?
Is there anything you or your leadership are concerned about?
Do you have anything on your mind you would like to discuss?
What’s keeping your clients up at night?

Most importantly, be an active listener and remind yourself that the meeting is about your client.

There’s no doubt that communicating with clients can be challenging. By approaching every meeting with the attitude that it can deepen your relationship, you’ll be better prepared to handle difficult conversations that may arise. With our advice for navigating tough client conversations, you’re on your way to resolving issues, building trust with your clients, and developing long-lasting relationships.

At Brainrider, we offer all three types of flexible resourcing models (or a mix of all three, if you need). Whatever your goals are for your business, we can create a customized resourcing plan so you’ll never fall behind again. We’ll assemble a team of go-getters to complement your existing team, streamline your marketing operations, and get you where you want to go.

Written by Kathryn Haro, Intermediate Content Specialist at Brainrider

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