How to Deal With Tough Clients While Building Your Brand

By Phil Cooke

I receive a lot of questions from freelancers or other creative people launching agencies, production companies, and other businesses. One of the most popular questions is “How should I deal with really tough or difficult clients? I was speaking with Jenny Holt recently who’s been a freelance writer for more than a decade and dealt with more than her share of difficult clients. As a result, she had some great advice:

Jenny:  For every single unhappy customer, there are around 26 angry ones who simply haven’t voiced their concern. On average, happy customers tell nine people about their experiences with a company. Client loyalty and satisfaction are key, yet they can also be the most challenging part of your job as a business owner. You can sometimes give a project your all, only to find that your clients are dissatisfied. Before engaging in conflict or cutting ties, remember that customer satisfaction is the cornerstone of your brand’s success. Having said this, how can you deal with those who are pushing all the wrong buttons?

Setting clear limits

It is vital for clients to know that although you are a new business, there are established norms (such as deadlines, work hours, and available staff) they must respect if they wish to contract your services. For instance, if you are working in the publishing sector or you have a blog, clients need to know that there are strict deadlines for receiving their ads or information. The key to avoiding unnecessary conflicts with clients is to detail all your norms clearly in writing. The list should include norms on procedures and timescales.

Focusing on the solution

When a client is irate because you have made an error in an order or because what you delivered was not what they expected, it can be instinctual to become defensive, especially if you believe you have delivered good service. However, taking things personally and letting ego get in the way of customer service will not solve the client’s problem. Remember that a 2% increase in customer retention has the same effect as decreasing costs by 10%; this can serve as useful motivation for taking a solutions-based approach to the problem. Listen well to the source of your client’s dissatisfaction and focus on working together to find a solution. You may need to work a little more on a project or put in a few extra hours to amend an error. If your client notices your commitment and sincere desire to fix the problem, their loyalty to your company will grow.

Knowing when to leave the table

If a client is disrespectful of you or your staff, purposely difficult, or insulting in any way, you may have to cut your losses and lose the client, making a big effort to find replacement revenue. If you allow yourself to grow desperate or put up with abusive behavior just because your brand is new, you may end up depleting your resources and overworking your staff, only to lose the client anyway. Sometimes, finding a new client to replace a challenging one may not occur quickly, but you can consider accepting online work or lower paying projects to bide your time until you find a client that pays you what your experience and skills deserve. Always make sure you have given your all before losing a client voluntarily. Statistics show that customers who have their issues resolved tell between four and six people about their positive experience.

Validation and empathy

Don’t give up on clients without feeling fully confident that you have listened to their needs with an open mind, and have helped them feel you understand their needs, concerns, and complaints. While it is true that you should only work with clients who are the right fit for your company, sometimes, a good relationship can take time to build. Whenever you sense that your client ultimately wants to get the job done and is willing to work as a team, consider giving them a chance and seeing if they respond reasonably to your attempts to fulfill their expectations or amend a problem.

Regardless of the industry you operate in, you are liable to come across difficult clients who can have a negative effect on your confidence. Make sure you are open to solving any issues that arise while continuing to believe in your staff and your products or services. Be willing to listen to clients, show empathy, and be sincere in your wish to solve their problems, but set limits and don’t be afraid to terminate a relationship with someone whose values clash too much with your company’s mission.


Phil Cooke, Ph.D. is a producer and media consultant to churches and ministries across the country. His latest book is “The Way Back: How Christians Blew Their Credibility and How We Get It Back.” Find out more at

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