When online retailer Amazon recently purchased the grocer Whole Foods, CEO John Mackey compared their relationship to dating and falling in love. Destiny reigns when one business has what the other business needs and the sales process feels "meant to be". Inside of a business relationship, however, there are situations and discussions that could be challenging but must be addressed.
Instead of avoiding tough conversations with your business customers, follow these rules.
How to Manage Difficult Conversations with Clients:
When the Business Honeymoon is Over
Once a client signs on the bottom line, the honeymoon period may fade quickly. Situations, expectations, and disappointments can put either business in the unfortunate position of dissatisfaction. Because the relationship is important, the challenges must be addressed immediately. Here are a few examples of situations that may seem unavoidable:
- Sales promised something that couldn't be delivered.
- The client had an unclear idea of what was going to be delivered.
- The client initially agrees with the proposal but then pushes for items out of scope.
- A project simply doesn't work or the results didn't meet expectations.
- Your business is raising prices or changing services.
- The client is late on payment once or repeatedly.
See also: Attracting Clients & Red Flags to Avoid
How to Listen
The first challenge when attempting a difficult client conversation is listening. If your client is unhappy, it can be tough to stay quiet during accusations or venting. Start with these tips to better your listening skills:
- Center yourself before you begin the conversation. Wiggle your toes, slow down your breathing, and relax your shoulders.
- Practice staying quiet. Often the client simply needs to vent their frustrations. Use this time to listen intently and take notes of what is being said.
- Be aware of your reactions. If you find yourself beginning to get angry or defensive, take note of this and breathe through it. It will be helpful when you're ready to offer an explanation or ask questions of your own.
- Remember that you did your best, you have good intentions, or it was a simple mistake. Maintaining integrity throughout the conversation may help bring forth a positive result.
What to Say
Surviving tough conversations is one thing but there are ways to thrive, even in the midst of these challenges. If you've managed to stay quiet and take note of the client's side of the discussion, you're already one step ahead.
- Clarify. Ask questions in order to understand "why" the client is unsatisfied. These questions may demonstrate your ability to listen accurately.
- Don't make assumptions. It's perfectly normal to assume why you believe you're having a tough talk with someone. You may find the other party has a completely different response.
- It's okay to disagree. If the client simply sees things differently, or wants something that your business is unable to deliver, the partnership may just not be successful and that's okay.
- Honor your business. If the client is asking for special circumstances, favors, or could be asking for something that would put your business at risk, honor yourself and your business by saying 'no'.
Speak up. Follow up.
Most importantly, do not avoid difficult discussions with clients because they are uncomfortable. If you need to talk yourself into it, start by listing all of the reasons the conversation is important:
- The client is going to be unhappy because their expectations will not be met.
- Out of scope items means that your business is offering something for free or time will be unavailable for other clients.
- Your business needs have increased or there is a high demand for your services. New rates mean that you can offer the very best of your work to those who want to pay for it.
- When the client doesn't pay their bills on time, your business bills get behind as well.
Having these conversations is a practice in standing up for the integrity of your business. Remember that if you are upholding your part of your contract, you do have a right to speak up for what you do and remind clients to pay their invoices on time.