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When Customers Attack: 5 Hair-Pulling Scenarios And How To Deal With Them Gracefully

By September 26, 2012February 1st, 2018Marketing Insights & Strategy
When Customers Attack: 5 Hair-Pulling Scenarios And How To Deal With Them Gracefully

Work is easy. I sit at my desk, jot down a few to-dos, get started and get things done.

It’s the people who make life challenging. You know, those people we call customers? They want things. They ask questions. They forget stuff. They say things like, “I don’t like that color.” And, “I emailed you like, fifteen minutes ago, could you get back to me please????!!!!??”

They write and speak in all caps.

They want stuff done yesterday.

They don’t know what they want but they know what they don’t want, and it’s everything you show/give/offer them.

Yet as long as we’re in business we’ll always have customers to woo, coddle and make happy.

The trick to succeeding in business is not to do things right (though it helps from time to time…) but to know how to deal with it when they go wrong.

1. Dealing With “The Know It All”

You know the one – he’s always got a friend/brother/partner who told him something that you, the expert, don’t know. He’s always got a better answer and knows a faster way. This guy doesn’t try to tell you how to do your job but he’s strong on suggestions. His constant ideas can be a bit irksome because they tend to be based on something he read somewhere on a blog in 1998.

What Not To Say

“I’ve been doing this for 20 years. I think I know what I’m doing.”

“How about you let me do the job you hired me for?”

“Yeah, I heard that too, and it’s been debunked by 56 other studies…” and go on to reference and annotate each one.

How To Keep The Peace

Clients who sound like they “know it all” probably know that they don’t. And that’s why they keep battering you with ideas. They want something to stick. They want to sound, just a little bit, like they know what they’re talking about.

Sometimes, people just want to be involved.

Know first of all that this person is not offering suggestions to be annoying. It’s not personal. It’s not an affront to your professional knowledge.

Secondly, try to empathize a little bit here.

Have you ever been in a situation where someone was spouting off important-sounding words and ideas, probably speckled with a few acronyms that made you want to say something that would contribute to the conversation?

So maybe you said something like, “I read something about that…” or “I heard that if you do this, then…”

Were you trying to be annoying? Nah. You just wanted to be part of it.

When a client always throws in his 2 cents, it’s probably because you left him out on the doorstep like a beggar with a cup.

Start by speaking to your customer in plain language. Ditch the highbrow speech and the acronyms and talk human.

Ask questions. A trick I learned in my teaching years was that before I taught any new concept, I’d ask the students what they already knew about it. Before I opened my important-sounding mouth, I asked them to participate and share their knowledge, however incorrect or misguided.

There are two benefits to this approach. First, you can get a pretty good idea of your customer’s knowledge and misconceptions. Then you’ll have something to build on and something to redirect. Second, it gives your customer the reins and lets him be involved. He won’t need to throw his 2 cents in because you’ve already asked for it.

Remember, relationships are about dialogue. Not about us “pros” sounding smart and telling other people what we know.

Finally, respect your customer’s input. If he references a blog post from 1998, ask him to send you a link and assure him you’ll check it out. You can debunk or redirect later, but make it a point to be interested first. You don’t always need to sound like the smartest one in the room. After all, your customer hired you – he must think you know something!

2. Dealing With Missed Deadlines And Pissed Clients

This one happens to the best of us. If it’s a recurring thing, it’s time to check your calendar and rethink your schedule! But assuming it’s a sometimes-thing and you’re not in perpetual sorry-mode, it’s just something you have to deal with.

What Not To Say

“I’ve got a million things to do and I haven’t been able to get to your project.”

“My Great Aunt Bessie just passed away…” when you don’t even have a Great Aunt Bessie.

“Sorry, I’ll get to that next week.”

How To Keep The Peace

If you’ve set 20 deadlines and made 19 of them, you may feel a little put-out that your client is mad about that one. So what, you’re not perfect!

Unfortunately (for you), you don’t get a pass on the 20th. Or the 90th. You just get to deliver what you say you will, on time, every time.

Until you don’t.

And that’s when it’s time to apologize.

You might think that last “what not to say” sounded like an apology. It wasn’t really. It was more of a dismissal. “Sorry” is something we are a lot of the time. Sorry, I didn’t see your foot there. Sorry, I didn’t hear you. Sorry, I accidentally flushed your live goldfish down the toilet.

An actual apology comes with sincerity and a remedy.

I apologize for missing that deadline and I’m going to clear my calendar tomorrow so that I can dedicate my time to finishing your project. Now that sounds like an apology.

Maybe your client will still be pissed, and you’ll just have to get over that. Sometimes you can’t smooth over a crummy situation with a three second apology. Sometimes you have to deal with the crabby customer until you deliver the goods.

Do it. Don’t complain. And by all means, hit that next deadline.

If your Great Aunt Bessie really did pass away, go ahead and let your customers know, and prepare them for a disruption in your schedule. But don’t tell people you slept late/got busy/forgot or any number of other lame-sounding things.

Everyone is busy. But as far as your customer is concerned, he’s the single most important thing in your life. Enlightening him otherwise is not in your best interest.

3. Dealing With The “I Didn’t Think That Was Billable” Challenge

You do a job, send an invoice and it’s more than your client expected. Or you did something that he thought was a favor because he’s the single most important thing in your life. Or the project scope changed and the only one who associated it with an increase in cost was you.

What Not To Say

“Everything I do is billable.”

“Time is money. If I didn’t bill you for it, I’d go out of business.”

“Just checking on this invoice…” and resending it for the 15th time without addressing the issue.

How To Keep The Peace

In my experience, almost every time a client has challenged me on billing, it’s been my fault. Not my fault for billing incorrectly or for cheating.

But my fault for not properly setting expectations.

The best way to deal with this is not to put yourself in a situation where you have to deal with it. Make it crystal clear how you bill, how much you bill, when you bill and what you bill for. Even if you’ve been doing business with someone for 10 years.

Always address billing before you do anything billable and never make assumptions about what your client “should” know.

If your customer calls and asks, “Can you do this one little thing…?” and you say yes, I guarantee you that your customer thinks you’re doing it as a favor. Or, if you say yes and your customer knows it’s billable, I guarantee you that he thinks “one little” translates as “really inexpensive.”

Next time your customer asks, “Can you do this one little thing?” Your answer is, “Of course. That will take me about an hour at my regular rate. Would you like me to go ahead and schedule that?”

Ok, so let’s say you didn’t avoid it and got yourself into the billing challenge.

Worst case scenario, you have nothing in writing, you didn’t explain to your client about your billing and he refuses to pay your invoice. Keep you cool and explain now. Use it, at the very least, as a springboard for the conversation you should’ve had before.

If reasoned explanations don’t work – including the amount of time you spent, the work you performed and the value you provided (no whining!) – then here’s my advice: Ask you customer what he wants to do.

Sounds crazy, right? But 9.9 out of 10 times I’ve found that people will come back with something less painful than, “Screw you. I’m not paying it.” Some people may ask for a percent discount. Or ask to pay it over time. Sometimes people will surprise you and agree to pay it once they feel vindicated. As far as I’m concerned, this is a win-win. Maybe you won’t make 100% of the invoice but you won’t make zero, either. And your customer will come out feeling empowered and most of all not cheated. That will go a long way to restoring peace. Just remember this lesson for next time and put everything out there, clear as day and right up front.

4. Dealing With “Can You Send That One More Time?”

You send a document. Your client insists he never received it. You send it again. He loses it. You send it again. He downloads it, reads it, deletes it then needs it again in a week. If you’re feeling particularly snarky, you keep digging the original email out of your “Sent” folder and forwarding it with the subject: re:re:re:re:re: that document you needed again.

What Not To Say

“Keep this in a safe place.”

“I already sent that to you…” followed by listing each of the six dates and times.

“Here you go.”

How To Keep The Peace

Let’s start with the last “what not to say”. It sounds nice, right? It seems like a good way to handle the problem, just be gracious, don’t get crabby and do it again. Right?


If you keep forwarding the same email, you’re just feeding the beast. You’re basically letting your customer train you to jump at his every accidental deletion.

If you find yourself in this loop, the problem isn’t necessarily a lack of brainpower on your client’s part, but a lack of centralization on yours. The email inbox is the most-cluttered place next to the junk drawer. Who the heck knows what’s in there half the time? I don’t know about you but I’m pretty liberal with the delete key. And my clients aren’t the only ones who ask for a resend.

There’s no point in trying to address your client’s email behavior. Better to change the way you manage project details and documents. In my business, we use Basecamp for project management. Whenever we’re working with a client, every document, every conversation, every to-do gets put into Basecamp. Each client has his own account so if ever an email gets deleted, sent to spam or misplaced, he can log into Basecamp for access to everything.

I can’t tell you how many times I now deflect “can you resend…” with “Log into Basecamp…”

At first, we had to resend the link to Basecamp. Yes, over and over. But it’s one behavior and one thing to train your customers to do. And once you train them, it makes your life a lot easier.

You may not use Basecamp but you can find some way of centralizing project information. Maybe that’s through Google docs, where you keep a master document updated at all times. Maybe it’s through a Dropbox location or another project management tool.

Whatever you do, make up your mind that you’ll never change your client on this one – you can only change your process.

5. Dealing With The “My Other Service Provider Sucked” Hangover

I get this a lot. Someone has spent money on a website and it sucks. They’re mad, disillusioned… and broke. And I get them on the rebound. They want a do-over but they don’t trust me as far as they can throw me, thanks to someone else who burned them. And I sigh.

What Not To Say

“I hear that a lot in my industry.”

“Well, that’s not me.”

“That’s what you get for hiring someone cheap.”

How To Keep The Peace

This one is killer, because you’re dealing with something someone else did wrong.

But telling people “I hear this a lot” is not comforting. It only makes them wary of doing business with yet another one of “you “. And reassuring them you’re different is hollow and meaningless.

Until you can build trust through action, you’ve got to tread carefully. Start by listening. Sometimes people want to vent out their frustration about their last crummy provider. Let them. Don’t participate! Empathizing is one thing but sharing in “that crummy provider!” bashing will only make you look bad.

You’ve got to be a diplomatic genius here. Putting other companies down, no matter how deserved, is something you should avoid at all costs. It may be hard, especially if a customer asks you outright if you think the other company did a good job/the right thing. The best you can say is, “I would have done it differently.” Perhaps with a brief explanation of your process or approach.

Steer the conversation forward, toward what you’ll do and how you and your new customer will work together productively.

Recognize your customer’s grievances. Simple acknowledgements such as, “You sound really frustrated” or “It must have been a tough time for you” are enough to dialogue without crossing lines.

Be exceptionally clear about how you work and what your customer should expect. I bet that last provider was pretty ambiguous about a lot of things. An empowered customer is a happy customer.

Finally, it’s not about making sure you do things the way the client wants, but the way the client expects.

And it’s your job to build those expectations.

Your customer doesn’t have to like everything you say or do. He doesn’t have to like your 6 week timeframe (instead of the 4 he wants to work on). He doesn’t have to like the price (he wanted it 25% cheaper). He doesn’t have to like the fact that you won’t email him but keep directing him to Basecamp instead.

What he has to do is understand it. He may grumble – and probably will until you sprout golden wings and fly, delivering all of his dreams on a platter – but if he’s hired you and agrees to your terms, let him grumble himself out.

Then it’s about you delivering what you say you will.

Practice, Practice, Practice!

The good news is that if you’re in business long enough you’ll have plenty of chances to screw up. That means plenty of chances to practice making it better. Truthfully, you probably won’t get it right the first time. The first time I messed up client expectations and got embroiled in a billing dispute certainly wasn’t the last. And my first couple of rebound clients? Well, I did a fair amount of “other provider” bashing.

I hope I’ve given you some ideas for dealing with common scenarios and maybe even not-so-common ones. With a little finesse, a lot of dialogue and an open channel of communication, you can accomplish a lot!

Now tell me, have you been in any hair-pulling situations of your own? What did you do to cope and what did you learn to help you with “next time”?

This post is part of the September 2012 Word Carnival — a monthly group blogging event specifically for small business owners. (It’s the most fun you’ll have all month!) Check out the rest of the fabulous carney work here.

Join the discussion 28 Comments

  • Hi Carol,

    thanks for sharing your insights, it’s powerful advice. I needed to hear that today, especially the part with setting correct expectations.

    It is so true: There’s no point in blaming the customer for anything. It’s definitely better to ask ourselves what we contributed to this issues and how to avoid it in the future.



    • Thank Oliver. Sometimes even when the customer is wrong we have to make it right anyway! It’s best to think about how we can affect change instead of waiting for someone else to do it.

  • Love these practical examples, Carol Lynn. I must admit: I’ve been tempted to do the multiple forwarding thing a couple of times. Here’s an example similar to yours. I sometimes place articles for clients and they were always asking what stage the process was at. I now have a shared Google Doc for each client which has all the details – so everyone’s happy.

    • And we learn from the aggravations of the past! Centralizing everything was one of the best things we ever did. We do a lot less management now and don’t have to keep answering the same things over and over and digging out the same files over and over. Especially as a writer, I imagine that must be a real pain for you! It’s awesome that you found your solution.

  • Ah, yes. Setting expectations. It’s crucial if we want to have lovely, fruitful relationships — whether with clients or friends and family. When I ran an agency, I went so far as to create a Welcome package for new clients that outlined everything I could think of in terms of how to work with us. (If I’d been using Basecamp back then, that would’ve been in there, too.) These are some fabulous examples, Carolyn and you could probably expand more and make an entire book — perfect for the new freelancer!

    • Funny you said that because I already broke this into 2 posts as it was getting longer…. and longer… turns out I can think of a lot of problems that need solving! Having a welcome packet is fantastic. We did a similar thing at some point, with a contract that had about a zillion details with what to expect and how we work. After 13 years we’re still adding to it. There’s always something you didn’t think of!

  • Love the specificity of these strategies! It’s easy to give out general advice, but you’ve taken the problem solving to a very tangible level.

  • Hi Carol,

    Another collection of great advice. I bet that this teaching background of yours helps you a whole lot on how to treat your customers. On top of that, customers can be just like children sometimes. Aren’t they?

    I really like your “what not to say” sections, I’m sure that’s what some people would say just that, so it’s good to learn and know that it’s not the right things to say in such cases.

    I agree that when customers are complaining about a competitor it’s not smart to complain with them and dash the competition to pieces. It actually doesn’t help anyone and it’s bad karma 🙂

    Looks like you have it all down petty well, my dear, and your customers just better behave right or you know just how to handle them.

  • Louise says:

    Hi Carol
    Love these tips on how to deal with customers in difficult situations. I think managing expectations is key to managing any client. If you know you are not going to make a deadline, the sooner you tell them the better. If your client is unhappy about work done by someone else, find out what they did like and what they didn’t and explain what you can do to remedy the situation. Communication is paramount and once you build trust and rapport with a client, managing that client becomes much easier.

    I like your tip on using Basecamp or other sharing service for sending documents. Great idea and as a customer I love to know where I can access my files anytime.


    • Thanks for adding those great points, Louise. If you’re going to miss a deadline you probably know it, so mitigating it up front BEFORE you miss it can also be a good way to avoid disaster. I also love the idea of asking customers what they liked and didn’t/what they think went well or not. It gives them a sense of empowerment and also helps us improve.

  • Carol Minarcik says:

    Hey Carol, GREAT artical. I have to deal with customers daily. So many different personalities, and yes they all feel they should be the first on your list. However I have found doing a good job will overcome any problems one may occur during the project details. This artical was very interesting and I surly will be back for more……

    • Thanks Carol, no doubt we meet a lot of personalities in our customers! And we need to be able to adapt to each one. You can never go wrong by doing a good job, that’s for sure.

  • Adrienne says:

    OMG Carol!!! I’m SO glad I don’t deal with clients the way you do. I mean I just really started my coaching and so far so good but I have a feeling I’ll eventually run into some disgruntled customers. I’m always nice to people but will probably have to step back and perhaps take some of your advice you’ve dished out here on how to respond. Boy, I hope it’s not a lot.

    I feel for you but I know you love what you do and you seem to be able to handle your customers just fine. You’re such a pro!


    • I’m sure if you run into a disgruntled customer you’ll be your charming self. Everyone has their little personality quirks so we just have to deal with them as they come. But sometimes there are recurring problems that have to be solved and with a little practice they get easier!

  • Have you been hiding in my office? Under my desk? In the closet? I swear I’ve been faced with every one of the scenarios you highlight. I love the feel of angel / devil on my shoulder when reading this. Sometimes I let myself vent a bit. My dog or cats are very tolerant of the occasional rant. But at the end of the day, professionalism and basic good manners will take you much farther.

    • Oh, well you’re just not here before I get all diplomatic. Before that happens I rant and rage and maybe even throw something out a window. Ask my husband, he’s the one who has to listen to me. After all that venting then I can be cool customer-loving cucumber. I had fun writing this because I got to complain a lot while I did it 🙂

  • Sue Price says:

    Hi Carol
    You have given some great advice here and I believe it is all about setting expectations.

    I started my career in public accounting offices. Dealing with clients not wanting to pay tax, needing figures for the bank yesterday etc taught me a lot.

    I love good customer service and so often it is sadly missing.

    I too like the way you have given practical examples. Not everyone has been training to do this.


    • Setting expectations is probably the best thing you could do for your business and your sanity. The worst words you’ll hear from a client is “you never told me that” and at that point, you’re kind of screwed! Live and learn, right?

  • SandyMc says:

    Oh my word Carol Lynn, it was like having a charter of experience read back to you after a lifetime of being in a service industry. And the mistakes we made too in trying to deal with them. One forgets that often you are in the middle of screaming deadlines for other clients when a problem arises, so you’re dealing with it from the seat of your pants which means the old ‘ Great Aunt Bessie just popped her clogs’ line is sometimes the first thing that comes to mind. Never did use that one myself, but was sorely tempted. There are also those clients that are just plain nasty. The ones one should politely walk away from as soon as possible. Tea is right, there is a fantastic book in this, and one that is sorely needed by all service provides. Great article and one I SO wish I had read thirty years ago! Just think of all those young ones starting out who will be so thankful for this advice and how much angst it will spare them.

    • I wish that learning this stuff would prevent me from saying “the wrong thing” but alas, sometimes those words still pop out of my mouth, like you said, while I’m in the middle of 30 screaming deadlines and just trying to stick a sock in a leaky dam. Good to keep reminding ourselves, though 🙂

  • Annie Sisk says:

    Yikes! I’ve been guilty of a few of these (won’t say which ones). You’re absolutely right, though – it’s counterproductive to respond to clients on the same level when they’re being critical. People are just too complex to reduce to easy pat answers and faux-rapport-building tricks. I learned a LOT from this post, Carol!

  • Andi-Roo says:

    I have the best customer service policy of all — I let my hubz deal with it, because he is way more diplomatic than I am. I can admit easily when I’ve made a mistake, & apologize profusely (as you well know, heh), but when it comes to dealing with other people’s quirks… I guess I have too many of my own to overcome. You strike me as being as patient, professional, & amiable as my hubz, so it’s no wonder I like you so much! (((I bet Ralph makes you deal with all the customer complaints, too, huh? lolz)))

    • Haha, I guess I do get to deal with the complaints over here!! My husband is very direct and no-nonsense. And he isn’t one to back down. That’s a good trait in a lot of ways but sometimes you need a bit of diplomacy and that’s when I get to make the phone calls 🙂 So whenever I need “a man” to pull out the man-voice and be all “oh no you didn’t!” then I get Ralph on the case. But when we need a little finesses, I get the case. Guess it works out in the end!

  • Carol –

    Spot on, as usual. One thing I’d add to this list of client catastrophes is “the non-starter” – the client who a) doesn’t listen to your advice, b) doesn’t do what they say they’ll do, c) doesn’t provide feedback or any requested material, and d) doesn’t invest in their own project but keeps paying you regardless.

    This client is the nightmare of all clients; ethical business people don’t like getting paid for doing nothing, so they usually stop accepting payment or invoicing.

    It’s the wrong thing to do and it just leaves both you and the client in a bind. Instead you have to reset the expectations and schedule time for both you and them to work on the project in an organized way.

    Also, for your last point – there are so many bad web designers that it’s easy to hear the *last guy* comment. In many cases, they tried their best and maxed out their skill level on the project. Super difficult to rectify without hurting feelings on both sides. Empathy is definitely required here.

    • That sounds like a familiar story, too. No matter how many clauses I build into contracts there are always those projects that sit there for 2 years waiting for some kind of input – ANY input – from clients. And yes, then you stop billing because you’re not doing anything at which point you say goodbye to any hope of profit. I think I could write a whole blog post about that one alone!