In a perfect world, every project you and your team take on would run smoothly with no hiccups along the way — but that’s rarely the case. And while complications like budget issues and workload management are certainly concerning, conflict with the actual client poses perhaps the greatest risk to the success of the project. 

In client-based industries, maintaining healthy relationships with customers is critical — not only because it increases loyalty, but also because it boosts the likelihood of gaining coveted referrals. A recent study found that a referred customer is 18% more loyal than a customer acquired by other means. 

Furthermore, those referred customers are four times more likely to refer your services to others, meaning your team’s ability to navigate tricky client situations pays off more than you might think. 

Resolving client conflict well doesn’t just improve the satisfaction of your customers — it also increases the happiness of your team. Successfully working through client challenges with your employees shows that they’re fully supported and won’t be left to tackle the issue alone. 

With the right client conflict management strategy in place, you’ll be able to get to the core issue faster and produce a better end result that satisfies all parties. And by expertly resolving the conflict, you’ll also build more trusting and honest relationships that lead to improved collaboration. 

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Client conflict management techniques 

It’s natural for client conflicts to occur due to differing priorities, incentives, and work styles. But knowing how to handle and resolve them solidifies your agency as an ideal partner to work with and increases both customer and employee satisfaction.

The first step in managing any potential conflict is to work with your team to understand what type of customer you’re dealing with so you can ensure each interaction is productive. Whether they’re demanding, indecisive, or unrealistic, determining their workstyle will help you personalize the approach and develop lasting relationships. 

Next it’s important to adopt the mindset that the conflict is a great opportunity to improve communication, and ultimately the end result of the project. Once you accept the challenge as a positive occurrence, you and your team can use the following strategies to handle and resolve the conflict. 

Actively listen to complaints

A client who complains frequently can easily spark frustration and prompt your team to dismiss them as a generally grumpy individual. However, it could actually be that they are simply not communicating well. The delivery may be poor, but the feedback could be valid and valuable. 

Encourage your team to express their curiosity about the complaints — pinpoint which actions are causing the issues and have your team ask guided questions that inspire more actionable feedback. 

Try and understand what they feel is lacking from your services. While they may even have an unreasonable request, your team may find that it leads to creative solutions that give your business a leg up on your competitors. 

Focus on the facts

Personal opinions about project processes can cloud the judgment of both your team and your client, so it’s best to keep emotions at bay and remain as objective as possible. For example, if a client has an issue with the projected timeline of your project, base your argument on historical data. 

With a tool like Harvest that provides visual analysis and reports on previous projects, backing up your decision with this kind of data is simple. By providing visual insights that show timelines and time spent on previous projects, it’s much easier to defend your project plans and be transparent about your decision-making process. 

Refocus the client on the goal

When mistakes occur, your client may lose sight of the goal of the project— so it’s your team’s job to refocus them on what really matters: the end result. While it’s not ideal to miss a deadline or forget to ask for important information, it’s likely that a small hiccup ultimately had no impact on what really matters. 

Apologize to the client and ask if it’s possible to move forward. When doing so, provide a status report that highlights your team is still on the right track and committed to the objective. 

Tip: Harvest’s insights and reporting are a great tool for keeping clients updated on the progress your team has made. By providing detailed insights on the time your team is spending on specific tasks, any questions around productivity are alleviated — giving your client peace of mind that the job is getting done. 

Approach with empathy

Focusing on how an issue negatively impacted your team when communicating about the conflict internally is unproductive. Instead, consider why your client is unsatisfied with the relationship and what the implications are to their business or team. 

If you can understand what motivated the client’s frustration, it’s much easier to move forward. Create empathy among your team members by giving them a hypothetical situation that prompts them to set emotions aside and view the conflict from a different perspective. They’ll have a new mindset that results in an increased willingness to resolve the issue. 

Build sincere relationships 

Difficult conversations about conflict are much easier to navigate if your team has established a positive rapport with the client before issues arise. Encourage employees to find common ground from the get-go — figure out what they like to talk about by asking questions around things like hobbies, family, etc. 

A good way to jumpstart this is to get a little personal first, inspiring the customer to talk about themselves comfortably. Mention fun weekend plans or a popular movie you just saw, and see what sparks conversation. 

Once your team builds a sincere relationship, they’ll find dealing with the hard stuff isn’t all that difficult. And when an issue occurs, it’s best to explicitly address the tension and ask what can be done to solve the problem. 

Communicate clearly

Strong communication is the key to any relationship — and that sentiment rings true for your professional relationships as well. When your team knows how to communicate clearly and effectively, even with difficult clients, they’re better able to confidently express their position and incorporate feedback with ease. 

Most importantly, you need to clearly communicate the scope of your work before a project begins. That way if a client claims your services aren’t up to par, your team can refer back to the initial scope description and express that they’re doing what was agreed upon. 

This is also where the facts and status reports come back into play. Set goals with your client and give continuous updates on how your team is working towards them so they have a concrete reference to point to if the client isn’t satisfied. 

Additionally, it might be a good idea to establish client behavior expectations should a customer portray repetitive unprofessionalism. This way you can remain professional while establishing boundaries that support your team. 

Sometimes there are conflicts that may lead to the decision that it’s not best to work together — and that’s okay. If the professionalism isn’t there, losing a difficult client can free up your team’s bandwidth for another customer who conducts themselves in the right way. 

Still, if your team approaches conflict with empathy, transparency, and personability, they’ll have a much higher likelihood of navigating the issue and coming out with a positive resolution for everyone involved.