Conflict Resolution with Clients


Published August 23, 2022

In any client-provider relationship, conflict is bound to arise. Misunderstandings, misinformation, and the mismatched needs of two sides will lead to differences. We might not like it, we might not be comfortable with it, but this is the reality of dealing with other human beings.

In business, conflict resolution can make the difference between a strong, long-lasting relationship and a strained, short-lived one. How to resolve a conflict with a client is important information for anyone interested in effective client relations. It can lead to a satisfied client instead of a lost contract, a glowing review instead of a tarnished reputation.

Client retention depends upon using the right client conflict resolution strategies. Regardless of the individual approaches you use, there are some fundamentals to keeping the peace.

Encourage Communication

The starting place for resolving a conflict is good communication.

This can be extremely difficult to achieve. During any kind of conflict, emotions are heightened and both sides instinctively prepare to defend their own positions. Different perspectives and assumptions can be so fundamental that neither side thinks to openly express them. Failed attempts at communication lead to heightened tension, as each side runs up against responses that make no sense from their point of view.

Encouraging communication starts with taking a step back, reining in your emotions and opinions, and encouraging the other party to express their perspective. Look for approaches that support this, even if they’re not designed as client conflict management techniques. For example, the Crisis Prevention Institute provides a list of ten de-escalation tips that includes:

  • Using nonthreatening nonverbal communication.
  • Focusing on the problem instead of answering challenging questions.
  • Allowing silence and time for decisions.
  • Focusing on feelings.

That last point might not sound like it belongs in the workplace, but the reality is that we can’t escape our emotions. Providing an effective client journey is all about managing feelings. If a client is feeling angry, disappointed, or offended by something that you’ve done, it’s important for that to come out, both to improve your understanding and to let them feel heard. That in turn will calm some of their emotions, making communication easier.

Encourage the client to communicate openly about what they are unhappy with. Even if you disagree, don’t defend your position at this point. That will make it harder for them to dig down to the underlying issues, and leave you worse informed.

Letting the client talk at length will help to identify the root of the problem and make it easier to find a solution.

Be Understanding

It can be easy to get defensive when a client is unhappy. Their complaints feel like an attack on you, your product, and your hard work. Showing that you understand their concerns isn’t giving in to that attack; it’s a way to diffuse the situation.

Remember, from the client’s point of view, things look very different. They’re focused on their own frustrations and disappointments, many of which you may not see. They had expectations, rightly or not, that you haven’t fulfilled, and seeing things from their perspective is one of the most important client conflict resolution skills.

The client may not be raging against you so much as they’re raging against the situation, and the more you can separate you and the problem in the client’s mind, the easier it will be to find a solution. But how can you do that?

The answer is, as one self-help writer describes it, to use dialogue more and debate less. Instead of countering the client’s viewpoints with your own, ask more about their perspective. Be open-minded about how the situation could be seen and what it might mean for them. Remember that no one likes to feel misunderstood, and if your responses reflect rather than counter your client’s perspective, they’ll feel better.

A client who feels heard is a happy client, and a happy client is one you can fruitfully negotiate with.

Find a Compromise

Having heard the other side of the issue and shown your understanding, it’s time to find a resolution that will satisfy both parties. This is what conflict resolution strategies are ultimately building towards: a way forward that both sides can live with.

Compromise is critical to conflict resolution with clients. An outcome in your favour might feel like a win in the moment but leave a bitter taste in the client’s mouth. A compromise shows the client that you’re not trying to beat them, but to work with them.

Sometimes, this compromise is nothing more than an appropriately phrased apology, which allows you to return to the status quo, but it’s also likely that you will have to make some meaningful concessions. This might mean a change to payments, services, or timings. If you can find something to give ground on that means a lot to the client but has only a small impact on you, then that’s more likely to leave both sides feeling satisfied. Big sacrifices aren’t meaningful in themselves; there’s no point giving away something that the client isn’t interested in, however much it costs you.

Before you offer any sort of compromise, it’s important to consider what you can and can’t give up. Are there concessions that would significantly interfere with work for other clients, cost more than the contract is worth, or place an unreasonable burden on your team? Knowing your boundaries before you negotiate is important, as is being able to express them.

Compromise can be painful, both emotionally and financially, especially when you feel that you’re in the right. But it will be worth it if it means avoiding a long-term dispute.

Know When to Call It Quits

Sometimes, over the course of discussions, you’ll realise that nothing you can offer will make the client happy. Either the difference in perspectives is irreconcilable or their demands go beyond the boundaries you’ve set for yourself. Fortunately, such circumstances are rare, but when they happen, you may have to call it quits, not just on the conversation but on the working relationship.

In client service, teams become so focused on client retention that this outcome seems inconceivable. Surely there’s a solution to every situation?

Sadly though, not every client journey is going to reach a happy destination. You shouldn’t make compromises that cost you too much just to keep the client happy. When a good resolution can’t be reached, it’s important to be clear on this with the client and to make the cleanest possible break.

While this should be a rare outcome, you have to be prepared for it. When it comes, you’ll be caught up in the conflict, making it harder to set feelings aside and calmly make the right choice. A written client conflict resolution policy, including how to deal with irreconcilable differences and who should make the call on ending a client relationship, will make everything easier when the time comes. Be considerate with the client, be courteous in your communication, but above all, be clear about what’s happening and why.

You’re trying to find the best resolution for you and the client, and sometimes that’s a clean break.

Keep It Professional

However things work out, it's important to maintain a professional attitude throughout the conflict resolution process. This will help to build trust and respect between you and the client. It will also help to protect your company’s reputation, through the things that the client tells the world about you.

Be aware of your emotions, but don’t let them show.

Be clear in your boundaries, but not forceful or aggressive.

Be open about what’s happening, and why.

Be honest. Making promises to deal with a problem in hours might seem like a good idea, but will backfire if it ends up taking weeks or months.

If you encourage your client to share their perspective, make the effort to understand what they’re saying, and seek the best resolution for both of you, all while maintaining this professional stance, then you’ll improve your client retention, grow your reputation, and save effort wasted on a futile fight.