Customer Service 101: How to Respond to Mean-Spirited Clients

September 16, 2015


Clients are the lifeblood of a business.They’re the ones who give you exciting projects, refer you to others, and ultimately pay you.

One of the hardest parts about working for yourself is that you never know which clients you’re going to get. We all know the ideal client– sweet as pie, super helpful, and really organized. These are the clients we love.

But many of us have come up against difficult clients who are mean-spirited, hard to work with, and draining. These clients challenge us and test our customer service abilities–making us wonder if we should fire them, give them a taste of their own medicine, or work to ignore their behavior.

When you come up against a mean-spirited client, what should you do? I’ve come up against a few and talked about the topic with other business owners.

Here’s how:

Respond as Calmly and Nicely as Possible

When a client says something nasty to you or responds in a surprising manner, it’s tempting to send an angry email or blow up on the phone, but this won’t get you anywhere. As an independent business owner, you want to make sure that you keep your reputation intact.

Instead of lashing out, you should take the high road and diffuse the situation by responding as calmly and nicely as possible.

Here’s how to respond:

  • Wait or walk away. If you respond immediately, you risk saying something you don’t mean. Take a break, work on another project, and carefully think through a response. If you’re in person or on the phone, calmly suggest that you need a little time to think things through.
  • Repeat a mantra. If something catches you off guard, it helps to have a mantra. I repeat “it’s going to be ok” over and over in my head as I’m responding when under fire.
  • Try not to take it personally. When a client says something mean-spirited or nasty, it’s almost impossible to not feel personally insulted. Do your best to remind yourself that a client lashing out is more about them than it is about you.
  • Think about your business first. Even if you’re personally offended by a client, think about your business’ reputation first. Everything you do reflects on your business, so it’s extremely important to remain as professional as possible at all times.


Catch it Early

Michelle Nickolaisen, founder of Bombchelle Industries, a content marketing agency based in Austin, Texas, had a promising prospective client suddenly turn ugly. After they’d signed a contract, the client accused her of lying. Michelle was floored.

The saving grace? The conflict came up very early. Michelle trusted her gut and canceled the project.

“I’m glad it came up so early because if I had kept working with them, I imagine they would have pitched a fit at some point anyways,” says Michelle.

If you sense that a client is going to be difficult, nip it in the bud before you get too deep. At times, it can feel as though nailing down a contract with a certain client is your life-line, but there will always be other clients. Don’t sign on to projects you don’t feel good about, and watch out for warning signs early on.

Decide if The Nastiness is Worth it to You

At some point, you have to decide if a client’s nastiness is worth the hurt feelings, headaches, and grief. You can simply accept things as they are, talk to the client about some of your concerns, or stop working for the client altogether.

“I ask myself if the job is worth the abuse,” says Luke Trayser, a freelance copywriter. “If it is, I remain polite and get paid. If it’s not, I remain polite and get out.”

Ask yourself:

  • Do I absolutely depend on the money this client pays me?
  • Is this job exciting and compelling enough to stick around?
  • Is there a way I can improve the situation without firing the client?
  • Does this client send a lot of referrals my way? Would they stop if I bowed out of the work?

As small business owners, we often feel like we can’t say no to clients, but sometimes, it’s best for the business to say no. Saying no can give you more time for clients that treat you right, as well as give you the opportunity to walk on your business, rather than in it.

Cut Them Off

Sometimes clients are exemplary in their nastiness, acting more like an evil ex than a professional contact. If their behavior spirals out of control and you feel as though you’re constantly taking blows, it might be most beneficial to cut them off.

How to do it? You can tell a client you’ll no longer be working for them, explaining that you don’t think it’s a good fit for either party. If possible, explain this to the client in person or over the phone, rather than via email. Simply state that you don’t think the relationship is working out for either of you, and you think that it would best to go in different directions.

If the client continually sends harassing emails, block them so you stop receiving emails. In some ways, this is like a real life break up. You need to protect yourself from the situation.



What if You’re the Problem?

If you find yourself constantly running up against clients who are difficult to work with, you could be the problem.

I’ve worked as an independent contractor, but I’ve also hired them. Some are easy to work with, while others make it very difficult. If you’re constantly facing difficult clients, often find yourself in arguments, and can’t keep clients for very long, you could be the problem.

Here are some common mistakes small business owners make that make it extremely difficult for clients:

  • Not operating within the client’s system.
  • Arguing over edits and changes.
  • Insisting that things should be done a certain way.
  • Getting easily frustrated with a client’s questions.

If you’re the problem, you may need to change the way you think about doing business. Try to be more flexible when a client asks you to do something. When they ask how you prefer to work together, ask for their preference, rather than insisting you work a certain way, and that way is the best.

Stay True to Yourself

Mean-spirited clients happen to all of us, and it’s hard to keep your chin up when you’re working with one.

No matter what, you need to stay true to yourself. If you have a bad feeling about a client, deal with it early, and try not to let it fester or get passive aggressive.

Ask yourself if the challenges are really worth it. If they are, work with the client to figure out a better way to work together. Ask the client how you can improve and where they’d like to see the relationship go. If you decide the client isn’t worth keeping, then don’t be afraid to say goodbye.


about the author

Freelance Contributor Emma Siemasko is a business writer and content marketing freelancer at Stories by Emma, her own consultancy. She’s also a happy Freshbooks customer. Connect with Emma on Twitter @EmmaFayeS.