Sticky Client Situations Part IV – Your Client is Dissatisfied

What do you do if you sense a client or customer is not happy with your product or service?

It’s a situation that has a tendency to spiral out of control in any relationship.

In a marriage, you see the other person every day and talk often. You have many opportunities to bring up concerns before they become full-blown issues.

In business relationships, contact is much more scarce, often restricted to emails regarding scheduling and deliverables.

Qualitative exchanges can even be so infrequent that some self-employed women keep files compiling all of the nice words they’ve gotten from clients over the years to pick them up on the days they are not feeling confident or have a sticky client situation!

Because the days that your client is unhappy with your services can be among the worst.

When these situations come up, it’s important to remember that big issues always start with something small, and that even if you can’t go back in time and fix this problem, you can protect yourself for the future.

The Deal with Dissatisfied Clients

Perhaps your client has been trying someone new in the background and is finally telling you that she’s making a permanent switch. Or maybe, after a group coaching series, your client wants a refund because the services didn’t live up to their expectations.

When I first thought of addressing the topic of client dissatisfaction with all of you, I thought that refund requests would be a moot point, because most people have policies in place to handle these types of customer service situations.

However, I have been surprised and concerned to learn that this is a very poignant issue as many self-employed women work without contracts. And even those that do often do not have a clause regarding refunds in their contracts because it is not something they ever think will come up.

To be honest, once you’ve gotten to the point where a client wants to terminate your relationship or get a refund for services they weren’t happy with, there is little that you can do but choose what type of business you want to be:

  • Do you want to operate from an abundance mindset? i.e. there are always more clients out there and you will always be able to book more business
  • Or, do you want to operate from a place of scarcity? i.e. you always need to keep the clients and funds that you have because it is very difficult to get more

Use the Feedback You Have, Even if You Don’t Check In Regularly

In the corporate world, weekly—or at least monthly—check-ins with your boss are a crucial part of staying out of the dark about how your performance is perceived by those that sign your paycheck (or at least give someone else the okay to).

However, many small businesses leave this vital part of the feedback process out of the equation except for the occasional survey. And most freelancers wait for their clients to give them kudos or criticism without ever actively soliciting it.

Trouble-Busting Tactic 1:

If your client wants a refund or to terminate a relationship based on performance, go through all of your past communications with him or her. Look for places that the client has given feedback, good or bad, and approved work or bills.

If he or she has done nothing but give positive, or at least approving, feedback until this point, explain that a refund is not possible because there has been no complaint registered regarding the services.

If they want to terminate your collaboration, it’s hard to make the client continue to work with you, but you can ask for two-week or one-month notice.

You Need More Than a Contract

For self-employed women, a contract is a layer of protection. But in the middle of an absolute meltdown moment when her biggest client went on vacation for a month and left three invoices to run overdue, the contract as protection approach actually backfired on one freelancer I know.

She put her foot down regarding the past missed payments, refusing to do any further work till the situation was rectified and pointing to her contract. The client said she would talk to her legal department and get back to her. The response was something she never could have anticipated—the lawyer found something she hadn’t delivered (because the client hadn’t requested it, but it was in the contract nonetheless), and asked her to pay them back for all payments since then!

After more than six months of working daily with this client, who always had nothing but flattering comments for her, this was quite a shock.

Even if you have a contract, it is always open to legal interpretation.

Trouble-Busting Tactic 2:

In situations where your client is unhappy, point to your contract, and put together a detailed, clear version of your interpretation of how it applies to this situation, along with documentation.

This freelancer was able to pull together months of supporting emails, writing a five page email stringing everything together, and came out with $2500 that she was owed because she put together a cohesive argument based on her contract and supported by past emails from the client.

Refer to Your Initial Discussions

Even if you don’t have a contract, point to your initial discussions regarding your work with this client.

Say a company told you that it would need your public relations support on retainer for ten hours a week until the launch of their new hotel in eight months and now, with no notice, they want to stop working with you four months in.

When you accepted this contract, you passed up other opportunities that you could have filled that time with, and also time that you could use for marketing your business to other clients.

Whether they want you to continue doing work for them or not, you can use the initial outline of the project or service to show what the client agreed to and coordinate a severance or notice period where they continue to pay you for a certain number of weeks to cover the time if takes you to replace the work.

Trouble-Busting Tactic 3:

Send the client an annotated version of your initial agreement, demonstrating how you have held up your part of the collaboration this far. Explain that you have passed on other work during the period they have contracted your services and you need to be compensated for early termination.

If they disagree, then tell them you would like them to honor the original agreement and keep working with you for another four months. They’ll pick the severance option.

Make Your Own Policies Available Publicly

If you are having trouble with a client now, this technique probably won’t help, but it’s important to set up for later.

Outline a minimum notice period for termination of on-going services, a due date for final payment and a late penalty for delays, and a formal process for requesting a refund and the acceptable reasons for such on your website.

There’s nothing wrong with establishing a policy that all service complaints must be lodged within 48 hours or no full or partial refunds will be permitted. Dry cleaners do it! And airlines are very clear that they have no responsibility to you if the weather is at fault for a cancelled flight.

If you set the rules and no one speaks up to change them before you start working together, you will always be protected in these situations.

Trouble-Busting Tactic 4:

Even if you didn’t discuss these points specifically with this client (or others!), if they are somewhere where the client can see them and could have consulted them before agreeing to work with you or before terminating your agreement, you can still point to them.

Make it clear that they had access to these terms, and are held to them by agreeing to work with you.

Want more sticky client situations?


ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Lisa Stein owns, is a college business professor and a mom to Gabriela and Elle. Lisa is dedicated to playing a part in helping women and moms run a business they love, help support themselves and their family and create a flexible lifestyle. You can find her online on Facebook and Twitter or at home burning something in the kitchen.