How to Resolve a Client Dispute in 6 Steps

Any freelancer who has been in the game for more than five minutes has endured a client dispute.

It comes with the territory — even if you do great work and behave impeccably you’re bound to come across someone at some point who’s seemingly eager for a fight.

The ramifications of client disputes are rarely positive. At best you are left with a bad taste in your mouth and a few sleepless nights; at worst you lose the client and take a hit to your reputation. Even if your business is extremely stable and you feel very satisfied with your work, a client dispute may be waiting just around the corner to spoil your week.

However, there is a way to resolve client disputes in an amicable fashion. In fact, it is often possible to use a client dispute to improve your working relationship with a client. In this post I want to outline the six step process you should take whenever you have to deal with an unhappy client.

Before Disputes Arise: Read the Signs and Intervene

The unofficial first step of dispute resolution is actually proactive rather than reactive.

If you feel that your client may be unhappy with the standard of your work or the way in which you conduct yourself, you shouldn’t wait for them to voice their concerns. Instead, approach them with a simple question:

Are you happy with my work?

I wouldn’t phrase it that specifically — the exact question will vary depending upon your relationship with your client and what you are doing for them. However, the underlying message should be undeniably implicit: you want them to be satisfied.

If you ask this question to a client who is happy they will be impressed with your eagerness to please. If you ask this question to a client who is unhappy then the fact that you brought the subject up before it came to “breaking point” will serve to help you in following the rest of the process.

Step 1: Take a Deep Breath

Many of us are fortunate these days in that most communication with clients is carried out by email. Not only is it a quick and convenient form of communication, it allows us the time to carefully consider the way in which we address the matter at hand.

This is especially important when dealing with a client dispute. Because let’s face it — if a client calls you up on the phone and starts yelling, you may end up regretting what you say in the heat of the moment. But if a client sends you a somewhat heated email, you can take advantage of your ability to take a deep breath and walk away.

You should only respond to such emails when you are feeling relatively level-headed. After all, the last thing you want to do is get embroiled in a war of words with the very person who pays your bills.

I have a simple rule of thumb when it comes to client disputes: never reply to an email within an hour of receiving it. Give yourself at least an hour to absorb the contents and process any immediate emotions that might otherwise be directed at the client in a rash response.

This principle still applies to an extent if you are caught on the phone with a client. Afford yourself at least a second or two to take a deep breath and allow a level of rationalism to establish itself.

Step 2: Assess the Client’s Issue(s)

Generally speaking, it is human nature to react to a situation based upon your perspective. This is logical under most circumstances, but not all. It is good practice to at least consider alternative perspectives in any given situation and this is certainly the case when it comes to client disputes.

With that in mind let me tell you perhaps the most important thing to realize when it comes to client disputes: your perspective isn’t important. The outcome is important — whether that be resolving the issue or firing the client. Therefore, the most important thing is to control the outcome. You do not do this by viewing the situation solely from your own perspective.

So take a moment to assess the client’s issue(s) from their perspective. Why are they unhappy? Is it your fault or theirs? If it is their fault, why do they think it is your fault? Try to approach this situation from an objective standpoint — pride will do you no good. You will invariably find that there is a logic behind their reasoning; even if it is tenuous. When you understand that logic you are far better equipped to resolve the dispute.

Step 3: Apologize (if You Are in the Wrong)

An apology can be an extraordinarily powerful thing — something that many people don’t understand in this era of aversion to admitting fault. If you are at fault you should take the opportunity to apologize while it still seems reasonable to do so. You may find that it disarms potentially antagonistic clients. It certainly shouldn’t make them any more upset if you are quick to follow your apology up with a proposal for resolution.

An apology serves as the foundation of resolution — in order to fix the problem you must first acknowledge its cause. It’s not something you should dwell on or make a big deal out of — it simply serves as a sign of your respect for the client and your willingness to address and resolve the matter at hand.

Of course, if you are not in the wrong you shouldn’t apologize. Let’s not forget that an apology is an admission of fault and as such should be utilized carefully. Nor should you claim to be “sorry that [your client] feels that way” or any other similar statement — that only comes across as condescending and can have the opposite of the desired effect.

If there is no apology to be made then you should move straight onto the next step.

Step 4: Seek Resolution

You would be forgiven for assuming that dispute resolution means settling the matter to the client’s satisfaction, but that is not the case. After all, you do not have control over the client’s expected outcome; it may be utterly unrealistic.

The true resolution of a dispute for our purposes is to bring it to a conclusion that best benefits your business. That might require an acknowledgement of fault and an apology, an adjustment to the existing agreement, the increase in your scope of work, or a parting of ways. Whatever it may be, you must choose the appropriate outcome and work towards it.

This again comes down to perspective — resolution is less about how you would instinctively respond to your client and far more about how you think you should respond to your client to achieve the desired outcome. That is the difference between pandering to your emotions and acting with the best interests of your business at heart.

Step 5: Stick to the Salient Matter(s) at Hand

It is all too easy during the course of a dispute to get sidetracked by largely irrelevant matters. All too often, email correspondence can devolve into petty point scoring without any real mention on either side of the truly salient matter(s) at hand.

You must not allow yourself to establish such an inefficient and damaging pattern of behavior (even if your client does). Your emails should be concise and relevant to the issue that needs to be resolved and any attempt on the client’s part to focus on minutiae should be acknowledged at best but never followed up on.

Before you send an email, always ask yourself the following questions: Am I dealing with the salient matter(s) at hand and am I moving closer to a positive resolution? The answer to both questions must be yes before you hit Send.

Step 6: Conclude and Move On

Any dispute must be dealt with and resolved in full before you can continue to sustain a healthy relationship with a client. If you choose to take the easy route and brush glaring issues under the carpet, it will only serve to undermine the work that you do. Similarly, if a client is unhappy and you are aware of the fact but choose not to address it, you are likely to find that working with client becomes more and more difficult.

For those reasons it is important that disputes are always raised and concluded to the satisfaction of both parties. You cannot afford loose ends — they only serve to weaken your business.

An Example of Positive Dispute Resolution

In order to give you an idea of how I see the above process playing out, consider the following hypothetical situation.

A client reacts to your work with admonishment and demands various amendments that run entirely contrary to the agreed scope of works. This client is normally well behaved and pays handsomely for your services, and as such is not someone you would like to lose. However, it is clear that he is unhappy with your work.

At that point the temptation would be to respond immediately, explaining to the client that their amendment requests are not valid. You’re no doubt irritated that the client has ignored the scope of works and wasted your time when it would seem that their requirements do not match the scope of works you agreed. However, step one of the dispute resolution process requires you to take the time to process your emotions before proceeding.

Once you have taken some time, the next step is to figure out why the client is unhappy. As you immediately suspected, it would seem that the client’s requirements do not match the scope of works. They are clearly either ignorant of the scope or have realized that their requirements do not match but hope that you will address their requests anyway. Apologizing certainly isn’t on the cards as you have done nothing wrong.

So the next step is to seek resolution. In an ideal world the resolution would be for the client to either acknowledge the existing scope of works and adjust his requirements to work within its boundaries, or pay you extra to redo the job with a fresh scope of works. You can seek to achieve that resolution by emailing the client with a measured response that refers to the scope of works and states that the proposed amendments do not fit with what was agreed at the outset.

At this point you have made all the right moves towards your desired resolution, but what if the client doesn’t agree? What if the client insists that you carry out the work to his new scope? At that point you have a business decision to make: do you take the hit and do the work at no extra cost or do you stand your ground? That is a commercial decision, not an emotional one. If it is in your business’ best interests to complete the client’s job to their satisfaction then do so, but if you can afford to ditch misbehaving clients then go right ahead.

Conclusion

The entire process outlined above centers upon one key principle: the objective assessment of how your actions can best benefit your business. You must remove emotion from the process and work with your business’ best interests at heart. Of course, your happiness in the work that you do forms a part of the business’ best interests, so if you have had enough of a client and can live without them, you may choose to fire them.

The fact is that handling disputes in a professional manner and seeking to understand why a client is unhappy can help to improve a relationship. Disputes can be the basis from which a much-improved working relationship between freelancer and client emerges. Rather than dreading disputes, see them as an opportunity to improve the way in which you do business.

Just make sure that every step you take in resolving a dispute is calculated and as free from emotion as possible. You are likely to regret any rash actions that you take in the heat of the moment — why not save yourself the regret and follow the process?

About Tom Ewer


Tom Ewer and the WordCandy team have clocked some serious mileage as freelancers, agency employees and even agency owners over the years, and they love sharing their combined expertise here on the Bidsketch blog.

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Paul Feakins

Very well written indeed, great stuff!

Jaki Levy

This is a great article! Not only for client issues, but for conflict resolution in general – reminds of some NVC (non-violent communication) principles. Thanks for outlining this!

uzo

Good article!

Tom Ewer

Thanks guys for the kind words!

Paul OM

Informative post, well to the point. Thanks. … but sometimes situations can be more complex.

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