Do this when a client is angry & disrespectful to you in person or on the phone

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A terrible jittery feeling spread through my stomach. The lump in my throat hardened and my head began to spin. ‘How did I find myself in this situation?’ I asked myself, heart sinking. I was on the phone. On the other end of the line was an angry client.

A simple misunderstanding resulted in a missed deadline. The client was fuming, furious. I could practically feel the steam coming out of his ears. Before long he raised his voice, began swearing, and refused to listen to a word I was saying.

Have you been there?

In this case, the fault was equal on both sides. The client could have communicated clearly, and we could have had systems in place to ensure that a miscommunication of the sort didn’t go unnoticed.

Sidenote: When you're done here, learn from 150+ freelancers who've been in your shoes with our all-new 30-day bootcamp: Zero to Freelancing. You'll love it.

But this article is not about fault – who’s right or wrong.

It’s about what to do when you find yourself in a sticky situation with an angry client who’s expressing anger, or crossing the line to disrespect, regardless of who did something wrong.

A little disclaimer before we dive in: 

When a mistake is made, or something unexpected happens, of course there’s room for frustration and anger. If you paid someone and you feel they did something wrong, you’re certainly justified and entitled to your feelings.

But, the way I see it, even when we’re angry, we’re all still people, and we should still treat each other with respect.

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Step 1: Start with Kindness and Acknowledgment

Even if you’re right and they’re wrong, even if you have a lot to say and it feels very pressing and urgent to say it right then, nine times out of ten before people can really listen to you… they need their own thoughts and feelings acknowledged first.

Assuming they don’t cross the line to being disrespectful, all you have to do is listen (truly listen) and try to understand things from their point of view.

Put yourself in their shoes: how would you feel if you were in that situation? Only respond once you’ve truly been able to connect to that.

So if they say: “I’m so angry, I can’t believe this happened! This deadline was so important and I can’t believe it was missed!” 

You can respond: “I totally understand how you feel. I would feel the exact same way if I was expecting something to be done by a certain date and it wasn’t. I am so sorry you had to go through all that stress and frustration. That really sucks.”

Don’t be afraid to be candid and honest. Being open and true in the things you say is the first step to resolving any conflict with a client.

Once you’ve heard them out fully (don’t cut them off, again, unless they’re disrespectful, but I’ll get to that in a moment), and acknowledged them, in most cases they’ll actually feel heard, at which point you can communicate your experience of what happened and they’ll actually be open to hearing it.

Step 2: If things go sour, it’s time to set boundaries.

Setting boundaries is hard, especially in the heat of the moment. But in business, and in life, it’s one of the most important things you’ll learn how to do.

Your boundaries are for you to decide: what are you ok with and what are you not ok with, and does that change under various types of circumstances?

For example: 

  • Is it ok for a client to yell at you and disrespect you when they’re right?
  • Is it ok for a client to yell at you and disrespect you when they’re wrong?
  • Is it ok for a client to yell at you and disrespect you when the fault is equal?

My personal answer to all three of these questions is “No”. The way I see it, it’s never ok for someone to treat you in such a way.

Once you know what your boundaries are, the moment someone crosses them, you stop them. 

Here’s a good example of what you can say:

“Hey! Kevin, Kevin… I completely understand that you’re angry, and I really want to hear everything that you have to say, but we’re both people here and I have a need to be spoken to respectfully. That way I can hear you out and we can resolve this. Are you able to do this?”

Let’s break this down: 

  1. If they won’t let you say what you have to say kindly, you’ll have to push through the angry energy. Sometimes this can mean raising your voice, cutting them off, saying their name, etc.
  2. Once you’ve created space for you to communicate your boundary, let them know what it is clearly and directly.
  3. Tie it back to them. Explain how by them sticking to your boundary they’ll actually get what they want, too, which is to be heard and understood and for the situation to be resolved.
  4. Ask them if it’s something they’re able to do. When you set a boundary, they have a choice of whether or not they can or are able to follow it, and you’re simply asking them what their choice is going to be.

In many cases, people get caught in their own anger and may simply not be aware of how they’ve been talking to you. Abruptly snapping them out of that, and holding up a mirror to how they’re acting could immediately change the direction of the conversation.

In this case, they’ll likely respond positively to your boundary and the conversation will continue maybe angrily, but respectfully. At this point you can go back to kindness and acknowledgement: hear them out fully, express your experience respectfully, and work towards a fair solution.

But it’s also possible they’ll say “no.”

It’s possible that your client is not able to respect your boundary. In this case, as difficult as it is, you have to be willing to walk away from the conversation.

Your response can be along these lines:

“Ok, thank you for letting me know. In this case, I’ll have to end the conversation here and we’ll have to talk at a different time when you are able to respect my need to be treated with respect. I’d really love to hear you out and be able to resolve this, but it is very important to me that we treat each other with respect as none of us had any malicious intent here, and that’s something I just can’t compromise on.” 

After this, they’ll either change their tune, or you’ll have to walk away from the conversation.

It’s scary, but boundaries are something you can’t compromise on.

There’s no way around it.

This is scary.

And it’s just as scary each time you have to do it.

But I can tell you from my experience, as well as many other business owners and freelancers that I’ve spoken to…

When you decide that “No matter what, I will not allow anyone to treat me that way. Even if I make a huge mistake and I’m in the wrong, I still deserve to be treated with respect…”

…When you set that boundary for yourself, and act on it when necessary, every single time it’s crossed, you’ll draw to yourself more people and situations that are respectful of you and your needs, and push away and repel ones that don’t.

Where do you stand on this?

Have you had to set boundaries with angry clients before? What’s worked / not worked for you? Are there cases in which you feel it’s ok to let someone cross your boundaries?

I’d love to hear your thoughts, experiences, and questions – just leave a comment below!

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About Lou Levit

Lou (Louisa) Levit is the co-founder of creative agency Unexpected Ways, as well as the co-founder of Reliable PSD: a web development partner for freelancers, agencies, and companies in HTML and Wordpress coding. She lives in Portland, Oregon with her lovely husband and biz partner, David Tendrich.

More about Lou’s business: Reliable PSD is what happened when a group of designers got fed up with the available web development and design to code solutions out there…and created their own. Check them out, and see why Hundreds of agencies & freelancers love having Reliable as their partner for HTML & Wordpress coding.

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Comments

  1. Thanks Lousia for sharing your thoughts.

    I think in some cases if it’s our fault we can start with a quick apology and then request them to realize that we both are human so if we talk politely with each other we can end up with a solution.

  2. Thank you Lou great post and advice to reaffirm you do deserve to be heard and respect from clients. So how do you handle a client who you have heard, been kind to even taken the blame (for something that was not your fault), spoken to the client all agreed to move forward positively, yet now find they won’t talk to you (and still clearly still blame you) where you are genuinely trying to help them (and still doing work for them)??!

    • Billy Walker says:

      There is only so much you can do. Do the best you can and as long as you yourself were polite the customer just may give you more business in the future.

    • Lou Levit says:

      Hey Jane,

      If they still owe you money, it sounds like it’s time to set some boundaries. You could say something like “please take care of this invoice in 48 hours to avoid incurring late fees.” If they don’t owe you money, sounds like it’s time to let them go.

  3. Good article. I’ve dealt with this situation about three times. One of those times turned into an ugly screamfest from my client. I couldn’t believe how childish he acted and I ended up crying and having a breakdown. I had to learn to draw the boundaries from that incident. And make some contractual changes. Experiences like these have definitely been ones to learn and grow from, but dreaded awful to go through. You make some really good points and give great advice on handling it here.

    • Billy Walker says:

      Why on earth would you cry and go into a breakdown? Learn to not be so sensitive. Sometimes customer’s get out of control and they take it out on you.

      As for contractual changes and boundaries… don’t change your business policies over a nutcase who comes along rarely. It makes you look very un-businesslike in the end.

      Never forget the goal: growing your revenue and net profit. Some customers are easier to deal with than others. Never take it personally. Unless the customer is a problem most of the time let it go in one ear and out the other; take the money. Give them a gift card to a local restaurant.

      Never forget it is your job to make the customer feel as good as possible. Sometimes that’s not very good but you can only do what you can do. It sounds as if you’re suggesting that the customer never come back. And whose pocket does that affect? Quite possibly over a single yelling episode. Makes no sense to me.

      Conducting business is sometimes not for thin-skinned people. Don’t let that mean you.

      • Keri McClain says:

        Speaking of not having respect for people! People are sensitive, that’s just the way it is. The answer isn’t “don’t be sensitive.” Tiffany just commented about a situation and how that changed her way of thinking and you reply with this garbage? Good luck with all your money. You seem to need it more than respect. Hope that works out for you.

      • Lou Levit says:

        Billy,

        There’s no need to berate people in the comments. There’s nothing wrong with being sensitive.

        If this is your goal: Never forget the goal: growing your revenue and net profit.

        That’s great.

        But that’s A goal, not THE goal. And surely not the only goal, for many.

    • Lou Levit says:

      Hey Tiffany,

      While I’m sure it sucked in the moment, sounds like a powerful learning experience. Good for you for taking action and making changes based on it! That is such a powerful way to grow.

      Best of luck,
      Lou

  4. Billy Walker says:

    Screw disrespecful… who cares if someone is angry enough to be disrespectful? You’re there to satisfy a customer need and take their money. Money that puts food on the table.

    Listen to the complaint and listen some more and take the money. The money in the end is far more important than getting mad and/or hurt over someone yelling at you. Grow some skin.

    If you’re at fault maybe give the individual a discount to ty to defuse the situation while you apologize. If you’re in the right explain as diplomatically as possible and offer to ease the pain with a discount if need be. But… take the money and convert the person into a happy camper.

    Long story short? Getting offended does not pay the bills or grow your revenue.

    • Billy, this article isn’t about getting offended when someone yells at you. It’s about setting boundaries about how you allow your clients to treat you, and sticking to them. If your client can scream and yell, and call you names, disrespect you, whatever – and you respond to that by giving them exactly what they want(ESPECIALLY when the issue is their fault), they are going to get in the habit of it. I would much rather have 10 great clients that I love working for, than 20 terrible ones that make my life miserable. Money does NOT come before self-respect and happiness.

      • Billy Walker says:

        Kate, self-respect has nothing to do with it. Some people handle getting angry in a poor manner.

        Boundaries, smoundaries. Forget about that stuff. Almost 100% of the time your company has done something to get the customer to that point. They may not have handled it correctly but almost guaranteed you did something to set them off.

        Almost never do you need to give them “exactly what they want”. Compromise as necessary to a point and take the money. Keep them as a customer if at all possible. Almost no one gets in “the habit of it”.

        I couldn’t care less if someone yells at me. Hear them out, try to determine the reality of the problem and do your best to make the customer happy. It works about as close to 100% of the time as anything in life can. The good news is when done well the customer will be back to give you more money and very rarely will freak out again as they know you’re reasonable to deal with. Even if it was the customer’s fault.

        Fault is not so important most of the time. Perception is reality right or wrong. Keep getting the business!

    • I can’t agree Billy. If you allow yourself to be treated disrespectfully you’ll get more of the same. I’ts not a matter of being ‘offended’ but of having some self-respect.

      • Billy Walker says:

        Having been involved in retail for decades combined with servicing motorcycles I couldn’t disagree with you more of “you’ll get more of the same”.

        Sometimes people just get up on the wrong side of the bed and sometimes things did not go right with their day and sometimes you discover a technician made a mistake on their motorcycle. Self-respect has zero to do with it.

        It’s a matter of understanding your business has somehow gotten your customer to a point he/she can no longer deal with. Maybe the customer is right; maybe wrong. But at the end of the day something went wrong.

        The fact that they’re taking it out on you may be inappropriate but it’s not worth losing a customer over. Appease the customer. You don’t need to give them the world. The simplest of kindness and/or small discount and/or product will help to grease the wheels in almost all cases.

        Way, way too many people get hung up on self-respect. So what you had a customer get mad and take it out on you. Appease the customer, get the money and hopefully they continue to return to spend more. It’s as simple as that.

    • Lou Levit says:

      Self respect has everything to do with it. If you prefer to not set boundaries and you’re ok with being treated poorly, I won’t stop you, but what’s the purpose of that? Wouldn’t you rather work in a way where people don’t take it out on you?

      I’ve grown 2 companies, one to 20+ employees largely by setting boundaries and learning from those experiences. And I was sensitive all along the way. By doing this, I was able to create an environment of mutual respect and growth for both my clients and team members.

      Money is important for growth, but it’s definitely not the only factor for success. To me, creating something that feels good and right is just as important.

  5. I haven’t had any screaming matches with any of my clients.
    Deadlines are deadlines. You HAVE to meet them.
    I don’t give them a reason to be pissed. I try to buy more time than I need so I can meet their deadline.
    If however someone started cursing and getting in my face, I would wait a minute and ask them if they’re done. Then I would come back at them with an offer for a discount in an old fashioned cowboy attitude. Take it or leave it dude.

  6. Kirsten Cook says:

    Love this article,

    one time i was yelled at for simply asking a gentlemans name to pass the call on in a professional manner to my boss.

    He screamed at me asking me why all the younger folks always gotta ask me my name ..and went on an on,

    I still to this day something was just off about him and could never actually understand what i did wrong. He ended up hanging up while on hold waiting for my boss, and never called back again?!! – it was truly the weirdest phone call I have ever been on with a client, and theres been some bad ones! haha

    • Billy Walker says:

      Ah yes, the screening of telephone calls. I think it can be one of the worst things a business can do.

      I look at it this way: the vast majority of calls you receive will be from customers or potential customers. They have every right to talk to me as a business owner. I have been self-employed for 3 + decades and do not allow my calls to be screened.

      I am not running a major corporation and given the quantity of calls a large company may receive may alter that equation. However, for smaller businesses I do not believe in call screening. If it turns out to be a sales call and, you can usually tell the instant a few words are exchanged, I immediately hang up.