The no-tears formula for dealing with an unhappy client

Before we go any further, let’s be clear: no matter how good you, your product, or your services are, sooner or later one of your clients is going to be unhappy with you.

It’s better if we just accept that now.

Though unhappy clients are inevitable, it’s never fun or easy to deal with an unhappy client. You may want to curl up in a corner and cry or get a nervous tick at the sound of every phone ring, but your response to these clients can and will impact future business.

Remember, it IS possible to turn an unhappy client into a client-for life, so it’s best to knuckle down and address the issue quickly rather than neglect…and ruin…the relationship.

How customers become unhappy

We’ve all been there, right – wondering how a relationship went south so quickly.

Nine times out of ten the reason for an unhappy client is poor communication.

Generally speaking, communication starts really well but disintegrates over a period of time due to a series of minor mistakes on both sides. At some point, your client forgets he came to you for advice – and that to err is human.

Instead, he starts believing you should meet all of his demands. (Like yesterday.) This is a critical point in your working relationship and how you handle this situation  will greatly impact the probability of a good outcome.

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Pro tip! Being able to communicate clearly and professionally over the long-term is key to your success, potentially more important than any aspects about your product or service.

How to deal with an unhappy client

The first step is to identify and address the issue at hand.

Never ignore a client who is unhappy. Find out what the problem is.

The longer you put this off, the harder it will be to resolve.

(Most people try to avoid confrontation, but confronting an issue head on also means that you’re one step closer to the resolution. Additionally, it shows your client that you take his problem seriously.)

Secondly, find out how your client would like his issue resolved.

Can you go back to a previous revision? Can you communicate more regularly? Can you offer a discount for missing a deadline?

By listening to what your client wants, you demonstrate once again that you take your client seriously and are willing (within reason) to put his needs first. And be preemptive with solutions: don’t ask your client how to do something differently; suggest it yourself.

But what if we can’t find a solution?

If you can’t resolve the issue initially, never be afraid to ask for advice. A mentor, peer, or someone from the Millo community may offer a brand new perspective.

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Also, adding a new point of contact may help the unhappy client reset.

More often than not, just changing the point of contact helps the client reset by allowing him to vent, ultimately getting both parties back on track.

Example: in the rare instance that a client and I are at an impasse, I introduce my business partner as a mediary. He can enter the scenario as the “nice guy,” taking a more understanding approach.

Finally, if you just can’t resolve the issue, walk away knowing you did everything you could (because you did, right?). Do this in a professional manner and explain your reasons for not being able to resolve the problem without being accusatory.

If at all possible, try to refer the client to someone else within your network who may be better suited to handle his needs.

How to avoid miscommunication

Always remember that most problems stem from miscommunication. Hence, pay particular attention to your communication methods.

Here are some tips to help you avoid miscommunication from the get-go or while you’re in the midst of conflict-resolution:

  • Maintain a personal connection with your client. Know something about him that isn’t strictly business-related so he feels valued and thinks of you as a warm person.
  • While email certainly makes our lives easier, sometimes the message, tone, or intent just can’t be delivered properly; if this means picking up the phone, then do it.
  • Give yourself plenty of time to make a calm and collected reply.

How do you cope with an unhappy client?

We’ve all got our nightmare client stories, but remember, unhappy clients are inevitable.

(That doesn’t mean you have to start a client fail blog to vent your frustration, though. Take a deep breath, pick up the phone, and try to resolve the situation.)

If you’ve felt the anxiety associated with an unhappy client, I’m always looking for new ways to cope, so please add your advice in the comments!

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Millo Articles by Chris London

Chris London is the resident problem solver for Pixel Productions Inc, where you can read more of his writing on design and marketing.
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  1. I have a client that has 20 board members. We went through the whole logo design process.

    Long story short, she approved the logo. Now after the color theory is done and the business system and brand guidelines are almost completed, she is telling me the colors and typography is great, but the logo isn’t.

    I have communicated with her as best I could through the whole process (hence the process)

    We can’t go back now and choose a different logo as she approved and I would eat to much cost. I feel she is unhappy no matter what and want to make her happy, but not at to much of a cost since she approved the logo etc

  2. Lien Design says:

    Most of the problem begins as a result of miscommunication as you said. Being a service provider we got to keep communicating with our clients regularly to avoid miscommunication.

  3. Great article.

    Now here’s a bit of a poser for everyone if you don’t mind me sharing and asking for opinions?

    I have two clients, let’s call them Dave* and Vince*. I’ve created work for Dave going back years in a couple of businesses that he has owned. A couple years ago Dave introduced me to Vince when Vince needed a new identity. Now both Dave and Vince own businesses in the same field – baking* but with slight differences in their business models and they are in different cities. So far, so good. Both clients were happy with my work; client relations are going well.

    Now, a bit further down the track it turns out Dave and Vince have a bit of a falling out. On top of that, one of Dave’s best bakers, and one time partner in business, Simone now goes off to work for Vince. They all fall out but still, business wise for me nothing’s really changed I just don’t mention Dave to Vince or vice versa.

    Now jump to recently and I receive an email from Dave asking what, if anything, I know about a new business venture that Vince is apparently starting that is now in direct competition to Dave?

    My first response is a quick phone call to Dave… “Hi Dave, sorry but I’m not at liberty to divulge any projects I’m working on with Vince. I’d say the same to him if he asked about you. Realise we go back quite a few years but hope you understand”.

    Dave then proceeds to tell me that he is now in a legal dispute with Simone and believes Simone stole property from his bakery along with sensitive information.

    I know that Vince and Simone are starting a new business (I’ve already started designs for the identity); and I now know (after the quick chat with Dave) that it’s in competition with Dave’s business.

    Am I doing the right thing by just keeping my head down and doing the work asked of me by Vince? Without mentioning anything to Dave despite our history?

    Sorry if this isn’t the right place for this question but just wanted some feedback from fellow designers.

    Thanks 🙂

    *if you haven’t gathered, names and industry have been changed 🙂

  4. Chris London says:

    Hey Steph,
    It’s nice when you can reason with a client and get back on track so seamlessly. When you brought up the 6 months, I couldn’t help but think of a recent client who 6 months after his site launched called me out of the blue yelling and demanding his money back. This is totally different than your scenario but the 6 month thing triggered this incident in my mind. Anyway, to say that I was caught off guard is an understatement.

    Long story short he blamed me for breaking his site, even going so far as to say that I had never completed it. Like Cathy commented, thank God we always cover our butts, I had signed approvals from the client as well as screen captures of the site we designed up and running. I also went back and checked the site history and was able to get screenshots showing that an Indian developer had been give admin access, edited files and broke the site.

    All this to say, I wish this client had been more like yours, because even after presenting this information to him in a calm and professional manner, he denied all of it and ultimately there was no pleasant resolution.

  5. I just had a client on Monday ring me and tell me he was not happy with the site and angry that it has been 6 months! I carefully constructed an email starting with addressing his problem, offering a solution then I ‘nicely’ added the timeline clearly showing that the 6 months was due to them taking over 30 days to provide feedback each time we asked. I did this in a non-accusatory manner, just pointed out the facts. Then I offered the solution again and told him we would work on certain things within the scope of the project, in a very ‘your a valued client’ way. He called back to say all good and let’s meet up to go over the site. We were still in proofing stage and adding content, but I think he thought that was it and the final product. I find putting the icky stuff in the middle with the beginning and end of the email making them feel good works best.

  6. Something I learned when I worked in retail was that often you can resolve things by just asking the client, “What would you like me to do about this?” Most of the time they will suggest something you can easily do, and the resolution feels even better to them because they participated.

    1. Chris London says:

      Matt, that is a very important point you picked up on…
      99.9% of clients are not creative, but they very much want to be and want to play a role in the creative process. We’re pretty lucky to have careers that are so creative and to my surprise I find client suggestions often improve the overall design.

  7. Cathy Fontaine says:

    I do most of my work with clients I never see face to face so that in its self can be a problem with communication to start with. I have tried to alleviate as many problems as I can anticipate with a contract that must be signed an agreed on before any work can begin. My contracts spell out in detail what the client has relayed to me as to their needs and they are asked to make any changes that I may have misunderstood or they have changed their mind about before the contract is signed.
    My contract also states a flat fee for the project and a per hour fee for any changes or addition not included in the initial contract.
    I recently had a client who reached the contract terms and was into the hourly rate, it was at this point that he became upset.
    This is where some advice I received many years ago in school came into play, “cover your butt” meaning document everything. Even though this is an extra sometime tedious task I follow it faithfully.
    In this situation I sent him thumbnails of all of the changes that had been made up to and including the changes for which he now owed me an hourly fee plus the initial fee. And since he was really a good customer who was suffering sticker shock and I wanted to continue to do business with him I also told him that I would give him a 10% discount to help offset the extra expense.
    He is still a customer and he trusts that I am not trying to overcharge him and he now pays very close attention to the contract terms and knows what the consequences are if he goes past the initial terms.
    You can’t take it personal, you just need to back up and put yourself in the clients place and see if you can salvage the relationship, maybe even eat a little crow.
    You want referrals from your customers and you want a reputation that says your are an honest and responsible company to work with.

    1. April Greer says:


      I love your point – ultimately, you want your client to feel they’ve paid a fair sum for the final result.

      I recently had two issues where websites I built broke due to updates causing conflicts (neither my client’s fault nor my own). Terrible situation, as this is when clients great severe sticker shock over the rush fee that comes with “drop everything and fix it now!!!” I’m very cautious to mention up front the costs so that they are prepared, and sometimes I’ll take a hit if I feel in any way partially responsible for the issue – I might compromise and not charge a rush fee, or discount the final cost.

      Thanks for sharing! Makes me feel like I’m not the only one on this line of thinking. 🙂


    2. Chris London says:

      Hi Cathy,
      First of all and this goes for everyone who commented here, thanks so much for your comments and please forgive me for my oh so delayed response…

      No doubt covering our butts is an essential part of the line of work we’re in and most certainly having a solid contract signed up front is the best way to begin work. Like you we have pretty iron clad contracts that spell everything out clearly. However, even with iron clad contracts, I still come across clients who misinterpret something and get bent out of shape. I liked your solution with the discount. That goes a long way with clients.

      Thanks for sharing!

    3. John Murdock says:

      Cathy makes some good points. But folks, remember that some people out there are just going to try to rip you off. I am talking about the sociopath con artist types. I have been doing this for 20 years, so believe me. Make the contract very clear, get money down, and don’t do any work beyond what they pay for. Always put a clause in your contract that YOU own the copyright to any work performed until it is paid for in full.

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