Last month, one of my students messaged me with a question about dealing with unhappy clients: she wanted to know what she should do, because she had made a tiny mistake with a client (not related to the work itself that she’d been doing; it was simply the case of miscommunication), and her client as a result wanted to negate their contract.

Unfortunately, this kind of things happens to all of us (yes, even those of us who have been in business for a decade!). I’ve lost track of the number of clients and their corresponding projects I’ve worked with over the years—so you can rest assured that during that time, I’ve made the occasional mistake and had the occasional run-in with a client. Sometimes it’s my fault, sometimes it’s their own problem, and other times it comes down to a simple miscommunication.

The question, when dealing with unhappy clients inevitably arises, is this: how do you respond to the situation?

If your client wants a refund or wants to terminate the contract or something similar, then what should you do?

The truth is that your response to your client is going to be highly dependent on the unique circumstances of each individual situation.

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Luckily, I have a series of questions here to make your life easier when it comes to dealing with unhappy clients and navigating an appropriate response:

1) What exactly happened in this situation?

It can feel almost painful sometimes to re-live the situation when a client isn’t pleased with you, but it’s worth it to walk yourself through what happened, step-by-step. What exactly happened at each moment along the way that led to the problem occurring? Write it down or talk it over with a trusted friend/colleague if that helps you.

2) Are you at fault in any way?

Be honest with yourself! Was this an error on your client’s part, your part, or both of your parts? As with most relationship problems, it’s likely that both of you had a hand in it—but in this particular situation, it might be largely one party over the other that’s truly responsible. 

In some scenarios of dealing with unhappy clients, I’ve been irritated because the client is clearly getting upset over something that has nothing to do with me. But in other scenarios, I KNOW that the blame lies completely with me, and as a result it’s up to me to deal with it.

3) Was this mistake a matter of miscommunication, a technical accident, a problem related to your work ethic or the quality of your work, or something else altogether?

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In dealing with unhappy clients, if it turns out to be a miscommunication, then you should be able to resolve that fairly quickly! Effective communication is key. Explain your side of things and ask for clarification from your client. Then, make sure you both repeat back to each other your understanding of the situation. That should clear everything up—and if it DOESN’T (for example, if they still want out), then that might be a sign that they’re using the miscommunication as an excuse, and you’ll probably want to get out of that relationship anyways.

If it’s a technical error, again, for the most part this should be something you can resolve fairly quickly. Identify the problem, find a solution, and walk your client through it so they understand what happened.

If it’s related to your work ethic or the quality of your work, then you’re going to need to step it up. Use this freelance writing checklist to ensure you feel confident about the quality of your work every time you submit it to a client.

4) What could you have done differently, and what can you do in the future to prevent this from happening again?

When reviewing the situation, what are key things you could have done differently? Now it’s time to adjust systems and strategies as needed to prevent this mistake from happening again!

Can you create a Client Welcome Package so that the client knows exactly what they’re getting right from the start of a project? Can you be more diligent in communicating with your clients on a regular basis? Can you improve your project management skills? There’s nearly always something we can change in the way we conduct business that will prevent the error from happening again in the future.

5) How would you feel if you were in your client’s shoes?

Okay, so maybe this mistake was *technically* your fault. But is your client overreacting to what happened? If it was a simple miscommunication that you cleared up and they STILL have a problem with it, then consider that a red flag and move right along.

On the other hand, if you’re going through what happened and envisioning yourself as your client, and you start to see things from their perspective and empathize with them… well, perhaps you need to figure out a way to make amends and deal with a problem that is more on you than you’d like to admit.

6) Do you feel you are in the wrong?

Try to look at the situation objectively. This can be hard to do if your client is making you feel guilty, or if you feel as though they might start saying negative things about you!

Consider if one of your business friends told you about the situation: what would you think about it? Would you consider them to be in the wrong or not (or is it a grey area)? Self-awareness and self-honesty are extremely important in business, because you need to both be able to own your own mistakes as well as move on if something isn’t actually your fault.

7) What if you know your CLIENT is in the wrong?

Okay, so I have had this issue come up several times over the years where the client thinks I made a mistake… but it’s actually them who made the error. This can be an awkward conversation to have, because you need to be upfront with your client. You should never have to take the blame for something that isn’t your fault!

At the same time, this can be a delicate issue. Some clients will be happy you pointed out their error and there won’t be any problems; other clients will get defensive about it. My recommendation to you is to approach it from the angle of “It looks as though what happened is XYZ. This might have happened because ABC.” Here, you’re pointing out exactly what happened, but you’re also giving them a moment of grace: for example, depending on the circumstance, you could say, “I understand why you think I didn’t complete the project, because we’ve had a lot of emails going back and forth! So I’m forwarding the email with the original submission from last Wednesday (see below),” or you could say, “The new website updates are tricky to manage! See attached for a tutorial outlining instructions for how to add new images to your website. Let me know if you’re still having problems with it.”

In these scenarios, you might be going above and beyond by helping your client, but you’re still pointing out that this is not your own mistake. They will appreciate the effort you put in, while also recognizing that you aren’t too blame, without feeling bad about themselves.

8) What will happen if you continue to work with this client?

Sometimes it’s not worth it to keep a client around, because they’re making a big fuss over something that isn’t remotely related to your work. But other times, it’s a simple miscommunication OR the error is all yours.

Regardless, what will happen if you continue working with this client? Is this one issue indicative of larger issues? Is it a one-time thing that likely won’t come up again? You’ll want to keep this in mind if your client (or you!) are considering canceling the contract.

9) What will happen if you let this client go?

It’s really, really scary to let a client go. But if they’re being unreasonable, then you might want to consider canceling the contract. What’s the worst that can happen? If you end the contract amicably, there’s no reason why they should say anything negative about you.

In my experience, it’s not worth keeping a client around if you don’t work well together or if they want to micromanage you and so on. Instead, let that client go! It will improve your mental health and it will free up your time to find another client who you work with better.

(Psst… It will completely depend on the situation, but as much as possible, when dealing with unhappy clients, give the client advance notice if you are the one who wants to cancel the contract, and provide them with recommendations for who can take over the project once you’re gone. That extra step of being courteous and thoughtful will ensure you part ways without any animosity.)

10) Is the client overreacting, and/or could they be using this issue as an excuse to not work with you?

For example, if you make one tiny error and they suddenly come back to you and say they want a full refund or to cancel your contract, that might be a red flag: it could indicate that they’ll be a difficult client down the road, OR it could simply be their way of getting an out if they already (for WHATEVER reason) decided they don’t want to continue working with you. In that case, it may be a good idea to end the contract, like your client wants.

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The bottom line…

In most instances, a simple, sincere apology (IF you were in the wrong), followed by an explanation of what happened, will clear things up and you can both move on from there. For example: “My sincerest apologies — it’s not excuse, but what happened is XYZ. I’ve since resolved the issue — thank you so much for bringing it to my attention.” Dealing with unhappy clients can feel awkward and uncomfortable -- but it doesn't have to be! Find out how to best deal with unhappy clients in this blog post, plus grab a checklist to ensure that you feel confident about having produced high-quality work every time you submit a freelance writing project...

If you were not in the wrong, you can avoid apologizing but still keep it a polite, friendly email and say something along the lines of, “It appears we had a miscommunication, but I’ve since solved the issue by XYZ. I’m glad we got this sorted out!”

If you want to let the client go (for example, because they said they want a refund and you don’t want to deal with them anymore), you can say something like, “I understand how you feel and we can absolutely cancel the contract immediately. I’ll also waive my usual 30-day notice requirement of cancellations in light of this particular misunderstanding. It’s been great working with you and I wish you all the best with your project in the future.” If you have something written into your contract about a notice requirement (and, for example, a fee associated with it if it’s under that time allotment), then it would be good to let them know if you plan on waiving the fee: it shows goodwill and will mollify them if they’re feeling ruffled.

I know that we’re taught in our society that “the customer is always right.” But I like to think that that’s part of why we decide to go into business on our own, anyways: so that we don’t have to put up with such nonsense of the customer always being right.

If you’re getting a bad feeling from a client or if they’re being particularly difficulty or kicking up a fuss about something that’s not really your problem or your fault, then you might want to get out of there ASAP.

On the other hand, as I mentioned earlier, self-honesty and self-awareness are very important when it comes to being a business owner! If it WAS your fault, then you need to own up to that and take full responsibility.

By the way: if you want more actionable tips on improving client communications, increasing your self-awareness, and making your freelancing experience better than ever, then you should totally check out my freelancer e-course.

Keep in mind that some instances—such as with my student making a tiny technical error on her own end, which simply resulted in miscommunication—might have been an error on your end, but it’s really not THAT big of a deal. It’s not as though you did a sloppy job on the project, or as though you had a poor work ethic, or were intending to do something wrong, or anything like that. In those cases, there truly isn’t much you can do except explain what happened to your client and hope that they’ll understand. And if they don’t, then you might just want to move on.

It is my firm belief that the majority of problems arising with clients are a direct result of miscommunication. Take every issue that arises as a learning opportunity! And while it’s important to take responsibility for our actions, there’s no need in dwelling on our mistakes. Learn from it and move on. You’ve got this!

Psst… Are you on the other side of the table as a client, and aren’t happy with a freelancers’ work? Read this article on what to do when you’re unhappy as a client.

What has your experience been like in dealing with unhappy clients? Share in the comments section below: