When Client Relationships Go South

When I think back to a recent dispute with a client, I realize how important it is to navigate client confrontations with a plan.

Sometimes, entrepreneurship isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

When I quit my 9-5 job to pursue the ultimate freedom of self-employment I became the boss. That meant the power was all mine, right? Not exactly.

As we all figure out —particularly those of us in the service industry or with clients on a retainer — when you get rid of one boss you pick up a new kind of boss (a.k.a. clients).

While you are likely to care just as much, if not more, about ensuring your new bosses are happy, you’ll find yourself in an occasional disagreement. How you manage these challenges will largely affect your success.

When I think back to a recent dispute with a client, I realize how important it is to navigate client confrontations with a plan. Here’s what happened and how I ultimately saved the relationship.


When client relationships turn sour

One of my clients was generally punctual with payment, but it didn’t arrive on time on a particular month. I noticed his interactions with me became a little terse. I was worried. This was a longtime client relationship – one I’d poured a lot of sweat into. I quickly reached out to him with an “Is there something I should know?” type of email. Much as I had predicted, he indeed was not happy.


A bad business deal cost me everything
Photo: © ANNA, YFS Magazine

I was shocked to find out why. His rankings (my responsibility) were solid. Traffic was up 20 percent. Conversions from his forms were up 20 percent. This was a triumph for me, but it turned out those metrics weren’t important from his standpoint. His issue was our delivery time on what I call “non-KPIs.” These included minor website design changes and other special projects that were included in our service, yet played virtually no role in his strategy or ROI. We had misunderstood his priorities.

Ultimately, the issue stemmed from differing opinions on KPIs. Fortunately, I was able to get things under control and save the relationship, but only because I kept the following tactics in mind:


  • Prepare your response

    If your client has suddenly lost faith in you, try not to let it cut too deep. Use this as a learning opportunity. In my situation, I promised a thorough response in 24 hours. He was satisfied with the promise, and I had more time to craft an answer.

  • Put personal feelings aside

    This is hard if you feel you or your team has been insulted. You have every right and expectation to defend yourself as a professional; just make sure you leave personal feelings and ego at the door.

  • Anticipate the arguments and prepare evidence

    Fortunately, I was already gathering data very effectively before a rift was created. We recently adopted a slew of different software suites, including Trello and Freshbooks, that allow us to track and sort hours and tasks. Thanks to these tools, I was able to equip myself with data that showed exactly where the client’s money went, and which results could be directly attributed to what I did for him.

  • Consider both sides

    You’ve got a stake here, but let the facts speak for themselves. Be sure you can thoroughly understand their criticism, because they may very well be right. If they aren’t, prove it without making it personal. Try to get back on the same page.

  • Make sure it doesn’t happen again

    This incident revealed some gaps in our process; most notably that I didn’t contact clients often enough to really keep them in the loop. I’ve improved the transparency of how we work for our clients with smaller, more frequent goals, reports and a strategy process that includes their input.


In the end, it didn’t take much to get him back on our side, considering the relationship almost collapsed. After we moved past this, I’ve made it a priority to build closer relationships with my clients so misunderstandings like these can be avoided.


This article has been edited.

Adam Steele is the owner of link-building agency Loganix. Check out his YouTube channel The Steele Entrepreneur Show.


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