How to Handle a Tough used to be a website dedicated to sharing business information created by experts. is no longer a functioning website.

While it was active, Focus published a Focus Experts’ Briefing: How to Handle a Tough Customer without Losing the Project. As I was quoted in the article, I have the permission to post the content in this blog post.

Focus Experts’ Briefing: How to Handle a Tough Customer without Losing the Project

Focus Experts included:
Adele Berenstein
Eric Britten
Susan Leighton
John McCoy
Brian Vellmure

How do you handle a difficult customer without losing the project?

Topics: Expert Briefing, Expert Content, Customer Service, Project Management

Executive Summary

Difficult customers, both internal and external, are a part of everyday business, and finesse must be used when managing their concerns without further damaging or losing the project. Although many outcomes will often depend on the scope and size of the problem, there are a few key tenets applicable to every situation that will help you and your client come to an amicable resolution. Focus Expert Adviser Brian Vellmure and fellow colleagues, AR Alsum, Adele Berenstein, Eric Britten, Susan Leighton and John McCoy offered their top 4 tips for how to work with an unhappy client without losing the project.

Expert Advice

1. Understand your client’s perspective.
2. Review the contract.
3. Brainstorm potential solutions.
4. Recognize if it’s time to part ways.

1. Understand your client’s perspective.

“Look to understand their perspective. Seek to understand first before stating your point.” (Vellmure)

“I would like to share an approach to handling difficult people that took me a great while to learn and has been an invaluable approach ever since: Try to see it from their perspective. I learned to always try to understand where other people were coming from, why they felt the way they did, what issues were of particular concern to them, what their real or perceived needs were, etc. It has always stood me in good stead, so I now naturally revert to trying to understand where anyone is coming from when I encounter difficulty or resistance. It rarely fails to deliver.” (Britten)

“Try to understand what the source of the difficulty is. Maybe your client is just having a bad time or doesn’t feel well. Give your client a second chance or, even better, try to help or sympathize him — this will contribute to better relations.” (Alsum)

2. Review the contract.

“Define with your client at the beginning what you will deliver. It is then much easier to avoid unnecessary discussions with your client about how bad the outcome is if you have an objective source to refer back to and show that your deliverable matches what was agreed with the client at the beginning.” (Alsum)

“One additional approach that can be very effective is to lean on established SLAs. Often what makes a customer ‘difficult’ is that they are demanding things that are outside of agreed-upon terms for the engagement. In an effort to be agreeable, service providers often accept scope creep, and, in the end, nobody wins. A cordial but firm and clear review of the agreed upon terms (SLAs, charter, contract(s), etc.) with an enthusiastic offer to adjust the terms according to what the customer is now demanding, can often serve to defuse the situation. By offering to adjust the terms, the service provider gives a clear message that they’re willing to do whatever it takes to make the customer happy. It also puts the ball in the customer’s court to decide if the extra scope is worth the cost (of both time and money).” (McCoy)

“Customer satisfaction is matching expectations with delivery. H.W. Sit and Ling Bundgaard’s book, Lateral Approach to Managing Projects, makes the point that services contracts cannot be exact. In the purchasing process, the purchaser may think they understand the products and services being purchased and the sellers may think they understand the customer needs. Despite the best efforts of both the supplier and the customer, there are bound to be some contractual obligations that will be gray areas of understanding. Set up the customer to be prepared for ‘gray’ areas of understanding early.” (Berenstein)

3. Brainstorm a better solution.

“Brainstorm potential solutions to the challenge(s) with the customer. Pick the best and offer multiple alternatives that are mutually beneficial. Invite their feedback and seek a collaborative path to mutually agreed-upon outcomes. Set new guardrails around future project work in order to not end up in the same conflict.” (Vellmure)

“Never tell your client that his idea is stupid, no matter how stupid it is. It is much better to open a discussion to come up with some alternative and more rational ideas together with your client. The best way to do this is to ask questions rather than making statements and lead your client to the outcome you want.” (Alsum)

“Routinely, the group that I am in will be tasked with a project from a demanding partner. Sometimes, the business request will not provide a good experience for the customer. If that is the case, it is our duty to speak up and tell the partner that in keeping with company objectives, the customer experience might be less than ideal. The onus falls back on our group to provide alternative solutions so that the partner can achieve their unique goals without impacting the customer.” (Leighton)

4. Recognize if it’s time to part ways.

“Evaluate if there is (still) a fit. Not all customers are good or profitable customers. If there is still a good fit, collaboratively pursue the mutually agreed-upon outcomes. If not, try and refer them to alternative service providers that may be a better fit for them.” (Vellmure)

“Know when to walk away. There may be such a situation at some point in a project when you understand that you can either kill your client with a stapler from the nearest table or just go away. In this case, it is better to go away but tell your client in a very polite way that any further discussion at this point won’t help and it is better at this point in time to step away for a while to think and come back together again later with new ideas.” (Alsum)

Also see a related article on this topic see a related blog post on



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Adele Berenstein

Adele Berenstein is an Experienced Customer Satisfaction Executive, recently retired from a Large Global IT Organization after a long productive management career including Sales, Marketing, Services, teaching and education center management and most recently, 19 years in customer satisfaction management. She turned around divisions with customer satisfaction problems, implemented measurable improvements and management systems, and implemented programs to prevent problems from ever affecting customers.

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