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Tough Conversations With Clients — We've All Had Them. Here's How to Handle Them More Effectively. Difficult conversations about performance should not be the norm for any business, but sometimes they are unavoidable. Here's how to navigate them successfully.

By Jackie Cullen Edited by Chelsea Brown

Key Takeaways

  • Tackling difficult conversations with honesty and a proactive approach can build respect and trust with clients, even when delivering poor results. Underrepresenting or ignoring poor performance damages trust.
  • Clients appreciate proactive communication and want to understand the reasons behind results, even when they're less than ideal.
  • When having a tough conversation, it's important to listen to the client, acknowledge shortcomings without being defensive, and focus on finding solutions together.
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Every business owner knows the feeling — that pit in your stomach when you know you need to tell a client some not-so-good results. You busy yourself with work to justify not picking up the phone. You write the email but don't send it until the end of the day Friday to delay the inevitable as much as possible. No one looks forward to discussing poor performance with clients, but these conversations are essential.

In fact, if you need to have one, it should be a top priority and not a chore. All conversations with clients, particularly the unpleasant ones, are opportunities for growth.

Related: 5 Strategies to Ace the Difficult Conversations in Your Business

How to approach delivering performance news

Honesty is always the right strategy when speaking to clients about performance, whether things are going well or not. Some people may shy away from conversations about performance, especially when it is not meeting expectations. They may attempt to justify their decision, reasoning that if the client is not initiating the conversation, there's no need to rock the boat. This is the wrong approach.

Rather than duck out on conversations about performance, be proactive and show your clients that you're on top of things. They need to know the reasons for the results they're seeing and understand the strategy going forward, especially when things are not going as planned. A client may not be happy with the current performance of a marketing campaign or new product launch. Still, they will appreciate you reaching out to them proactively and your willingness to initiate the conversation. And as much as you might dread having a conversation about it, your client will be more irritated if they have to hunt you down to get answers.

Honesty really is the best policy

Underrepresenting poor performance to avoid a client's anger is never a good strategy. It will only fuel their negative feelings and destroy their trust in you. Clients need to know the truth, even if it is unflattering to you and your business. They will respect you more if you take a straightforward, honest approach rather than attempt to downplay an issue that has real consequences for their business. They may not be excited to hear unpleasant news, but as business owners themselves, they should be able to understand that performance will not always be stellar, and some things will not work as well as they want.

Along the same lines, ignoring a performance issue rather than owning up to it will damage your relationship with your client, often irreparably. If a campaign is not doing well or a product is not getting traction, and you know you've done everything you can, it is better to acknowledge it, talk to the client, strategize a new approach and get back to work. This way, you minimize any potential consequences and show the client that you respect the investment they've made in your company. Your client will be more willing to continue doing business with you if they can trust that you are working in their best interest.

Related: 7 Ways to Have a Difficult Conversation Without Losing Your Client

We're on the same team

Having a difficult conversation about performance should never be a battle. As a business owner, it is important to acknowledge shortcomings and focus on how to solve the issues that caused them without blaming, deflecting or becoming defensive. The proper way to handle a tough conversation is to:

  • Listen to the client's needs, concerns and questions

  • Help the client understand what happened and why

  • Acknowledge any mistakes or shortcomings on your part without being overly apologetic

  • Answer all questions directly and truthfully

  • Address the client's concerns, no matter what they are

  • Propose solutions to improve performance going forward

  • Allow the client to decide how they would like to proceed based on your recommended remedies

Your client may want to point fingers; if they do, it is important not to turn the blame back on them, even if their decisions contributed to the unsatisfactory results. A true professional is solution-oriented. Conversations are always more productive when you come prepared with ideas for getting back on track. It shows that you have been working proactively for your client rather than allowing the situation to languish without intervention.

Dust yourself off and get back to work

No one is 100% successful from the moment they start their business, and occasional poor performance does not equal failure. Beating yourself up over negative results is also not productive. We learn from our mistakes and the obstacles we encounter on our journey to success. So, when a plan is not going as expected, don't stop trying. Use your skills and creative mind to work through the problem and find a better path to accomplish the goal. Your client will be more receptive if they know you have an optimistic outlook.

Related: How to Prepare for Difficult Client Conversations

Hard conversations about performance should not be the norm for any business, but sometimes they are unavoidable. We all have a few misses under our belts. How we handle them with our clients and within our companies is what differentiates us. A business owner who is willing to admit when their plan did not succeed is a person who is willing to grow.

Jackie Cullen

Entrepreneur Leadership Network® Contributor

Co-Founder & President

With more than a decade of experience in corporate dental laboratory marketing and brand development, Jackie Ulasewich Cullen decided to take her passion for the dental business and marketing to the next level by founding My Dental Agency with co-founder Shawn Berg.

Want to be an Entrepreneur Leadership Network contributor? Apply now to join.

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