Uh-oh! Seven Steps to Deal with an Unhappy Client

thumb-downIt can happen to the best of us: a client is disappointed with the work we turned it. Perhaps we completely missed what they said they wanted. Or, maybe we’ve been tired and didn’t produce stellar work. Maybe said client was having a bad day.

Whatever the reason, the bottom line is, your client is unhappy with your work. You’re at the brink of losing this client and everybody else he would have referred to you.

All is not lost. In fact, if you handle the situation correctly, you could end up with a client who respects and admires you even more.

What to Do

Here are seven steps you can follow next time this unfortunate event happens:

  1. Calm down. Getting a complaint from a client is like getting slapped in the face. Your first reaction will be to get upset, offended and defensive. This can lead you to respond without thinking in such a way that you will most surely regret. So, the first thing to do is to calm down. Take deep breaths. Remind yourself not to take the client’s complaint personally. Do whatever it takes to tame your passions and regain a level-headed composure.
  2. Apologize and acknowledge your client’s feelings. I’m not talking about acting like a doormat. What I mean is being humble enough to accept responsibility for the situation. This can be as simple as saying, “I’m sorry you didn’t like the drafts.” Take note, you’re not saying it’s your fault. However, you are showing empathy for your client’s feelings… which will help him or her calm down. Any conflict situation is better when everybody is calm, so these first steps are crucial. Now that everybody’s calm, it’s time for the next step.
  3. Identify the real problem. Ask questions to find out what your client is really unhappy with. Don’t be satisfied with statements like “I just don’t like it!” Get specifics. Ask for examples.
  4. Find out what the client really wants. Go over all relevant communication with your client. Ask more questions, until you’re sure you know 100% exactly what your client wants. Sometimes, we proceed with a project thinking one thing when in reality, we misunderstood our client’s wishes. Make sure you have your client’s expectations down pat. And double-check by saying, “I understand you want XYZ to achieve (end goal). Did I get that right?”
  5. Make the situation better. Now that you have a clear picture of the problem and where your client wants to go, do what you can to help your client get there. Offer to rewrite the piece, or go back to the drawing board. Even if you lose money by doing this, it’s still a worthwhile endeavor. You will lose more in the long run by having a client who stays unhappy with your work. It could really hurt your reputation. So do whatever you can to solve the situation for them. Sometimes, it may be impossible to please your client. Maybe your style just doesn’t fit with their expectations. When all else fails, offer a refund and steer them in the direction of another freelancer who can meet their needs. This solution isn’t a good one for your client, either. They’ve lost time on their project and possibly some money. However, by doing everything humanly possible to meet their needs, you can still salvage your relationship.
  6. Get feedback. After you’ve revised, redrafted or started over, get your client’s feedback promptly. More often than not, they’ll be happy with your second try.
  7. Take stock. After all the drama has died down and the situation is resolved, it’s time to take stock. What can you learn from the situation? What can you do differently to avoid the situation from happening again? What can you do differently the next time it does happen? Take the time to reflect on what happened. That’s how you become a master in client relations. It’s never fun to hear from a client who’s unhappy with our work. However, if you handle the situation with maturity and genuine concern for your client, you can both come out of the situation with a more positive relationship. Above, I’ve outlined a seven-step strategy for dealing with unhappy clients.

What If It Happened to You?

Have you ever had an unhappy client? If so, how did you manage the situation? Do you have additional advice for your fellow freelancers?

Image by striatic


  1. says

    In the beginning of my freelancing I had these kind of problems but now I never had somebody say to me that is unahppy with what I have delivered. If I would, I am sure we’ll make it work.

  2. says

    I must say, when a client is unhappy, it comes out of nowhere and it takes a special person to deal with that. At my agency we have an ecommerce client that HATED the comp I did for them, and opted for one of the other designers artwork. I didn’t care much because of the quality of the other comp, but about a month later, after production started, they came back and said they hated the one they chose, too.

    Ohhhh man. Point of the story, I almost lost it after the first design presentation, and I was thankful that I didn’t have to work with them much longer. Project managers, your job is rough. Thank you all.

  3. says

    If there’s one thing I picked up from working in a customer service call center, it’s how to deal with an angry customer. Lexi, you’re on point with everything you’ve said here. People don’t want your sympathy when something goes wrong. They want empathy and solutions.

    Never take anything personally unless it’s specifically directed at you. As long as the problem they have is with the work you’ve done, it’s not hard to discuss what in particular they don’t like and then work *together* to solve the problem.

    Thanks for a great article!

  4. says

    Specific details are so important to resolving a complaint. Not only are you expressing your concern for the issue, no matter what it might be, it’s also giving you an idea of how to prevent this same problem from happening again. Not taking it personally is just as important. Great post.

  5. says

    @ Lexi Truly, great read. Really useful steps u have mentioned here.

    #3 Identify the real problem. In many cases i have seen that client’s needs change with the direction of the wind. the change happens every time when we present the out put. some time it simple but in few cases we have to do the whole thing from scratch.


    @ client from hell

    Really funny example you have there..


  6. says

    Lexi, that is some awesome advice. This article is so true because all clients and freelancers do not click with each other. Getting feedback is such an important issue. Thanks for this!

  7. says

    Years ago I worked in customer service for a while and I can definitely say that it helped me with freelancing. Sometimes there are situations where clients are not happy. It’s not necessarily your fault and it’s not necessarily their fault. It can just happen.

    This is a great list. I’ve found that steps 2, 3 and 4 are the most helpful. Once you’ve acknowledged that the client is upset, identified the problem and came up with a plan to fix it you’re well on your way to repairing the relationship.

    Just because a client isn’t happy right away it doesn’t necessarily mean that your relationship with them is over. With some work you can make them happy again.

  8. says

    Great Post Lexi. I had lots of bad experiences with my clients. But I guess now I can handle them pretty well after reading this post :)

  9. says

    I’ve never had a client hate my work either, but I bet it’s like motorcycle riders: there are two kinds, those who have fallen, and those who will fall.

    The key is to not take it personally, and then everything else will go much smoother. The rest is just gravy, but good to know for the future. Fingers crossed and knocking on wood that a client will never hate my stuff!

  10. says

    This has just happened to me today, and it goes back to being supplied with a truly vague brief. After 2 very late nights, the feedback was less than positive this morning from the client via email. This put me in right bad mood, and today is my 40th birthday!

    Anyway, my 3 tips are ;
    1. Clarify that brief if you can
    2. Don’t get mad when you get a grumpy email from a grumpy client. Take solace in your wife and kids and see the bigger picture.
    3. Don’t arrange deadlines around your 40th birthday!

  11. says

    @Mark – Sorry to hear that! You’re right, the way to avoid having unhappy clients to begin with is to make sure we understand their desires and expectations. Sometimes we get so excited about starting a project that we gloss over the details… until it’s too late. I hope you have a happy birthday nevertheless!

  12. says

    @Richard – I agree. It’s not the end of the world when this happens. That’s why I wrote this post, so we can learn how to salvage the relationship and maybe even make it a better one after the “crisis.”

  13. says

    Recently had this happen and what’s worse? I was working on the client’s server and they locked me out without the final half of our agreed payment despite spending considerably longer than I do on most projects.

    Trying to decide if sicking a lawyer on them is worth a few hundred dollars.

  14. says

    Its never easy to deal with disgruntled clients, but these are a good 7 steps to cope with those situations. I think like you said keeping calm is really important, because once you get angry you’ve lost the client.

  15. says

    When you’ve felt you’ve done no wrong, calming down is a challenge, but once I do I find that by examining the process the led to the issue can prevent it from happening again.

  16. says

    From the beginning of this post..I found that the mind reader of the clients can succeed in the marketing field..I love the concept about the tactful also the correct approach towards the clients…nice to share..

  17. says

    Most of the time I don’t have issues with clients. If I make a mistake, I apologize and look for ways to solve the issues. If the client becomes abusive, I walk away though. No one has the right to treat me like crap and unfortunately I had some people who thought I am their maid or something. The last one had some very unreasonable requests and I fired him. I am a very relaxed person and easy going, but this doesn’t mean I should receive less respect.

  18. says

    I’ve had a lot less problems since I created a “web design questions to ask a client”. These get down to the real nitty gritty and you are left with a clear understanding of what the client is after (See my blog if you want the list).

    The second thing I did was to create a block wireframe first and then a visual. Once they have signed off these two they rarely come back with new additions and if they do they know they need to pay more because they’ve already signed off on two stages.

    Makes like so much more simple :)

  19. says

    Working in a field such as mine (IT Support) when customers tend to rely on you when they are already on the edge of their seats due to some crazy issue – its tough! Years and years of practice have allowed me to perfect my responses to unhappy customer. Often times, like you’ve said they become some of our best customers in the future.

    It’s a little hard to pass on this same experience to new hires. A customer yells at them, they lose their cool and yell back – horrible scenario! Your list was helpful in making a nice little guide for some of our trigger happy techs (amazing with computers not so much with people.) With some time and patience – your 7 steps are very helpful! :-)

  20. says

    Can I just say what a relief to seek out someone who truly knows what theyre talking about on the internet. You positively know how one can deliver a difficulty to gentle and make it important. More folks have to read this and understand this side of the story. I cant believe youre not more popular since you positively have the gift.


  1. […] Unhappy client. No matter how great a freelancer you are or how much you like your clients, sooner or later you may find yourself facing an unhappy client. Fortunately, an unhappy client doesn’t always mean that it’s time to cut ties with them. Many client/freelancer disagreements can be worked out. If you find yourself dealing with an unhappy client, try these seven steps. […]

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