How To Recover From A Difficult Client Call Without An Overwhelming Emotional Reaction

representing a difficult customer, a red brick wall with yellow square in front that has unhappy eyes and frowning mouth cut out, on a grey floor.

Or How Not to Freak the F**k Out When Your Client is Being an A**shole

A difficult customer has ripped you a new one.

They’ve said no, rudely, to every resolution you’ve proposed.

They’ve gone up one side of you and down the other.

Their arms are crossed and their eyebrows are furrowed.

They’re grumbling, huffing and puffing.

Intense emotions from difficult customers can be hard to withstand.

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It can be even harder when these emotions are directed at you and are about your business.

Your own emotions around this experience can be overwhelming.

And no wonder! Intense client emotions like these directed at you can register as an attack.

You might feel fear. You might freeze, draw a blank and have no idea what to say. Or you might have a hard time trying not to cry.

You might feel anger. You might want to attack, yelling back at them, or writing an angry email giving them a piece of your mind.

When dealing with a difficult customer, these feelings are all “normal,” as in they are to be expected when you get the sense you are under attack or there is a threat of some kind.

How to handle your reactions to a difficult customer


One way is to acknowledge what you’re feeling about what has happened with this difficult customer interaction.

You can place a gentle hand on your heart area (and maybe close your eyes briefly if it’s appropriate in the situation). This may be enough to calm your nerves so you can respond.

If the situation is over, you can take the acknowledging process a bit further, by following the outline here.

Complete the stress cycle

As a result of this difficult customer interaction, your reaction may be intense.

The good news is that the immediate stress reaction is short-lived (relatively speaking) and once the moment has passed, the symptoms of the stressor can dissipate.

But that won’t happen magically without intervention.

You will feel somewhat better as more and more time comes between you and the event.

But stress accumulates in the body if we don’t complete the stress cycle. If you aren’t able to complete the stress cycle, your body may continue to repeat its stress response.

Completing the stress cycle requires a physiological shift. This can be accomplished in a number of ways, including moving, crying and yelling (maybe sit in your car for this one). Check out what Emily and Amelia Nagoski, authors of the awesome book Burnout (book and workbook here), have to say about completing the stress cycle in this video or on this podcast.

Keep in mind it’s not about you

It can be helpful to assume that people are always trying their best to meet their needs–yes, even a difficult customer is trying to get their needs met.

We all have needs, and these needs are universal, although you may experience them differently at different times.

I’m imagining both you and this difficult client wanted consideration and support, but to you consideration mattered more in the moment and to the client, support mattered more.

But when you think about it, the needs themselves are universal. Looking at needs as universal across time, place and culture, shared by all, helps us see one another with a compassionate eye–as humans, just like we are.

In doing whatever they were doing, the so-called difficult client was doing their best to meet a need. Theur way of doing it might not have been effective or kind, but it was their very best attempt under the circumstances.

When you consider that difficult client behaviour is about meeting their needs, and has very little to do with your worth or value as a human, you experience a less defensive response. You have more capacity and are less likely to lose your crap when you’d rather keep your cool.

You don’t have to “take it personally.” Whatever is happening is not a moral judgement on you as a human being.

When the inner critic is reacting to a difficult customer interaction

When clients are angry, they can say things that hurt or maybe even hit home. Alternatively, they might hit on our greatest fears as a business owner.

When this happens, the internalized critic can have a field day. We can feel overwhelmed by critical thoughts.

This is where self-kindness can help.

Three steps to self-kindness
Acknowledge: Ouch! This hurts.
Label: This is the voice of the internalized critic
Validate: Of course the internalized critic is here. At heart it’s just worried, and doesn’t want me to have to feel bad.

After a difficult client interaction, when your internalized critic is giving you a hard time, you can place a gentle hand on your heart space and say these phrases to your self or out loud, with a pause and a few breaths between each step.

A third step you can take is a “shared humanity” step that I’ve adapted from Kristin Neff’s self-compassion break. You can say to yourself, “Lots of people struggle with this, so there’s nothing wrong with me.”

It can be comforting and helpful to add a fourth step, also from Kristen Neff, “May I be kind to myself.”

It’s hard to do most of these things on the fly without practice.

The key is to use these strategies any time you experience something even mildly upsetting, so that they become the thing you do whenever you get upset.

It can also help to use these approaches in a “debrief’ after the difficult client interaction, by calling a friend or other supporter who can listen as you walk yourself through them.

When a difficult customer is actually abusive: it’s OK to break up

It’s one thing for a client to yell or come in hot when the client is under extreme stress. This can occur once or twice in the lifetime of a client relationship.

It’s also to be expected that a client may express concerns or even dissatisfaction. This is important feedback and must be treated as such.

But clients or customers who regularly treat you badly are a different situation. These are not difficult clients, but abusive ones.

This is when your regularly weekly check-ins on your mental health lead and lag indicators can support you. You can monitor your mental and emotional well-being and notice what is affecting it. When you’re not doing well and can see the cause, you can take action to address it.

Ongoing conflict with a difficult client can wear you down. Responding with care and compassion to a person who does not demonstrate consideration for you as a fellow human takes emotional labour, and depletes your resources. It takes away from what you have to give your business and the rest of your customers.

It’s OK to break up with clients who are abusive.

The first step is to consult with supporters and determine what steps you need to take to wrap up the relationship with this particular client or customer. For example: Will you refund some or all of their payment(s)? Will you refer them to other service providers? Will you block communication with them?

The next step is to communication your decision to the difficult client.

When presenting the break-up, it’s best to be direct. You can say something like, “I can see that this ongoing situation is difficult for you. It’s clear you aren’t happy and that my services aren’t satisfying you. The way you have been expressing your dissatisfaction and distress is harmful. I’m setting a boundary that will ultimately serve us both. I am terminating our relationship. Here is what you can expect next.”

It helps if you can do this in writing, or if you do it verbally, follow up in writing, with the next steps and what they can expect laid out clearly for their and your reference.

Step three is to implement the actions you have outlined to the client.

Then, step four is getting support.

The difficult client may not like what you’ve chosen to do, but that doesn’t make it wrong.

It’s important to remember that often, people don’t like it when you set boundaries or say no. This is where support comes in. Being able to discuss your reactions and have another person not only hold them with care but also support you to reconnect to your values and your decision in this situation is essential to holding firm in your boundaries.

It’s also important to remember that doesn’t make what you’re doing wrong. Again, support is invaluable here. Emotions can overwhelm you and cloud your thinking. Being able to unload your emotions in a caring environment makes it possible to think clearly and get perspective on a situation.

This is the kind of support I offer clients between sessions as part of my 30-day support for your emotional and mental well being as a business owner. You can learn more about that here.

About the author 

Shulamit Berlevtov  -  Shulamit (she/her) is the Entrepreneurs' Therapist. She is working passionately to mitigate the entrepreneurial mental health crisis through keynote speaking and educational workshops and by supporting women entrepreneurs 1:1 to care for their mental and emotional wellbeing and their money psychology in an era of relentless stressors that can make you want to lose your crap on the daily.

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