How to Deal with an Unhappy Client

It would be wonderful if your freelance writing business rolled along smoothly, wouldn’t it? (You got all the gigs you applied for, you always got paid on time, and all of your clients loved you.) It sounds great, I know. Hopefully, most of the time all of these things happen for you.

However, in the unlikely event you need to put out a fire with a client who is less than happy, here are some tips:

Acknowledge what the client is saying.

If the other person feels as if they are being listened to, that will serve to help them to calm down. The last thing you want to do is to let the situation escalate. A simple, “I can appreciate that you are frustrated/disappointed” is appreciated.

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Make sure you understand what the problem is.

This is a simple matter of, “You are saying that you had asked for [X] and you got [Y] instead.” Say or e-mail it back to the client so you are both on the same page.

Don’t lay blame or make excuses.

This is just a waste of time. Even if the problem could be attributed to someone else’s action (or lack thereof), it doesn’t matter at this point.

Commit to fixing the problem.

Once the client understands that there is a solution and that you are committed to helping find one, it helps them move away from being upset and on moving forward. Apologize for the misunderstanding and come to a consensus about how to solve the problem.

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I try not to focus on why something didn’t go as planned because we don’t have the ability to go back in time and change things. Maybe there was a breakdown in communication or I just plain got it wrong. It happens. I apologize and focus on fixing the problem. Then I commit to making changes so we don’t run up against the same problem in the future.

Once the problem has been solved, move on.

This one is a hard one. So far (touch wood), I haven’t lost any clients because of a mistake, but I do tend to beat myself up mentally if we have had to deal with an issue. I am getting better about saying, “I’ve gotten on the wrong track here, and I’m glad you have pointed it out so that I can get back on the right one.”

How do you deal with an unhappy client?

About the writer: Jodee Redmond is a freelance writer, editor, and Internet researcher.

First published in February 2007; updated September 2021





14 responses
  1. Matt Avatar

    Those points are good points, unless the client is in a perpetual state of unhappiness. Then the rules change a bit. 😉

  2. Jodee Avatar

    True enough, Matt. Sometimes the best thing to do is to agree to disagree and let them go.

  3. Shell Avatar

    I’m very lucky, my clients have been happy and nice people too. One, whom I have been writing for for over 5 years now, has always been good and quite flexible to work with.

    Great article Jodee 🙂

  4. Shell Avatar

    Sorry, spot the mistake two(fors)… oh dear, I must be slipping 😉

  5. James Chartrand - JCM Enterprises Avatar

    Excellent post with some good, pro-active, calm advice. I see way too many writers go on the instant defensive instead of figuring out how to fix the issue. Getting upset, sucking all your intense insult in and using it as a weapon does no one any good.

    I’ve had one case where the client really wasn’t happy at all but it was too late to revise the work. I reimbursed her half the money, and she thought it was such a nice gesture that she hired us to do business again.

    Clear guidelines go a long way towards a perfect project!

  6. Sarah Avatar

    I had a client once who wanted me to do copy and design if I could. I only write copy but my husband was learning design at the time so after discussing it with him we decided to give it a try as a team.

    The copy was fine but the design side of things turned out to be a disaster! The design itself was fine but the dimensions were all wrong. The client kept giving us the dimensions and we’d get them right according to the design program we were using but the client said they were still wrong.

    He got more and more irritable as his deadline drew near, understandably until, in response to one particular email, I snapped.

    I basically said that I had been busting my ass for him just so he could have what he wanted and he had no right to get arsey with me.

    On reflection, that was the wrong thing to do. I should have stayed professional about the whole thing.

    The other lesson I learned from that experience was never to offer design work again!!!

  7. Jodee Avatar

    Thank you Shell and James! 🙂

    It’s perfectly OK to take a few minutes (or longer if you need it) to re-read a client’s e-mail to try to figure out what they are really saying. It’s quite possible to take something the wrong way at first glance and miss what the person is trying to communicate. (I’ve done it myself, especially if I’m stressed or overtired.)

  8. James Chartrand - JCM Enterprises Avatar

    Well, remember too, that many clients hire writers because they can’t write themselves – so clear communication doesn’t always happen.

  9. Erin Avatar

    The best defense is a good offense. For me, the number one insurance policy against unhappy clients is a bid letter that clearly defines our relationship, responsibilities, delivery of the product, and what I can and can’t do for free. Cuts down on unreasonable demands while allowing me to deliver something that meets expectations. 🙂

  10. Amy Derby Avatar

    Great points, Jodee. I’ve been lucky that thus far I’ve only had one case where the client’s unhappiness was due to my own misunderstanding. Luckily, it was a small portion of a big project, so the client was satisfied as long as I rewrote that portion. I took off 15% of the total fee for the inconvenience, and the client hired me again.

  11. Jo Avatar

    Some clients are never satisifed no matter what you do.

    A person will never be able to satisfy every person they work for or meet.

  12. Susan J. Avatar

    Jodee, this is great advice not just for freelance writing, but for life. You could basically apply this to any type of interpersonal dispute.

  13. sue Avatar

    I had to let a client go today. I started working with her a few weeks ago and quickly realized that she would be a time sucking black hole of negativity. I comped her about $300 worth of work, because I wanted her to go away. Not something you can do with large projects, obviously, but for the repeat horror story clients – send them back out into the universe, but send them back out HAPPY.

  14. James Chartrand - JCM Enterprises Avatar

    Ha, well said, Sue. Here’s on on 11 tips on how to end the client relationship that sums up just how to part ways with your reputation intact – and still shining.

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