Start a business and stick around long enough, and there's a good chance you'll encounter a client, that--for whatever reason--is unhappy no matter what you do.

You may have already experienced a client like this; the type with completely unreasonable demands, a total lack of appreciation for your time or talent, and an entitlement attitude that makes you want to quit and go home.

Raise your hand if you know what I mean.

Before we go any further, I think it's worth stating that no matter what happens with a customer, even if it's not your fault, it's always your problem.

Even if the client is upset about something that was beyond your control, or out of your hands, it's still your problem to deal with. You only have two choices: you can figure out how to solve their problem, or you can fire the client.  

The question that every entrepreneur wrestles with is "how do I know when to try to make a client happy (solve their problem), or when to cut my losses because they'll never be happy (fire the client)?

Here are four things you can do to deal with difficult clients:

1. Know the difference between difficult clients and clients with difficulty.

There's a huge difference and it turns out that it changes everything about how you should respond. 

Most of your customers are reasonable people--but for one reason or another, you've either failed to meet their expectations, or they are having a difficult time.

They aren't difficult people, but somehow their expectations aren't aligned with their experience. Whatever the cause, there's a good chance you can help them through it, and make them happy.

On the other hand, difficult customers are the ones that can't be made happy. There's just something about them, that no matter what you do, no matter how hard you try, no matter what heroic effort you make, they won't be happy.

It's not your problem that they are difficult. It's also not about you.  

In fact, there's almost nothing you can do to help a difficult customer, they're just difficult for the sake of being difficult.  

2. Fire difficult clients.

When you discover that you have a difficult customer, fire them. No questions asked.

Too often, we entertain this abuse and allow these customers to suck valuable energy and life out of us. We think that somehow we might be able to make them happy, and we're afraid of what they might do if we don't coddle them.

Nothing they can do to you is worse than the life they've already sucked out of you.

If there's nothing you can do for a difficult client, why on earth are you spending any time at all on the relationship? Your responsibility is to fulfill any previous obligation to these customers and then terminate the relationship as professionally--and as quickly--as you can.

3. Know that expectations are everything.

On the other hand, you can often set yourself and your customer up for a win by taking time to clearly communicate expectations.

From the very first encounter you have with a customer, your job is to create and manage their expectations. When you don't, they fill in the blanks based on their assumptions and understanding. Give them a clear understanding of your process, how you work, what they should expect and when, and how to get ahold of you if they have questions.

By the time a client is asking you for something they thought they should already have, it's too late.

4. Take one for the team.

Many times when we encounter a customer experiencing a rough time, we get defensive about their problem and place blame and fault on them. Even if we think we've done everything right, the reality in front of us is that we failed to meet clients expectations.

So what now?

In most cases, the best choice is to ask yourself what it will take to make this customer happy.  

Often the answer is much easier than it seems, and a simple apology for the misunderstanding, with an offer to make it right, goes a long way toward creating a win.  

I find that when I swallow my pride, give a sincere apology, and focus on how to make it a win for the client, I come out far ahead.

In fact, it's in the most difficult times that we have the opportunity to create customers for life. We have the chance to do something unexpected that causes our clients to feel valued.

In the long run, that's far more valuable to me than standing on my ego and pride and refusing to budge just because I think my customer is being difficult.

Published on: Jun 29, 2019
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.