How to Turn a Toxic Client Relationship Around

November 15, 2017
How to Turn a Toxic Client Relationship Around

Want to know the key to turning a toxic client relationship around?

Well today's article details just that!

Steff Green, Hubspot sales blog contributor and WorkflowMax wordsmith, shares more on the topic below. Check it out!

How to Turn a Toxic Client Relationship Into a Winner

This article originally appeared on and for Hubspot. Written by Steff Green.

Firing a client is a bad situation for all involved. Ideally, you want to avoid it at all costs.

So what do you do when you can see a client relationship rapidly deteriorating? Here’s our six-step guide to bringing that client back to loving you:

Step 1: Pinpoint the Disconnect

The primary cause of a breakdown in your agency/client relationship is miscommunication or mismanaged expectations. This might come about because you and your client have very different experiences. And so you read a situation one way, and they read it completely differently. And once this disconnect is established, more drama piles on top until your relationship completely breaks down. This can often happen if you’re using email as a means of communication — sometimes the context of emails can be interpreted differently.

Where did things go wrong? You can’t fix things until you understand what’s broken. It might be easy to look back on the relationship, and discover the cause. Or you may need to ask for an outside perspective or chat to the client in order to figure out where things went wrong.

Part of this stage may be acknowledging (both to the client and to your team) that someone at your agency is responsible. Accept the blame if required, and make sure the right processes are in place to prevent the issue happening again.

Step 2: Confront the Issue Head-On

If you’re going to save a toxic relationship, it’s important that whatever was causing the relationship to go toxic is resolved or removed from the picture. Now that you’ve figured out the problem — and it has to do with the client’s behavior — it’s time to have a frank discussion with the client to ensure this issue doesn’t continue to escalate.

Perhaps your client made an inappropriate remark to one of your staff. Or maybe they have unrealistic expectations around communication or deadlines. You need to explain to them that, if you’re going to continue to work on the project, they need to adjust their expectations and treat your team with dignity and respect. If they cannot see how their behavior has contributed to the breakdown of the project, then it is not worthwhile for you to salvage the relationship.

Step 2: Hit Reset on the Relationship

Sit down with your client and start from the beginning again. What were their expectations from the beginning of the project? What are their expectations going forward? And what would make them happy with the project?

It can help to frame your reset around “company improvement” agenda. Explain to the client that you’re looking into improving processes at your agency, and ask them for feedback on what processes you can improve on.

Step 3: Reassess Communication

How would your client like to receive communication from you? Perhaps if you changed the format of communications, things wouldn’t get “lost in translation”?

For example, when I worked with writing clients, I primarily did all my communication via email. I’m a writer, so I found writing down what I needed from the client, explaining my processes, and checking off lists easier in email. Most clients were happy with this. However, I once did a large project with an older client who couldn’t really access email well and found it really difficult to use.

The client was getting frustrated at not being able to read and reply easily, and I could sense it wasn’t long till the entire project went sour. So I suggested we switch to phone communication. I'd call him twice a week at the same time. He was much happier with this arrangement, and the project flowed perfectly from that point onward.

Step 4: Stay Cool, Calm, and Collected

This should go without saying, but if emotions are running high, it can be hard to keep your cool and respond in a professional manner. But it’s absolutely imperative that you do so. No matter what the client says or how they react, don’t respond in kind. Be professional, calm, patient, and firm.

Don’t let them walk all over you, but don’t engage in shouting matches, either.

Step 5: Create a Plan

Now that you’ve sorted out what the problem is and everyone has had a chance to air their grievances and cool off, it’s time to formulate a plan. How are you going to approach this client going forward? What are you going to do to to fix the current situation? The client doesn’t want some vague assurance that everything will be different. Show them an actionable, specific plan and they will be much happier.

A huge part of creating a plan is managing the client’s expectation. Ask: “What would you like us to do to rectify the situation?”

They might have some ideas you haven’t thought of.

Step 6: Send Them Some Business

Nothing says, “We love you, really” like sending some referrals on to your client. Obviously, this tactic will only work if you have an acquaintance who has a need of your client’s product/services. And you feel happy referring them (i.e., you believe that, despite the issues you’ve had with them, the client provides value to your referral). It shows that you believe there’s a future in the relationship, and that you have your clients’ best interests at heart.

Winning back the trust of an unhappy client isn’t easy — and there will be some client relationships that are just beyond mending. But by breaking down the issue into its root cause and creating a plan for getting back on track, you’ll be able to repair most broken relationships and turn many of the most agitated clients back into fans.

Free Resource: Making Client Relationships Work: A Guide for Sales Leaders

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