Leadership

Biting the bullet: how to have difficult conversations with your clients

by on 25th July 2019

Why do we find conversations of a sensitive nature so difficult?  Is it a fear of conflict? Or of confrontation? Of freezing up? In a client/agency scenario – depending on the discussion at hand – there could be quite a lot on the line: the pressure to put the client at ease competes with the need to get your point across.

Particularly as a business scales, everything naturally becomes more complex, expectations become higher, and the likelihood of difficult conversations increases.

Get it wrong and there may be implications for your company’s reputation, its bottom line and even potentially your job.

However, having a difficult conversation does not have to equal conflict.

The secret is in the approach. With a slight change of mentality and tactics, we can communicate more effectively with our clients, achieve our desired outcomes and build a stronger, more collaborative relationship.

To help get your dialogue started on the right foot, this post will take you through how to structure conversations in a way that will help you avoid conflict, gain your clients’ trust and soothe nerves.

What sparks challenging conversations?

In any business relationship, even those that are exceptionally strong, awkward situations are going to arise. Here are a few scenarios I’ve come up against over a career agency-side:

  • Unexpected results/Underperformance
  • The client asking for work that falls outside of the scope
  • Conflicting deadlines/unrealistic expectations of delivery
  • Dissatisfaction with quality of services provided
  • Misunderstanding of the purpose of deliverables
  • Late payment of invoices

When these things happen, avoiding the conversation is not an option – you’ve got to face things head-on to get resolution and move on. Whether this goes well or badly depends on a few factors.

The SCARF model

“The problems that occur between people could be reduced if there was a wider understanding of some of the basic needs of the brain… which if not met, create a sense of threat that can quickly devolve into conflicts.”

David Rock, The Brain at Work

In his book, The Brain at Work, David Rock breaks out these social needs as:

  • Status: our relative importance to others
  • Certainty: how positive we are of the predicted outcome
  • Autonomy: our sense of control over events
  • Relatedness: our sense of safety with others
  • Fairness: our perception of fair exchanges between people

Watch this video on the SCARF model to understand each stage in more detail.

If any one of the above factors is not met, difficulty usually ensues. The more imbalanced this is, the more likely conflict will occur. Your job is to make sure any interaction with your client is as balanced as it can be.

In an agency scenario, this could play out in a few different ways:

  • Status: if a junior member is liaising with a senior client stakeholder, the large disparity in status could potentially lead to issues. In this instance, it’s best to consider who is the right person to be having the conversation and escalate internally if needed.
  • Certainty: nothing should come as a shock to the client. Whether it’s a problem regarding spend, human error, or poor performance, the longer a client is left in the dark about an issue, the bigger a problem it will cause when it comes out into the open. There should be a consistent base level of honesty at all times.
  • Autonomy: this is where clarity of communication is important. The client should remain in control of the deliverables being provided. Make sure they understand the scope of the work, what the purpose is and what outcome they can expect.
  • Relatedness: does the client trust you? Quality of service, transparency, a proven track record will help you here. Without initial trust, you’re fighting an uphill battle and every conversation, no matter how small, will be difficult.
  • Fairness: was the budget proportionate to the work provided? Did the client get good value for money? A client/agency relationship is transactional in nature, so any perception of unfairness here is going to undermine your position. Make sure you’re always upfront about time, fees and scope, and provide added value wherever possible.

Prior to having a potentially awkward conversation, be mindful of the above factors and make sure you’ve addressed any problem areas before you speak to the client. Do this to dissipate the unease and continue to strengthen that working relationship.

Laying the groundwork

All the theory in the world won’t help if you’re not prepared. Following these steps can make you feel more equipped to handle a difficult situation:

  1. Be prepared

Make sure you gather all the background information as well as everything that went on internally that led up to the stage at which a conversation became warranted. If the issue is performance, research the data. If a deadline doesn’t seem achievable, what do you need from the client to make it happen? Pre-emptively think about what questions the client might ask you and proactively get the answers. The more prepared you can be, the better.

  1. Envisage the ideal outcome

Start with a positive perspective and work backwards to tailor your approach accordingly. For example, if results aren’t where you want them to be, your aim is reassurance. Communicate what you’ve learned to make your next steps more efficient, or what actions you can now take to reverse the trend. Structure your conversation with an agenda to make sure you don’t miss anything.

  1. Don’t delay

The worst thing you can do when a challenging talk needs to take place is avoid it. Get ahead of any bad results or potential issues. The longer you leave it, the worse it will be. Bite the bullet and have the conversation as soon as you can. Eat that frog.

  1. Practice empathy

Putting yourself in your client’s shoes will enable you to not only spot any SCARF factors, but also see how issues are going to directly affect them. Have they put their reputation on the line internally? Do they have limited budget to try out new things? Are specific KPIs more important than others? Is it a particularly hectic time of year? Be sensitive to the client’s situation, tailor your approach accordingly and your conversations will go that much smoother.

  1. Listen

While this closely relates to empathy, the ability to really hear what the client is saying is crucial. Be open to their perspective. Even if you don’t always agree, be open-minded to their interpretation of an issue, as you may be able to find a ‘win-win’ solution faster.

Training nerves with confidence

Our immediate cognitive response to the threat of a tough chat is a classic ‘fight or flight’ reaction. Your limbic system goes into overdrive, overwhelms your pre-frontal cortex and renders you immobile. And that’s before you’ve even started talking to the client.

A few weeks ago, Builtvisible hired Kirsty Hulse from Roar Training to run confidence training for our staff.

Confidence has to come into play whenever we feel a rush of nerves. This could be anything from public speaking to an uncomfortable chat. Therefore, this kind of training is invaluable for anyone working with clients; for Client Services in particular, being able to control or manage this kind of emotional response is incredibly important.

Using neuroscientific research, she gave us some activities we can consciously do to trick our natural, unconscious response to negative situations:

  • Labelling: articulate in a couple of words how you’re feeling. The act of addressing it with language skills will actually calm you down
  • Normalising: reassure yourself that feeling nervous is a completely normal and entirely rational reaction
  • Repositioning: apply an outside perspective by thinking of someone you admire and asking yourself how they would handle the situation
  • Distancing: zoom out – is this really going to matter in a day, a week or a year’s time?
  • Reframing: instead of a negative mindset, apply positive emotions. You’ll be surprised how easily your brain naturally follows along

I’d suggest trying them all out, as one might unexpectedly work for you more than the others.


Nobody wants to spend their time having difficult conversations if they don’t have to. Using the above model and tips should help you understand how to handle these situations like an expert while making you aware of the wider factors that contribute to success, allowing you to resolve them swiftly and get on with the rest of your day.

Practice makes perfect; the more you have difficult conversations, the easier you will find it and the better your client relationships will be.

Remember, great communication is built on a foundation of transparency, trust and empathy, so take all of these things with you whenever you’re speaking with clients, no matter the type of conversation you’re having.

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