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

Ileana Lund

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:

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:

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:

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:

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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