If you work in accounting, bookkeeping, or any professional services job long enough, you’ll probably find yourself in conflict with a client at some point. Whether it’s a simple misunderstanding or one that puts your entire relationship in jeopardy, emotions can run high, affecting how you handle the situation and the decisions you make along the way.
Every conflict is a progression, and having a basic plan for how you’ll handle each stage will help you work through all types of client difficulties. Notice the common thread that runs through each stage—open communication.
Before: Prevent conflicts from getting started
The best conflict is one that never has a chance to turn into one, so build some tactics into your relationship management strategies that can help prevent them:
- Work to build a personal connection. Most people will at least try to keep conflicts from getting out of control if you have a relationship built on trust. Check in regularly to talk about what’s working and what’s not for them.
- Make sure you’re clear on the scope of your services and pricing. Having a well-crafted Service Level Agreement (SLA) will help, but don’t assume clients will read it thoroughly. A conversation is the best way to promote transparency and set expectations.
- Be clear on upcoming deadlines. Because so much of your work depends on getting documents and information from your clients, communicate early and often what you need and when, even if deadlines are spelled out in the contract.
- Keep clients educated. The more clients understand what you do, why it takes time, and the consequences of not having enough time, the more willing they’ll be to meet deadlines and give you what you need.
During: Keep your cool and keep communicating
Probably the hardest part about handling any conflict is keeping your emotions in check, but it’s also the most critical. Respond to your clients with some empathy and understanding. You might even find that if you keep an open mind, some client conflicts actually uncover ways to improve your services. When you find yourself in the midst of conflict:
- Be careful about agreeing to unreasonable requests. Sometimes your client might ask you to remedy the situation by agreeing to do something outside the scope or timeline of your service agreement. If the relationship is worth saving and you can do it without hurting your business, at least be sure the client knows you’re making a one-time exception.
- If a mistake was made on your end, own it. Even if the original conflict arose because you were trying to appease the client by over-promising something you shouldn’t have, admit it, find a solution, and move on. If you’ve built a positive relationship, it should withstand the mistake.
- Keep communicating; listen to what they’re really saying. Try to find out what’s behind your client’s issue. Maybe the conflict is just a result of them not understanding what you need from them or something as simple as a technology issue.
After: Move on with positivity or decide to cut ties
When you reach the “after” point, the conflict is either resolved or has proven unresolvable. If it’s the latter, you have a decision to make—do you want to continue the relationship? All relationships are two-way and require a level of trust. If the client has been abusive, lied to you, or is costing you more time and money than the relationship is worth, it’s probably time to sever the relationship. The key is to understand what really happened:
- Sit down with some colleagues—or perhaps even a relationship coach--and review the situation. There’s something to learn from every conflict. Try to understand what was behind your client’s issues and motivations and what you could have done differently.
- If you resolve the conflict with the relationship still intact, review the situation with the client (but don’t dwell on it). Clarify what you’ll do on your end to prevent it and reset expectations with them.
- If you decide to “fire” the client, do it professionally and in a way that won’t expose your firm to potential liability. Consult with your professional liability insurer to protect yourself legally. Usually, they’ll advise you to start with something in writing in a way that’s more about your firm’s direction and doesn’t sound accusatory.
Client conflicts are an inevitable part of the job, but they should be rare. If not, look for commonalities and consider whether changes to your marketing, SLAs, or other aspects of your business would help. Training and coaching from outsiders with a fresh perspective can help too.