Bad clients — oof. A bad client experience can suck all of the enjoyment, passion, and excitement out of your business. Under the surface, however, there’s a much more insidious consequence.
One negative review or unexpectedly harsh pushback from a client, and we can easily start spiraling. First, we shame ourselves for failing with the deliverables and, by extension, failing our client. But it doesn’t take long for those negative feelings to snowball beyond that one instance.
In a flash, those bad client experiences become unimpeachable validators of all of our worst fears:
“I’m so frustrated. What am I doing wrong?!”
“I was so stupid to think I could do this on my own.”
“If this is what owning a business is going to be like, I can’t … I just can’t.”
“Who was I kidding? I’m not cut out for this.”
“I’m a failure. I always will be.”
Have I done a lot of things in life that have scared me? Absolutely. It makes me feel a bit pukey, but I love “doing it scared” as I throw myself outside of my comfort zone to embrace new challenges. That said, like many of you, I’ve also felt emotionally wrecked over bad client experiences.
For example, in the early days of my wedding photography business, I photographed an absolutely stunning couple for an engagement session. After our photoshoot, I sent over the gallery of their images, which was always an exciting moment for me. That’s when a couple finally gets to see what I see in them — the radiant beauty of their love in its purest form.
Unfortunately, that’s not at all what happened in this case.
The bride-to-be replied she was unhappy — very unhappy, in fact, in numerous ways. She heavily critiqued the lighting and the posing, she shared concerns about the style, she hated how she looked, and on and on.
As I read the email, I felt absolutely sick with my heart pounding and my mind was racing:
“How did this happen?”
“Oh my gosh, what did I do wrong?”
“Wait, why is she questioning my process?”
“How do I even begin to fix this?”
I also felt paralyzed by my fear to the point where, at first, I missed the bigger picture of what was happening. The styling, posing, and lighting of their photos were completely in alignment with what we had discussed, and again … they both looked so beautiful and in love.
The real issue, as it turns out, was that she was unhappy with herself.
Once we talked through her feedback it became clear that virtually all of her criticisms were focused on her own physical appearance. I say that with no judgment because I’ve been there myself… and frankly, it broke my heart. (How social media, diet culture, digital manipulation, and filters have utterly destroyed how an entire generation of women feels about their bodies … it’s infuriating and it’s also a substantial discussion for another day.)
Whether we’re talking about the art you’re creating for someone, a service you’re providing, or a passion you’re living out through your business, you’re not running a soulless company.
More than likely, you are your brand. You are your product. Your heart and soul are in everything you do and create. So, when a client unexpectedly turns on you with dissatisfaction, it’s all too easy to respond in one of two ways:
These are natural and very human ways to react, but embracing insecurity or a defensive posture in these moments is completely counterproductive when you’re a business owner.
The cruel joke, of course, is that our brains are wired to prioritize negative feedback. Seriously, you could get a thousand fantastic reviews raving about your products and services … but it’s always that one review that keeps you up at night, right? The one bad apple that spoils the rest of the bunch and skews your perspective.
But instead of pointing fingers (at ourselves or our clients … or both!), you should ask yourself a more productive question.
OK, it’s time for a bit of tough love from this mama bear, because two things are true when we talk about this question and how you need to answer it:
I mean it, cut yourself a little slack here.
Are you going to need to make some changes? Most definitely, and we’re about to dig into what those changes are. But you’re not a failure; you’re in good company, no matter where you are in your entrepreneurial journey.
If you’re first starting out on your own and struggling with bad client experiences, this is part of the learning curve we all go through. And if you’ve been in business for a while, keep in mind that you should never stop iterating, growing, and evolving. You’re dynamic, not static — and so is your business.
Now, let’s talk about how to get you back on track.
I’ve learned more times than I can count that most of the bad client experiences that occur are often entirely preventable. So, with a clear mind, reflect on the bad client experience (or experiences) in front of you and see if you notice any patterns:
These are just a few examples. Remember, don’t shame yourself when you uncover these red flags and patterns; this is a learning experience and you’re unearthing how you’ll make your business stronger going forward.
It’s similar to when you’re a new parent wrestling with postpartum anxiety (hello, me) and your infant coughs. In seconds, you’re worrying if they’re dying or have cancer … again, all in response to a single cough.
Whew, OK! Another tough love mama bear moment. You are still the totally badass, brilliant, beautiful business owner I know you are … and deep down, you know that, too. But you also need to take responsibility for where you are, because it is entirely within your control to change it.
Undoubtedly, your clients will do things that are entirely outside of your control, and that will always be the case. For instance, what a client chooses to say in an email or how they react emotionally to unmet expectations … you can’t control that.
When you take a look at what is within your control as a business owner, you’ll start to realize that bad clients appear in one of two ways.
There’s the client who was a bad-fit the moment they showed up at your virtual doorstep, and there was nothing you could have done to change that. And then there’s the client who could have been great … but they turned bad in reaction to triggering circumstances during your engagement.
The approach for both of these “bad client” groups, however, is the same — prevention. What I mean by this is you need to critically evaluate the processes, platforms, and people touchpoints that may be enabling these bad clients … and then you need to do something about it.
Start talking about who you are for and who you aren’t for. Be clear about your values. Rethink what boundaries and expectations you set with clients if the ones you rely on now are no longer serving you.
Think critically about how clientflow automation platforms (like Honeybook) can help you reduce friction in your client experience, increase your efficiency, and decrease the amount of time you waste on manual administrative tasks.
Look, I know bad client experiences can really hurt. And I have no doubt the sadness, frustration, and exasperation you’re feeling is warranted.
But now it’s time to let it go.
I know it’s hard, but you’ve got to shake off those feelings of helplessness and inferiority, because you’re neither helpless nor are you inferior. You’re a powerhouse and a small business owner, and your capacity to transform bad client lemons into the most sweet good client lemonade is greater than you can possibly imagine.
All you have to do is ask yourself the right questions:
Then answer them honestly and make changes accordingly. Remember, you’re in control. You’ve got this!
© 2023 Natalie Franke