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How to deliver great customer service while still standing your ground 

The customer isn't always right.

By Ana Gotter · October 12, 2021
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I've worked in customer-facing roles in the retail and hospitality industries, and now I'm a freelance writer. In all three roles, I quickly learned that there are plenty of times when the customer is most decidedly not always right.

But even when they're dead wrong, what do you do? 

As a service-based business owner, I pride myself on delivering exceptional customer service, and I've learned how to create a strong client experience while also standing my ground. Here are my tips for how to walk that fine line as a service provider. 

1. Don't fall for an ambush 

In order to stand your ground, you need to be prepared. Being caught off guard is a one-way ticket to being taken advantage of.

Here's an example. I had a contract to write some website copy. I followed all of the instructions (including vague and frankly strange ones like "write sexy like James Bond"). I got great feedback from the client, and the project was complete. 

Then the client "wanted to talk." They insisted on a phone call at a ridiculous hour and refused to talk by email. I woke up at 6 a.m. for the call, and they promptly informed me they'd been working with two copywriters at once—and they liked the other person's copy more. Ok, no problem. Except they didn't want to pay me what we'd agreed upon, even though I'd completed the work exactly as specified.

It was an ambush. I knew it then, but I was too flustered to do much about it. They demanded an answer right away, and because I was still building my client base, I wanted to be agreeable. I said yes, I would take a discounted rate, and walked away with only half of the amount I had rightfully earned.

It was a mistake: the correct and only answer was no—to the call initially and to the request of a discounted rate. We had a contract, I delivered, and I even got positive feedback. I hadn't been participating in some competition; it was a job, and I did it.

Since then, I've had a few (now ex-) clients try to rattle me with last-minute calls or Zoom meetings to try to increase the scope of work without payment. I stick to email, and it prevents an ambush.

If you're ever caught off guard, try saying something like: "Let me consider it, and I'll get back to you through email later today." Maybe you'll decide they're being reasonable—and that's fine—but it puts you back in control of the decision.

2. Communicate standard policies upfront 

If you communicate your policies right off the bat, you'll have something really clear to point to when standing your ground, which makes it a lot less fuzzy.

For example, one of my standard policies is that my prices include one round of revisions that allows for up to 15% changes in the text. I made this policy because I had clients who would approve outlines and then ask for multiple rounds of edits that completely revamped the entire post—they didn't know what they wanted, and even if they were well-intentioned, it ended up losing me money.

Sometimes clients still ask for multiple rounds of edits. But I stick to my policies and let them know we can either use the existing edit or I can charge more for additional revisions. 

For your most important policies, I'd suggest reminding clients a couple times: once when they first sign on and then again when you start your first "project" with them (for me, that's when I submit my first draft). 

3. Put everything in writing 

I essentially run my entire business through email. There are a few reasons for that:

  • It's convenient.

  • It prevents those ambushes I mentioned earlier.

  • Most significantly, it allows me to keep a record of all communications.

There's no confusion when I can literally point to what I or the client said in an email two months earlier. Even after client onboarding calls, I send a written summary of everything we discussed and ask the client to confirm that the details are correct. 

Of course, if you're in a situation where you need to show your clients that you're right, do it delicately. Here's my go-to response: 

I completely understand where you're coming from, but for reference, I've attached the original email where you approved having this blog post be 1,500 words. Please let me know if you have further questions.

No one can argue with that, so you're able to protect yourself while ensuring the client that you're not trying to pull the wool over their eyes.

4. Know your boundaries in advance 

Boundaries are hard: in life, at an office job, and especially when you're running a business. When I started my business, I had no boundaries. I felt like I couldn't say no to anything—it cost me money and was terrible for my mental health.

When I realized what was happening, I realized I needed to officially set some boundaries. They didn't have to be part of my standard client-facing policies, but I needed to write them down for myself and stick to them. 

I started delineating what I would always say yes to (e.g., NDAs) and what I would always say no to (e.g., non-competes). This means:

  • I don't get decision fatigue every time I'm faced with a client request that I'm not sure is fair. I just follow my own boundaries.

  • I have a clear understanding for myself of what's good for me and my business, and I don't accidentally lose sight of that for edge cases.

I had a client, for example, who emailed me because a post with my byline mentioned one of their competitors. That mention had been added by my editor—I had no idea what the client was even talking about.

They asked me to remove the mention. I said I couldn't: my editor put it there, and I don't own the content. They then asked me to sign a non-compete that would be "at our discretion at any point" for direct and indirect competitors. This was a client who hired me for 3% of my annual income, and they wanted almost full control over my client relationships. 

I'd really liked working with this client, but I said no. It meant I lost the client. And it hit: it was right at the beginning of the pandemic. But I had a clear boundary I'd established for myself long ago—no non-competes—so I confidently knew that I was making the right choice. 

It's worth reviewing your boundaries (and your policies) every so often to be sure they're still relevant and meaningful for the current stage of your business, but don't do it so often that they're no longer helping you stand your ground.

5. Remember that clients who walk aren't a good fit 

Not all clients will be a fit for your business—and if they aren't, it will be almost impossible to deliver the experience they're looking for.

If you have a potential client that's trying to get you to do something that doesn't align with your skills, your contract, your availability, or your agreed-upon deliverables after you've said no, walk away.

I had a client who requested more content than I had time for one month. I told them I could write two blog posts for them, but I wouldn't be able to do the website copy they requested. They continued even after I'd said no, and even accused me of "letting greed block my blessings." I tried to give them the benefit of the doubt and explained how the site copy would take four times as long as the blog posts, but even then, they said I should cut my Christmas break short to make time. 

That was the end of that client relationship—and that's ok. Losing a client is never easy, but if it's not a good fit, you're better off for it.

More than 90% of all of the clients I've worked with as a freelance writer have been exceptional, and all of my long-retaining clients are a dream to work with. But there will always be clients with unreasonable expectations. Others will blatantly try to take advantage of you. And some will simply misremember or misunderstand something to the point where you risk a potential issue.

Knowing how to stand your ground—both proactively and after the fact—allows you to keep your business running smoothly while offering great customer service at the same time.

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