Julie Tucker
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The right way to tell a client they are wrong

We’ve all heard the old saying, “The customer is always right,” and understand the importance of keeping clients happy when it comes to running a business. However, what happens if a client is wrong?

Just as it’s crucial to give customers what they want, it’s equally important to find a way to resolve a problem tactfully and amicably, should they have decided on the wrong solution.

The way you tell a client “no” impacts your future relationship and dictates whether they will continue to deal with your company. This is why it’s vital that you handle an awkward situation in the right way.

Potential difficulties

While we all want to keep our customers happy, sometimes what they suggest is simply wrong. However, if you tell the client they’re wrong in a way that irritates them, it’s likely to be the end of your business relationship.
If handled badly, this can be an incredibly uncomfortable situation. You need to tell them they’re wrong if their decision will have a negative impact, while also emphasising how much you value them as a client. Tact is the key.

This scenario requires plenty of finesse to keep the client happy, as you don’t wish to make them feel foolish. There are certain ways to tell a client they’re wrong to turn it into a win-win situation.

Know when the client is wrong

As a business person, you must be astute enough to spot when a client is wrong. There are two common scenarios when you may need to step in. When a client is being rude and obstructive, this is the most obvious one. It’s the easiest situation to recognise, but can be the hardest to deal with if someone is irate.

The second situation is more subtle, but you still need to recognise it. When a client is acting on information they have learned independently from you, choosing a solution that you know isn’t best for them, it can be tricky to handle.

There’s a fine art to telling your client “no”. The solution is to disagree gracefully and then cleverly weave in an alternative solution as your discussion progresses. Before you bring up the topic, however, you must take certain steps to ensure it doesn’t end badly.

Make sure the client is wrong

Ensure the client is actually wrong. Don’t start a delicate conversation if you don’t have all the facts. Recognise the difference between someone being incorrect, or simply disagreeing with their opinion, which may, or may not, be right.

If you’re disagreeing with the client over something you agreed on earlier, for example, ensure you always have proof to back yourself up. Put agreements in writing, have the client approve the documents and make notes in meetings, so you always have something in writing about what has been agreed.

Understand your client

Make sure you understand exactly what your client is suggesting by meeting them in person to discuss the matter properly. It’s easy to miscommunicate information by email, as it’s hard to convey the tone. It can result in you causing hassle over nothing.

If you can’t meet in person, speak on the phone or via a video link and get all the facts together before giving your opinion. If you need to clarify anything, do so properly before you raise the subject of your client being wrong.

Get straight to the point

The best way to raise the delicate subject is to get straight to the point. Don’t beat about the bush. Once you’ve established your client is wrong, break the news politely, but without sugar-coating it.

Some people deliver bad news with phrases such as “with respect” or “no offence”, but this can have the opposite effect of what you intend and can be extremely irritating. In fact, it can make you come across as patronising. Saying “no offence” can actually cause more offence than the information you wish to share.

The phrase “with all due respect” is the most hated in the workplace, according to a survey by jobs site CV Library. A massive 46.5% of respondents said it was the “most aggravating” thing a colleague could say to them. This is why the best strategy with clients is to be straightforward, without being rude.

Deliver your verdict and the evidence behind your thinking to the client without trying to butter them up. You will find it’s much better than issuing an apology at the same time and trying to be over-pleasant.

Focus on facts

If the client starts to disagree with your professional advice, arguing their corner, don’t take it personally and get emotional. You may feel angry and frustrated at the client for not admitting their mistake.

Remain focused and rely on the facts of the matter, rather than turning it into a personal battleground.

Mention your experience

You’ve been hired by your client for a reason. They can see you know what you’re doing, otherwise they wouldn’t have commissioned your services. However, sometimes they lose sight of this and focus only on their own vision, rather than trusting you to handle their affairs.

This can be a good time to reassure your client to trust you because you know what you’re doing. Remind them of your years of experience and that they need to trust you to work it all out. Give the client your professional view on the projected outcome, should they continue down their own chosen path. They might not have thought of this.

Come up with a solution

Suggesting a viable alternative can increase the client’s trust in your abilities. You need to make sure you’re achieving your client’s goals, without dashing their enthusiasm. You may not be able to convince them they’re wrong, as people can be stubborn, but make sure the conversation ends on a note that enables you to move forward together.

This means you need to suggest an alternative way of achieving what the client wants. This can help you to avoid ongoing problems and will ensure you keep the client.

The important thing to remember is never verbally attack the client, however frustrated they leave you feeling. Always remain civil, keep in mind their goals are important and suggest viable alternatives to help them achieve those aspirations. By demonstrating your knowledge base, you will be able to reach an agreeable outcome more easily.

Why tell a client they’re wrong?

Regardless of how keen they might be to follow through with their own idea, it’s your job to protect your client’s business. Always be honest and build a good, lasting relationship with them.

If you’re handling their marketing and they come up with an obviously bad idea for an advertising campaign, it’s up to you to let them know in a tactful way that isn’t going to ruin your relationship.

Often, your client may be so confident in their idea that it will be challenging to dissuade them. When you’re in a tricky situation, listen to their idea, say you understand why they’ve come up with it and ask if you can build on it to come up with the best campaign.

You could explain how, over the years, you’ve identified the optimum ways of connecting with and engaging your target market. Suggest a different plan, but without dashing their enthusiasm, as you want to keep them on board, rather than denting their confidence.

With experience in dealing with difficult situations such as this, you get a feel for it and will learn how to handle it better.

Next time you encounter a client dead set on a plan of action, practice the subtle art of coming up with an alternative solution, explaining how and why there’s a better option. Tact and respect are paramount when it comes to telling a client they’re wrong!

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