Managing difficult client conversations: 6 proven strategies

Despite the competency of your team and the success of your firm, mistakes are simply inevitable. Therefore, you must know how to handle difficult client conversations. But how?

Managing difficult client conversations is a tricky business. However, it is your job to make these discussions as productive as possible - whether that's by providing temporary solutions, apologising to your client or just listening to their concerns.

Throughout this article, we will outline some of the issues accountants commonly face with their clients before exploring how to navigate the difficult conversations that follow.

Identifying challenging scenarios

a man looking through a magnifying glass to represent how to handle difficult client conversationsAs with all relationships, there are highs and lows - for an accountant, these lower moments often involve managing difficult client conversations. But before we discuss how to handle difficult client conversations, let's explore some of the challenges that illicit these difficult discussions. Here are five common challenges you may encounter as an accountant:

  1. Your client wants your opinion on a tricky matter. For example, they may ask for your opinion/support on something that might be considered aggressive tax planning. By withholding your opinion on the subject (to discourage certain matters), you may experience some unavoidable friction.
  2. You don't have an immediate answer. Some clients will expect you to have an instant response/solution to their every query. Unfortunately, this isn't always possible (despite your best efforts), which, in turn, can cause tension between you and your client.
  3. You cannot meet a deadline. It's your responsibility to inform your client of the delay. Whether you have one or several valid reasons, there's no guarantee your client will accept or approve of them.
  4. Your client hasn't provided the necessary information. If your client doesn't provide you with the essential details for a project, you cannot fulfil your end of the bargain. As a result, you have to find a solution to move them and the project along.
  5. Your client is facing additional charges. Informing your client that they are being charged extra for additional work can be a difficult conversation to navigate - especially when they're unaware that certain activities cost extra (i.e. assisting tax inspections).

Essential resources to read: 


How to navigate difficult conversations

Now that we have explored some of the common issues you may face as an accountant, it’s time to get into the nitty-gritty - how to handle difficult client conversations.

Choose the right setting

two women conversingNow that remote working is at an all-time high, navigating tricky client conversations is even more challenging. (Where once you may have delayed these discussions until you were in person, face-to-face meetings may no longer be an option.) Therefore, to successfully handle difficult client conversations, you must choose the right time and place to facilitate these meetings.

Firstly, assess your options - can you meet in person? Or are you limited to a video call? (Emailing is NOT an option!) After that, you need to block out a reasonable amount of time to discuss the matter thoroughly. Ensuring your client has the appropriate time and space to process this information will allow you to have a more productive conversation and (hopefully) find a solution.

Address the issue(s) early on

Avoiding an awkward conversation won't make the problem go away - if anything, delaying it will only make matters worse! To prevent things from getting out of hand, you need to address any issues you encounter quickly and concisely.

It isn't to say you should report back on every potential issue or minor hiccup (that could become overwhelming for your client) - instead, the intention is to keep them in the loop. That way, when a problem does arise, you can address it together rather than trying to handle it alone.

Develop a plan

a planner with a coffee on itThe best way to handle difficult client conversations is to develop a plan beforehand. Whilst you may not have an immediate solution, providing your client with options and potential next steps can help to soften the blow. Equally, you're able to shift the focus from the problem to the solution by using your initiative and strategising for the future.

If this isn't possible, you need to (at least) decide where you want the conversation to go. What is the desired outcome? Once you know what you're aiming for, it's easier to navigate the conversation in that direction whilst maintaining your composure and boundaries.

Be clear and direct

Now is not the time to beat around the bush - if you're facing an imminent problem, you need to be upfront about it. Transparency is crucial when earning a client's respect and trust, so ditch the corporate jargon and start stating the cold hard facts. Just keep in mind that honesty without tact can often be hurtful.

Alternatively, if you have made a mistake - own up to it and apologise. Try not to get emotional or defensive, instead acknowledge your error and take responsibility for your actions. Remember, when handling difficult conversations with clients, the goal is to find a solution - not to win an argument.

See the situation from their point of view

a monkey looking in a mirror to symbolise how to handle difficult client conversationsWhen you first encounter a problem, your initial reaction will probably be to assess how this will affect you and your firm (lost profits, missed deadlines etc.). However, if you want to handle difficult client conversations successfully, you need to show your client some empathy. Ask yourself how you would want to receive the news and replicate that when addressing your client. Make sure you allow them time to process and ask any questions.

If your client has a highly emotional response, try not to take it personally. Instead, remain calm, express your apologies and reiterate that you're here to support them - you're both working towards a common goal.

Know when to walk away

If, after everything, your client continues to treat you with disdain, present you with the same problems and drain your time and resources, it may be time to re-evaluate your relationship.

Walking away from a client is not a decision to be taken lightly. However, if your client relationship is fractured beyond repair (despite your best efforts to resolve conflict, present solutions and own your mistakes), then perhaps it's time to give up the ghost.

 Read: How to Exit Gracefully from Your ‘Legacy Clients’ for the Benefit of Your Small Accountancy Practice


Communication is key

people having coffeeManaging difficult client conversations isn't just about pleasing your client and following the path of least resistance. It's about providing them with the best possible service, which requires honesty and (at times) bravery too. When handling difficult client conversations, remember to:

  • Strategise beforehand
  • Be empathetic
  • Communicate frequently
  • Be open and honest

Not every problem will have an immediate solution, but with the help of these tips, you can facilitate a productive conversation with your client whilst minimising the risk of conflict.


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