How to have an awkward conversation with a customer without losing them or harming my reputation

In a recent training course we ran, one of our attendees ran a garden design company and raised this question – ‘How do I have an awkward conversation with a customer without losing them or harming my reputation?’

Basically, the problem she had was that as she was very enthusiastic about signing up new customers, she didn\’t take the time to make sure that their expectations were clear on what she was, and what she wasn\’t, going to do from the point of view of hours invested and numbers of meetings.

So it was not an uncommon situation that her customers took up a lot more time than she expected.

And she was feeling stressed because she was earning less than she needed, and was not able to get more customers because of the extra time she was spending unexpectedly on existing customers.

So I got the idea of this blog from that problem.

I think it\’s a very common problem.

I would suggest that there are two issues here.

The first issue is how to deal with it once it\’s already happened, and you haven\’t managed it upfront. The second issue is how to manage it upfront.

Let\’s do first things first and discuss how to deal with it when it hasn\’t been managed upfront.

The most important thing to do here is to remind yourself that the reason this issue has arisen is because you haven\’t set the customer\’s expectations properly upfront- or if you have, the customer wasn\’t honest with you.

So, either way, there\’s an awkward conversation to be had.

I think this is a good situation for use of a win/win agreement, and the communication skill set out in the ‘Seven Habits of Highly Effective People.’

And this is a classic situation we help our customers out with when using our ‘Communication, negotiation and mediation’ service.

In a nutshell I would suggest that anyone in this situation would take the following actions:

  1. Arrange a meeting with the customer and tell them about your intent and desired results.
  2. The intent would be to have a reset meeting in order to ensure that the job gets done effectively, properly and on time, the customer is happy, and the supplier is able to budget, stuff like that.

The desired results are that we have a clear agreement on what can and can\’t be delivered, we reset expectations on the project, and we ensure that both parties are happy and committed to the expectations so that the relationship can move forward with both parties being happy.

  1. Set out your own list for your guidelines, ie, what do you think should happen? Your resources: time, money and people, what do you think\’s needed? Your accountability: how would you like to have it reviewed, how do you want to keep the other person on track, and how do you want them to keep you on track? And consequences: what happens if this works, how is that going to affect the relationship?

And, of course, the consequences of how, if this doesn\’t work, or if you can\’t come to an agreement, what actions do you think you ought to take then.

  1. The next step then, of course, is to have the meeting with the customer and to outline again the intent and desired results, but not then go through your guidelines, resources, accountability and consequences, and instead to employ the fifth habit of the of the ‘Seven Habits of Highly Effective People:’ Seek first to understand, then to be understood.

To spend some really good time asking open questions, making sure you understand, nudging the customer towards commitments one way or the other through these questions, and coming to a better understanding of how the customer sees the situation.

  1. Then the next step is to repeat it back to them and to make sure that\’s everything. And normally in this situation, most of the problems that you thought you had will have been resolved because you\’ve understood the customer better, you\’ve understood what expectations they\’ve had, and through your careful questioning you will have got these expectations more in line with your needs.

Then you then go to ‘seek to be understood’ – the second part of the habit – and you can outline your concerns, your desired results, and your guidelines, your resources, your accountability and your consequences as you\’ve thought through, but you can do it in a way that is aligned with the customer\’s needs and desires and is very empathic towards them … because you\’ve taken the time to sit and listen to the customer and ask all the right open questions up front.

Now, of course, we would then expect this whole issue to come to resolution.

There will, of course, be situations where you cannot agree because one party is not being flexible: that\’s what we would call a ‘no deal’.

So please do make sure that if that\’s the situation, you see our material on no deal and how to deal with no deals and communication problems.

Now moving on to the second scenario, how to set up expectations properly so you don\’t get into these problems in the first place.

Again, we would suggest using a win/win agreement.

Starting off again with your intent and desired results.

The intent is to do an amazing job, and in the case of the garden designer to transform the situation and deliver a wonderful job.

The desired results are to have a really good plan that gets a fantastic result at a sensible rate in a sensible time, without any waste of time and money, and with everybody feeling delighted about it.

Then, of course, you go to second step (which we call ‘guidelines’ and ‘resources’ in the win/win agreement), which is you then ask the customer all the questions – what do they want, where do they want it, how do they want it, who have they are spoken to, what are their expectations, blah, blah, blah – all of those questions that we outline in Slow Selling under the sales process.

Make sure it\’s done with open questions and continually listening and making sure that you are addressing the customer\’s real needs. Remember the customer\’s real needs being trust, easier life and attention!

And then you repeat the previous process where you reflect back to check that you\’ve got it right, and then you start to build your plan together.

You’re now finalising the guidelines, resources, accountability and consequences in conjunction with your customer.

A good phrase to use to start to set the time and money budget (the crucial bit!) is:  ‘Great! Now I can really understand what you\’re trying to achieve … for these types of situations it normally takes between this amount of meetings and this amount of time, and therefore will cost you somewhere in the region of this.’

Now if there\’s a problem there with the price, you\’ve immediately got something to sort out straight away. You don\’t move forward until you’ve sorted it out – and please see our other Slow Selling information on how to solve that problem.

But assuming that that\’s going to be right and you\’re in the right ballpark, you’re then very clear in what your expectations are.

So your plan needs to include the number of meetings, the time it\’s going to take to do the plan, the number of plans, the number of variations of the plan, the budget etc.

We’re talking of garden design here, but this applies to any situation and includes all the stuff that you would normally need in a customer contract.

Then you need to agree the accountability: how are we going to review progress?

(and, by the way, I\’m suggest that this should include a feedback process to put the customer at ease, whatever is suitable for your situation).

And then the consequences. What\’s going to happen if this goes according to plan, ie, what other services can you perform? Maybe an annual, or monthly, or quarterly service, a follow up?

I.e. What other things can happen if everything goes according to plan that might benefit the customer, and of course will give you extra business?

How are you going to gather feedback from them? And what you\’d like them to do if you’ve blown their socks off, to recommend you to their friends, etc, etc? – all of the stuff we teach standard in Slow Selling.

And then the last thing to consider is the consequences of this not going according to plan:

How will we deal with this if we have problems? What if it goes over time? What if we can\’t agree? What if there are too many variations? What if it goes under time? How are you going to make sure you charge them less if it goes under time? How are they going to be able to keep in touch with you? And how are they going to ensure that you have done a great job?

A really in-depth process using the win/win agreement.

So there you have it!

A simple approach of course. We haven\’t got time in a blog to do this in depth, but hopefully that gives you an overview of a really straightforward win/win, honest approach using all of the Slow Selling principles to have the proper conversations with customers upfront to make sure you don\’t get into a muddle in the first place – and then to have the awkward conversation that you\’re going to need if you do get into a muddle, without losing your customer or harming your reputation.

And of course, like all of the stuff in our in our blogs and podcasts, please do contact us if you have any questions, want to know more or have a specific awkward situation you’d like some help with.

Slow Selling is a UK based not for profit organisation for leaders of independent businesses.

It is a methodology to help you slow down, set up systems for long term success, and use these to grow sales and profits through reputation, attraction, recommendation and referral.

Without wasting time, money and stress on unnecessary marketing and promotions.

To find out more, please click here

Share the Post:

Dig deeper into Slow Selling

Check out these resources to discover more about how the Slow Selling principles can help your business.



Download our free audiobook 'The 4 Vital Principles of Business Success.



Apply the secret principles of the world's most successful businesses.



Contact us to enquire about 'Slow Selling' support for your business

Scroll to Top

Learn how we helped 100 top brands gain success.

Let's have a chat