Here’s the hard fact…if you spend enough time making cakes and selling them to taxpaying humans, at some stage, you will encounter a “difficult client” down the road. Maybe you haven’t run into one yet, or perhaps you have run into quite a few. In whichever case, it is as unpleasant an experience as one can imagine. I have been blessed to have only encountered very few “disgruntled clients” in the past 5 years of decorating. But however many or few, it is important to know how to tackle the situation should it unexpectedly spring up like a cake loaded with excessive baking soda.
In dealing with a “difficult client” it is important to realise admittedly that at some stage, we too have been “difficult clients” in at least one scenario all through our lives.
One key thing to always remember (I’ve learnt), is to manage complicated client relations with a LONG TERM perspective, and not a short term one.
Firstly, let’s ask the question – Why do “difficult clients” exist?
- Miscommunication/ misunderstanding
- Different expectations
- Clients wanting to “undercut” a vendor
- Dishonesty (from either party)
- Poor execution/quality
- Difficult circumstances beyond one’s control
Here are the 5 steps I take in managing any client complaints:
This is especially important to do when you as a vendor, are at fault. I’ve found however, it is equally important apologise even when we are not at fault. Apologising helps appease clients and soften their emotions, giving way to a rational discussion. So even if there was zero fault on my part, when faced with an unreasonable client, I would say something like “I’m so sorry you feel this way”, or “I apologise for the disappointment you’re experiencing..”
- Find out the root issue
This will require what I call “diplomatic digging”. Calmly, and respectfully talk things through with the client to find out the root cause for their disgruntlement. You can’t effectively resolve an issue unless you know for sure what it is.
Is the cake you produced drastically different to what was promised? Perhaps you need to upskill, or be clearer/more specific in your cake contract, or keep in mind not to overpromise.
Is the client merely trying to get a refund for monetary gain? Perhaps you need to stand firm, or revisit your T&Cs
Has there been a misunderstanding over logistics/specifics? Perhaps you need to offer some form of restitution, freebie, make-up service etc.
Once you have understood the root issue, this is when you need to make some hard decisions on how to appease your client.
If you are getting an earful from the client on the phone and are unable to make a firm decision on the spot, then respectfully say “Thank you for letting me know all this. To be fair to you, I would like to take some time to consider how I can best assist you in this scenario. Is it alright if I email/phone you by <tomorrow/tonight/this afternoon> with a solution?”
It is always better to take some time to weigh up the situation. You may even want to speak to a trusted family member/friend/business partner/mentor to bounce back ideas on how to best resolve your client complaint. Ways I’ve dealt with difficult clients have varied depending on the situation, but they have included:
- Partial refund
- Replacement cake with another baker
- Gift voucher
- Polite Refusal to make cake (unavailability status)
As mentioned above, I personally believe that managing complicated client relations should be done with a LONG TERM perspective, and not a short term one. So sometimes, it is better to release a partial refund (to appease an upset client) even when there was no fault on our part to maintain our personal & professional reputation. In this day and age where slander and public humiliation is only a few clicks away, it is important to handle upset clients as neatly and cleanly as possible. That said, it is important to be wise and distinguish between an “upset client” and someone who is merely trying to take advantage of you (In such scenarios, you would have to simply stand your ground politely & resolutely).
- Follow up
A follow up would look different in each unique scenario. With some clients, you may want to take the “cut & run” approach. Provide your resolution, move on swiftly & cut all ties. I tend to do this with overly needy clients who can never be satisfied.
Then there are those who have been at the receiving end of a mistake, a wrong order (any disappointment caused by us to a certain degree). After providing a suitable resolution, it is good practice to send a follow up email (if and only if suitable). It can be something as simple as an email saying “Thank you for your understanding over the past matter. Once more, I would like extend my sincere apologies over any disappointment caused. Rest assured I am now taking actionable steps to ensure this does not occur again in the future. I will be introducing <example> processes to further improve efficiency in this area. I would like to thank you for your patience in this matter and I hope to serve you again at another opportunity”.
You only want to send a follow up like this in instances where you see the potential of serving this client (or this customer’s social circle) again in the future. For difficult clients who are out to seek personal gain or who relish in slander/meanness, a “cut & run” approach may be necessary.
Flowing on from this, it is important ask yourself “How do I stop this issue from occurring again in the future?” My theory is that if it’s happened once, it could happen again. So “difficult clients” can actually help us to reduce miscommunication, mistakes, unrealistic client expectations & financial trappings.
Here are some actions I’ve taken that helped me weed out complaints & client issues:
- Have very clear, very strict Terms & Conditions which clients must read & sign prior to booking an order (Yes, I even did this for a small order of 12 cupcakes when I first started my business and it’s helped put a “standard procedure” in place)
- Apply a non-refundable Deposit to protect sales losses (anything above the deposit may be refunded at vendor’s consideration)
- Have a rock solid Cake Order management system to reduce mistakes
- Always, always consult your ‘Cake Order Sheet/Details’ throughout the duration of the cake production process (It’s amazing how easily we can get little details mixed up in the kitchen)
- Email clients 1-2 weeks prior to the event date to ensure everyone’s on the same page and you have covered all your bases
Above all else, no matter how upset, mean or seemingly evil a client, my number one rule that has served me well is simply to BE.NICE. Even when a client is upset through no fault of mine…I simply grit my teeth, say what needs to be said, be firm (when needed), and be overly KIND & LOVELY throughout. It’s worked more times than I can count and ultimately, keeps your conscience intact to take on a new day!
Has this article helped you? Let me know how it has and I’d love to hear how you resolved a difficult cake client situation in your cake business.!