A woman with short curly hair sits at a table and faces the person across from her with a serious expression and her eyebrows raised. She has one arm on the table, the hand raised as if asking for patience. The shoulder of the person across from the woman can be seen in the foreground, out of focus.
Your client hired you for your expertise and experience, and it can help to remind them of that when you push back against a bad idea. — Getty Images/julief514

Business leaders hire you because you’re an expert in your field. Some let you take the reins without much pushback. Others want to share ideas and insights as part of a collaborative team. But your customer isn’t always right. So, how do you tell a client that they are wrong without straining your relationship?

Customers may share a bad idea or make an unreasonable request. Maybe it’s an error in their tax preparation process or their desire to use an unethical marketing tactic. The bottom line is that not every client’s request is valid. Become a strategic communicator by learning how to handle a customer who is wrong.

Acknowledge their strong points before pointing out an error

When correcting someone, the recipient of criticism may get defensive. Once that happens, it’s difficult to work through it. Set the tone by approaching delicate topics in a nonconfrontational manner. “By starting with a positive phrase, you can ‘soften the blow’ when you express your professional opinion about why their idea is bad,” wrote Christina Rebuffet-Broadus, Founder of Business English with Christina.

Once you thank them, repeat their idea or concern. Professionals use this method for active listening, a key soft skill. Amy Lofts, Founder of Never The Right Word, suggested then explaining to your client “why their option is noteworthy and valid.” Acknowledging their opinion in a neutral tone keeps their mind open to what comes next.

Lastly, move into the subject of right versus wrong. Perhaps they have an unfounded complaint. Or they want to move in a direction that won’t get results. Victor Cheng, Founder of CaseInterview.com, said, “Don’t say: you are right, they are wrong. Instead, say, 'I have a different point of view.'”

Use data visualization to support your response

A customer isn’t always right. But “you must realize that their perception of the problem is their reality,” said Bernhard Heine, Founder of and Coach at Professional Business Coaches, Inc. Sharing data in a visually friendly format is one way to politely approach a client who is wrong. After all, “the human brain is wired to see structure, logic, and patterns,” wrote Data Scientist Elena V Kazakova in Towards Data Science, a Medium publication.

By starting with a positive phrase, you can “soften the blow” when you express your professional opinion about why their idea is bad.

Christina Rebuffet-Broadus, Founder of Business English with Christina

Your data visualization method will vary based on the client and the problem. For instance, an analytical forecast may show why their idea won’t work in the long run. Or a short video can highlight where the customer made a mistake when using software or creating a report. Get facts from a reputable source, such as an industry trade magazine or government agency. And consider comparing results for their way versus yours.

Be flexible and willing to compromise

Become a better communicator by avoiding absolutes like “never” or “always.” If your customer is wrong, is it possible to humor their idea or use parts of it? In this case, look for one factor you can agree on. Then build upon that to create a solution based on their feedback and your insights. However, Laura Click, Founder of Blue Kite, said, “Know when to hold the line and when you simply need to appease the customer.”

It may be impossible to agree with certain ideas or behavior, such as:

  • Unreasonable or unrealistic concepts.
  • Ideas that won’t get the desired results.
  • Unethical activities.
  • Actions that are harmful to your staff or business.
  • Time-wasters that are beyond the scope of your contract.

[Read more: Expert Advice for Productively Dealing with Angry Customers Online]

Gently remind clients why they hired you

Click stated, “The client is not always right. In fact, that’s exactly why companies hire an outside marketing firm — or any vendor, agency, or consultancy — because they don’t have all the answers, and they need help.” Mentioning your experience or how you solve problems can remind customers that they trust you to get the job done correctly.

Indeed, Rebuffet-Broadus called the phrase “in my experience” magical. She suggested telling a short story about a previous, high-profile client. Doing so “may remind your client of your credibility and expertise, and why they hired you.”

CO— aims to bring you inspiration from leading respected experts. However, before making any business decision, you should consult a professional who can advise you based on your individual situation.

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