We joined forces with Lattice to build a practical feedback guide for small businesses. Read the rest of the series and learn how to give non-jerky feedback to your employee, coworker, and boss.

It’s not easy giving feedback—especially to the people who pay your bills.

Adam Kunes has firsthand experience with the particular weirdness of giving customers feedback. He’s the owner of Have Fun Do Good, a small business that gathers groups of strangers to travel and volunteer together. As can be expected from group travel, sometimes things get out of hand—which has led to some sticky client situations.

“During one of our first trips, a few participants had a little too much fun with adult beverages,” Kunes remembers. He and his tour group were staying on a houseboat in Lake Powell when six participants were drinking too much and blasting Justin Bieber, annoying the rest of his clients.

Kunes confronted his partying participants and asked them to “quiet down and go easy on the booze,” he says. “We’re all about having fun and letting loose, but safety is our No. 1 priority. I had to go Dad-mode in the morning and tell those people they couldn’t hike that day.”

It was tricky because his clients pay him to have relaxing and meaningful vacations. Kunes says the incident, while quickly managed, was a learning experience on how to effectively give feedback to clients—without making them hate him.

Why you need to give your clients feedback

Yes, clients are the ones paying your bills. But that doesn’t excuse them from behavior that could put your business at risk, make an employee feel uncomfortable, cause your business to lose money, or add too much stress to your life.

Here’s the key: Giving clients feedback won’t destroy your business.

If you’re having trouble with a client, it’s your job to give them feedback before things get out of control. For Kunes, the safety of his trip participants depended on how he delivered that feedback.

Giving clients feedback is a big deal. If you don’t finesse your ability to give feedback, you may end up having to fire your clients instead—which is a much bigger ball of awkwardness.

How to actually give useful feedback to clients

According to Kunes, there are two main things to keep in mind when giving clients constructive feedback.

Know your audience

You have to understand your clientele, no matter how varied they can get. “Our trips go really fast and we end up managing a lot of different personalities,” Kunes says. Recognizing that each client might have different experiences and expectations has helped him give valuable feedback that is tailored to each person.

Cut to the chase, nicely

“I’m a big fan of getting right to the point and being as open and kind as possible,” he says. Don’t skirt around the issue. Use the scripts below to be as direct as possible, while still being nice.

Feedback templates to steal

Here are three common client situations—and templates to help you handle them.

1. When a client says something offensive

The reality of running a small business is that the customer isn’t always right, despite popular belief,” Kunes says. “Sometimes, you may have to deal with a difficult person no matter how above and beyond you go for them.”

Kunes draws on the experience of other trip participants to redirect a client who says something off-color. For example, if the client’s behavior would upset another customer, he calls attention to how their actions can affect others. He also recommends adding your own personal experience to the feedback to underscore why what you’re saying matters.

Try these lines to follow his approach:

  • “How would Theo react to that comment?”
  • “I worry someone here could take offense to statements like that. Please, don’t say that again.”
  • “From my experience, I don’t think that’s accurate.”

2. When there’s a misunderstanding

Get your guidelines for working with you out there, and make it easy for clients to access them, suggests Kunes.

“We set the expectations for our experiences well in advance through reviews, video testimonials, and a continual presence on social media,” he says. This limits misunderstandings by ensuring there are multiple ways for trip participants to inform themselves about the company’s services.

So before you set up a relationship with a client, outline exactly what you will deliver, including timelines and procedures, and make it easy to discover. You may want to put up a public page on your website called “FAQ,” “Ground rules,” or “What to expect” and send it to clients before they agree to an engagement.

Here’s what that looks like on Have Fun Do Good’s site:

While these kinds of rules are usually captured in a contract, it can help to have a public page that lists out everything your clients should expect from you.

If a misunderstanding does occur, consider these diplomatic phrases:

  • “I’m sorry you misunderstood. What can I do to make that clearer next time?”
  • “I see you were expecting something different. Can we set up a call to discuss how to get on the same page?”
  • “I have an idea. Let’s add the due date to our calendars to make sure there are no misunderstandings.”

Coming up with a solution can help your client see that you’re thinking about ways to fix the misunderstanding, and it takes a bit of the weight off them. It also shows that you value the relationship and it’s important for you to find ways to improve.

3. When a client is chronically late on payments

“This is never a fun one,” says Kunes. While it helps to understand why a person might be late on paying an invoice, Kunes usually gives them “two nudges in the most diplomatic way possible” when someone fails to pay a bill on time.

Then, he tells them exactly what will happen if they don’t pay—their reservation will be canceled and he’ll reopen the spot. If Kunes still doesn’t receive the money after that, he goes ahead and cancels it.

If late payments happen more than once, schedule a chat with your client to see what’s going on and how you can help them pay more quickly. Easy fixes like sending automated reminders and shortening the payment cycle can also help.

Here’s the progressive approach Kunes uses:

  • “Have you seen my latest invoice? I sent it on Tuesday. Did you check your spam folder? Can you reconfirm your email address?
  • I’m afraid we’ll have to reopen the spot you reserved if we don’t receive a payment soon. Can you get it to us by Friday?”
  • “We need to close our books by the end of the month, so I’d appreciate prompt payment. If we don’t receive it, I have no choice but to cancel your reservation.”

Feedback done right will help you focus on creating the best possible experience for your clients.

“There will always be circumstances out of our control,” Kunes says. But by accepting that state of flux and brainstorming ways you’d address potential issues, you can put yourself back in control.

Annie Siebert Annie is a Pittsburgh-based writer and editor. When she’s not behind the keyboard, Annie enjoys cooking, baking, running, and hiking.
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