Dealing with a vague client? How to mitigate the potential frustration and come out on top


For the most part, people are very good at picking up on the verbal and visual clues that indicate another’s mood. For those in customer-facing positions –  whether it is over the telephone, via digital communication or face to face –  dealing with clients who aren’t entirely sure what they want is often unavoidable. Fortunately, there are a number of tell-tale signs. 

Being familiar with these warning signs will help you avoid the loss of a potential sale, nurture client loyalty, and otherwise mitigate the risk of a frustrating experience  – for both parties. Armed with the following strategies, here’s how you can take control of a situation involving a vague customer and come out on top:

What are the signs to look out for?

Let’s begin with face-to-face situations, as body language (or non-verbal communication) is the starting point. A vague client is not the same as a difficult client, because while the former could potentially get upset, you need to be aware that it is because they are probably unsure about their requirements.

Vague clients are easy to pick out. They are often indecisive and can spend a lot of time looking at the information provided because they are unsure of what their request should be. Undoubtedly clients who are unable to express their needs are challenging, but making adjustments to the way you approach them can go a long way towards helping them (and yourself) to understand their goals.

What kinds of questions are you asking?

Instead of trying to guess what your client is after by asking them ‘yes’ or ‘no’ questions, ask them opened-ended questions. This way, not only are they obliged to explain their requirements in more detail as they attempt to answer your questions, you might also be helping them to clarify what it is hey are really wanting.

Throughout your meeting or conversation, continue asking open-ended questions and seeking your client’s input to ensure you are both on the same page. It takes effort to rephrase the way you ask questions, but when it comes to dealing with vague clients, this is the best approach.

Are you able to offer them any examples?

Your client might be having difficulty envisioning the end result, or perhaps what you have in mind might be quite different from what they are imagining. The easiest way to get around this and seek clarification is with examples. No matter what service industry you are in, offer physical samples or hypothetical situations that will help your client to understand what you are able to offer them.

Go beyond pamphlets, brochures and samples around the office to even the Internet. With its wealth of information and resources, the Internet is bound to have the examples that you need. Are you in product or interior design? Do you do events or wedding planning? Websites such as Pinterest and Instagram are excellent places to find not just inspiration for your client, but also examples that might be similar to what they are after.

Are you really listening to what they have to say?

Sometimes when dealing with a vague client, it can be tempting to jump in and try to offer help in clarifying ideas. Unfortunately this can backfire in that the client could get more and more frustrated if what you are offering isn’t quite up to their desires and requirements.

If you find yourself in this situation, check yourself to see if you are over-explaining your services or product, or trying too hard to read the client’s mind. If you are, stop. Go back to asking open ended questions, and make sure you are listening very carefully to what they have to say. Let them do the talking – again, not only will you learn a great deal from listening to them, you are also allowing them a chance to clarify their thoughts so they have a clearer picture of what they need from you.

Tip: If you notice that your clients are getting a glazed look on their faces while you talk, it’s time to stop. It could be that they don’t understand what you are saying, or that what you are saying is irrelevant to their situation and they are tuning out. It’s time to let them do the talking instead.

Do you have a questionnaire that they can fill out?

Client questionnaires that are tailored specifically for your business are very useful, especially when you are meeting a client for the first time or dealing with a vague client. When formulating questions, focus on details such as your client’s likes or dislikes, as well as communication preferences and spending budget.

The questionnaire will help you to better tailor your product or services to the client’s preferences, and it also serves as a reference document that you can keep going back to throughout the process to ensure that you are staying on track and adhering to your client’s budget.

Dealing with vague clients can be tricky but more often than not it’s necessary,  so don’t forget to equip your staff with the information and skills they need to satisfy clients by clarifying heir needs. Handle this right, and your business will come out on top in more ways than one. Remember, even a vague client is unlikely to get frustrated if they realise that you are trying your best to listen to their needs.


About the author

Karen Hoogenbosch is the Director of Animal & Odd-Bod Creators, an Australian based company that specialises in custom-made corporate mascots and costumes. Having worked with a wide range of high profile clients and hundreds of community-based clubs, Karen is experienced with dealing with all sorts of clients – from the know-it-alls to those who are still trying to figure out what they really want, she’s seen them all!