Whether you’re fresh out of school or a seasoned veteran of the working world, receiving a tongue lashing from a difficult client is never easy. And while your instinct may be to hide under your desk to duck and cover, eventually you’re going to have to face the music (and your client), and that’ll require some finesse.
Fortunately for you (and not so much for me), I’ve had my share of angry clients to manage. And over the years, I’ve picked up a few useful strategies to help divert people off the warpath and on to friendlier territory.
Step Away From the Email
If you’re anything like me, your first instinct when responding to an angry client might be to protect yourself from the fallout by using email as a shield. While this is only natural, the results can be disastrous. When you speak with someone, your inflection and tone of voice can help ease his or her nerves—but no one can pick that up over email. Also, you can’t control how someone will read what you’ve written, so your intentions might get completely misunderstood, pushing a situation into dangerous territory.
A perfect example of this was when I had been corresponding with a client via email for several days, when she suddenly expressed frustration over something we’d already discussed several emails before. Instead of picking up the phone and walking her through what we’d already discussed—professionally and courteously, of course—I responded via email. Now, what I said via email and what I would’ve said over the phone were exactly the same, yet she read it as being curt and condescending. What’s worse, she forwarded it to my boss and complained to him directly.
This raises another important reason to avoid email when handling angry clients—you never know who they’ll forward your messages on to, and how those individuals will interpret the conversation. Bottom line, whenever possible, have these tough conversations in person or over the phone.
Let Them Know You’re Listening
When I first started out, I thought I was the queen of multi-tasking. So when a client called to complain about a transaction he claimed I had botched, I was convinced I could investigate the issue while he was still on the line.
Boy, was I wrong. After a few minutes, the line went silent, then my client nearly screamed at me, “Are you even listening to me? I can hear you typing!”
I was horrified, but I then realized he was right. Although I thought I was just being efficient (and trying to cover my you-know-what in the moment), his perception was that I didn’t consider his issue urgent enough to stop what I was doing and hear him out.
After that, I made a point to always stop whatever I was doing at the first sign of trouble, making sure my clients knew they had my full, undivided attention. Even if that means you need to go to a conference room or hush your colleagues for a minute, do it.
Let Them Vent
One of the most difficult parts of angry-client interactions is biting your tongue and resisting the urge to defend yourself, get your side of the story in, or point out to an angry Ms. Smith that actually, she was the one in the wrong.
I made that mistake once, and only once.
A client called, completely irate that I’d spoken to her assistant about her account, claiming she’d never given me permission to discuss her personal affairs with anyone but her. I responded by politely reminding her that she’d given me written authorization only days before. Did she believe me? No—she immediately denied it, hung up on me, and promptly called my manager to complain.
Although she did, in fact, provide the authorization, it was a mistake on her part, and my pointing it out just made matters worse. As I learned, an angry client is often an irrational one in the heat of the moment, so calling her out on her mistakes won’t win you any goodwill. In fact, it’ll probably do the opposite.
So now, even when I know I’m right, I bite my tongue—at least at first—and just listen while my clients blow off a little steam. Remember that cooler heads will always prevail.
Acknowledge Their Frustration—Then Apologize
This is conflict resolution 101, but it’s in a textbook for a reason. Whenever an issue arises, one of the first steps toward diffusing the situation is acknowledging the elephant in the room—even if your client is the only one who sees it.
A while back, I had a client who was nearly demanding my dismissal because he was convinced he’d instructed me to do one thing—when in fact he’d done the opposite. He reamed me out for a bit, and when he finally stopped to take a breath, I simply acknowledged there was an issue we needed to discuss, and apologized for the frustration it had caused him. To my surprise, he immediately deflated, and before I knew it, he was speaking in a civilized tone. Soon after, he even praised me for a job well done.
Validating your clients’ concerns helps alleviate their need to further justify their anger, and moves you one step closer toward a more civilized discussion. Figure out what’s chafing your client most, acknowledge it, and genuinely express your regret for the inconvenience. You’ll be amazed how far these simple steps will advance your discussion.
Kill Them With Kindness
Sprinkling some genuine kindness throughout your talks with an angry client can be pretty tough, given you’ve already let them vent and apologized for the flub. But this is the magic ingredient. Without it, neither of the other tactics will solidify, and you’ll find yourself back in a screaming match—and probably in your boss’ office—in no time.
Case and point: I had a client upset over the performance of her financial portfolio, and was asking for additional information (while complaining about everything under the sun along the way). I did everything right—I listened to her concerns, I gave her my undivided attention, and I apologized. But here’s where I messed up: I did it with resentment in my voice, not kindness or empathy. The result? All she remembered from the conversation was that I was “condescending,” and the fact that I’d actually resolved her issue was completely irrelevant.
Cinch the resolution by expressing all of your communication with your client, both written and verbal, as if she was the person you respected most in the world—someone you’d be careful not to offend. Suck it up, be as nice as you possibly can, and you’ll assure that your prior efforts to calm her down won’t be undone.
Know When to Bring in the Big Guns
There will be times, however, when there’s really nothing you can do to mollify your client, and that’s when it’s time to call for reinforcements.
There are a few key signs that will indicate you might need help. First, if your client is constantly calling into question your authority or experience, she could be hinting that she wants to speak with someone more senior. That’s fine—when a client feels an error has been made, a natural reaction is to seek out the most influential person she can find to acknowledge and resolve the issue quickly.
Another signal it’s time to bring in the boss is if you feel the discussion is becoming personally offensive (or you think you might lose your cool). In my experience, whenever voices are raised beyond a conversational tone, or profanity is used beyond what I’m comfortable hearing, that’s when I know it’s time to loop in my boss. And don’t feel bad calling in the big guns—that’s what they’re there for. The old saying, “the client is always right” only goes so far, so you should never feel like you have to endure a hostile conversation.
Last but not least, remember, there’s safety in numbers. Whenever a situation looks like it might be getting out of hand, it’s always a good idea to bring someone in to help handle the situation. In fact, it will provide valuable backup in the event something even more serious (like a lawsuit) transpires.
Quieting an angry client means walking a delicate tightrope between action and intention. But start by showing your clients you’re truly committed to helping them out, and chances are they’ll ease up, allowing you to take the steps necessary to assure the issue won’t arise again.