It's said that emotion has no place in business. It's not personal.
Yet, emotions influence decision-making and the ability to trust. Building an emotional connection is a key aspect in building a long-term relationship.
However, most people are not trained in how to deal with anger, frustration, disappointment, and a host of other emotions that happen as a result of client-agency interactions. When a client expresses his emotions due to a mistake from the agency or a miscommunication, people struggle with figuring out the right thing to say or the right way to handle the situation.
So how do you calm the client's visible displeasure and salvage the trust that remains? How do you refocus their frustration and work together to find a solution to the current problem?
The first step is getting the client to talk through the problem. Use these prompts to continue the conversation in a productive way:
1) "I really appreciate this feedback. If I understand you correctly, you're saying ..."
Miscommunication is the cause of many frustrations in business. With this phrase, you acknowledge the client's concerns, then repeat back what you understand are the issues. This allows the client to feel heard, and it confirms that you understand the issue. This is the first step to opening a dialogue about what went wrong, and eventually, how things can be resolved. But first, you have to get on the same page about the problem.
2) "I'm confused about how this happened. Can you help me understand X?"
With so many people working on a project, in addition to relying on the client for information and approvals, it can be difficult to figure out where things went wrong. You first need to ask your team what happened, what roadblocks occurred, and how they tried to solve problems. But you also need to know the client's side of the story. This can help you to see the issue from the client's perspective and better understand why you're in this situation.
3) "Would you prefer to continue this conversation at another time or through email?"
Your client might be a jerk. She also might just be extremely upset for good cause. She's got people to report to, and your performance affects her performance. But that doesn't mean you need to sit still and suffer verbal abuse. If you feel like the conversation is veering off into territory that is inappropriate in a business situation, ask the client if she would prefer to continue at a later date or through a different channel. Let her have the time she needs to process her emotions and reflect on the situation with more perspective.
4) "I completely understand. You have every reason to be upset in this situation."
Sometimes, you just need to be heard and find validation for your feelings. Using this phrase will let your client know that she is right in feeling frustrated, angry, or disappointed. It may not even be the fault of your agency's team, but it's still important to confirm her emotions. The sooner she can find validation, the faster you all can move on to finding a solution.
5) "We could complete the project by X date. Would that work for you?"
If your team missed a deadline, whether it was due to a slow approval from the client, project unknowns that caused a delay, or a mistake by your team, you need to quickly solve for the only thing that matters moving forward -- delivering the work. Using this phrase helps to refocus the client's energy on getting the project completed, and it allows her to be brought into the decision-making. Make the client feel like she has power and control over the next steps.
6) "What would you consider a fair solution to this issue?"
Repairing trust takes time, but the first step is giving your team another opportunity to show that it can be trusted to do amazing work. The client needs to give you that opportunity, though. She has to show that she is willing to keep an open mind and allow the relationship to be repaired. This question allows the client to voice what would make her happy. And with that information, you've just been given a second chance.
7) "We're sorry."
Being a leader means being accountable. That doesn't mean that you accept the fact that your team is at fault. But you, ultimately, are responsible for results. As John Coleman wrote in Harvard Business Review, "Fault is backward-looking, and responsibility is forward-looking. Fixating on blame delays taking corrective action and inhibits learning. Focusing on responsibility offers a sense of peace."
Saying you are "sorry" for the situation, for what happened, or for how the client is feeling is a simple way to show empathy and your resolve to move past this situation.
8) "Is there anything we can do to save this relationship? We value this relationship and want to continue working with you."
If the client's anger has transformed into action -- meaning she wants to fire your agency -- consider whether or not it is worth it to try anything and everything to salvage the relationship. Referrals and word-of-mouth are an important source of new business for many agencies. Try to salvage the relationship (if it's worth it) so that your company has another opportunity or more time to improve your reputation.
Originally published May 25, 2016 9:00:00 AM, updated July 28 2017