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How to Defuse a Client Freakout

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We’ve all been there -- a client calls, frustrated or even angry about something that happened, and he blames your agency. Often, it’s not your fault, but that’s the last thing your client wants to hear right then.

No agency can function without clients, but when this happens regularly, it can make you want to quit. That’s true whether you run a small agency and work with many clients directly, or if you run a larger agency and you’re coaching your team on how to handle things when a client freaks out.

To put things into perspective, client freakouts are a common problem at agencies. In my experience as an agency consultant, most agencies experience at least a few client freakouts a year. This article will help you defuse them -- and start finding ways to keep them from happening so often in the future.

Remember that this is about them, not you.

The first step is to recognize that this is about them, not you. If they’ve reached out -- because you’re their contact or because they’ve chosen to escalate above one of your employees -- this is your opportunity to save the day.

Marketing expert Jay Baer writes, “People who complain put in the effort to register their opinions, which is much better than the silent frustration and apathy of the unimpressed middle.”

Focus on helping them feel heard, helping them calm down, and figuring out how you can resolve things. According to research by Zendesk, an unhappy client is 50% more likely to share about their experience than a happy client -- so do your best to turn things around.

Get the client on the phone.

Shift the conversation from email (or text message or social media) to a phone call as soon as possible. You’ll have fewer miscommunications via phone -- and you can adjust what you say as the conversation unfolds.

If a client cold calls you without notice to unload about a problem, take notes to keep track of what he said. And if he calls and leaves a voicemail, call him back the same day.

Don't interrupt -- let them vent their concerns.

People want to feel heard -- so if a client calls sounding upset, let him talk. If you interrupt him, he’ll get more frustrated.

Take notes on what the client shares, since you’ll want to recap his concerns later in the call.

Act quickly.

The longer you wait, the more likely your client is going to jump to the worst conclusion -- that you don’t care about his problem, and he should consider firing your agency (or worse).

You may not be able to solve the problem immediately, but you should demonstrate you’re taking it seriously by sharing the timeline for what you’re going to do next. Even an interim answer is fine, such as: “I’m going to speak with the team right now to see what happened and how we’re going to fix this.”

Acting promptly can de-escalate problems. After some event production issues at my marketing association, I called and emailed people who complained on the post-event survey. Almost everyone responded to thank me for the follow up -- and then said the problem wasn’t as bad as they originally thought.

Validate their feelings.

The client is calling, in part, to confirm you see this as a problem, too. Even if it’s not your fault, he thinks -- for now -- it’s your fault. Denying responsibility just makes him more annoyed.

You can validate his feelings without admitting responsibility. I suggest using phrases like, “That sounds frustrating” or “I’d be frustrated, too.”

Validation includes recapping his concern later in the call. This shows him you were paying attention, and it makes your frustrated client feel more confident that you’re going to fix this.

Don’t jump to assign blame ...

Unless you know the problem was your agency’s fault, don’t jump to take blame.

As an agency account manager, I once got a call from a client who said his email account wasn’t working, and he needed our help fixing it. We didn’t provide support on email accounts -- but I ran a computer troubleshooting business in high school, so I figured I’d see if I could help quickly.

Within three minutes, I’d concluded that the reason his email didn’t work was that he had an internet outage at home. I said I was sorry he was running into the problem, but he’d need to contact his cable company to fix the internet problem first.

One of my clients runs an agency providing a range of digital services. Once of his clients called him recently, freaking out that website conversions had plummeted. It turns out the agency’s client had hired a contractor to redesign its website, without getting help from the agency.

... but recognize this might be your agency’s fault.

Often, your client is freaking out about something your agency did do. Maybe an employee was rude to him. Maybe you promised deliverables by a particular deadline, but things slipped through the cracks, and now the client’s boss is upset.

If it’s your agency’s fault, you definitely need to fix it. Instead of jumping to a solution, ask what he wants. More on that below.

Listen carefully, and take notes.

Practice active listening -- listening, demonstrating you listened, and asking follow up questions to show you want to fully understand the issue.

If you have time before the call, open a doc or a CRM page to type notes on what your client says. If a client calls you to freak out, take notes on whatever you can. But don’t let note-taking distract you from active listening.

Ask for their ideal outcome.

Don’t assume you know what they want. For instance, not every unhappy client wants a refund -- sometimes they just want you to fix the problem. I’ve identified at least six “ideal outcomes” that an unhappy client might prefer over a refund.

You won’t know what they want as an ideal outcome until you ask. Often, unhappy clients request less than you’d be willing to give them. And if they demand more, you can always tell them you need to regroup and will follow up.

Let them know you’ll follow up shortly (and then do it).

You probably can’t resolve every problem during the initial call -- that’s OK, but be sure to give clients an estimate on when they’ll hear back from you.

This is also a good time to ask them to send you screenshots, emails, or other documentation on what they’re experiencing. Most people understand that you’re asking for this to help them solve the problem.

Get additional information from your team to know what happened.

If you’re running the agency, odds are you don’t know all the details of what went wrong. Once you’ve calmed the client down and promised to follow up, ask your team what happened.

Your goal is to piece together a picture of what happened -- the specific problem as well as the cause. You’ll use this information to follow up with the client.

As a leader, you’re responsible for your team’s actions. This sometimes means apologizing for something your team did that you didn’t know about until later.

Update your client on the plan from there.

Based on what you find, let your client know your plan to fix things -- based on his ideal outcome and what you’re willing to do.

Sometimes you’ll find your agency had nothing to do with the freakout. In that case, point him to the appropriate resource. If there’s budget and he is a valued client, it may be worth doing some of the legwork for him -- for instance, sending him an article on how to fix something on his end.

If you can’t fix what caused the freakout in one step, keep your client updated. This is one of the few times you shouldn’t delegate things -- if you’re the person who handled the initial call, you should “own” communication with the client until he is satisfied with the outcome. If the client has to re-explain things to someone new, it’s just going to frustrate him further.

Later, discuss how to prevent similar situations in the future.

Above-average agencies are committed to continuous improvement. This means learning from your mistakes -- and from your successes. Do a debrief with your team (three simple questions: what worked, what didn’t work, and what to do differently next time).

Are you seeing a pattern behind several client freakouts? In my experience, most agency problems are symptoms of a larger systems failure. If your client freakouts are caused by systems problems, you need to fix the system to stop the freakouts.

Share this process with your team so they can start solving problems before they get to you.

Coach your team on handling problems themselves. Once you do this, the less you’ll get sucked into solving things every time. It’s part of making yourself “irrelevant” as an agency leader.

If you don’t trust your employees to handle problems themselves, they’ll never take responsibility for solving the problems. Talk through how you handle client freakouts, and let your employees listen-in as you solve issues with unhappy clients.

It may not happen overnight, but you’ll make life easier for yourself -- and help your employees grow.

How do you defuse client freakouts at your digital agency? Share your answer in the comments below!

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Featured image via Flickr.