10 Strategies for Resolving a Client Dissatisfaction or Crisis

By Andrew Sobel

It happens to every professional who deals with clients. Something goes wrong with your product or service delivery. Your client’s expectations are not met. They are unhappy with some aspect of the relationship.

Here are ten tips for dealing with an unhappy client and starting the process of resolution.

  1. Respond rapidly. If a client is unhappy, deal with it immediately. Your willingness to drop what you’re doing to urgently discuss your client’s concerns sends a powerful signal. Your sense of urgency will by itself improve the situation.
  2. Listen without being defensive. When someone is upset, emotions are like facts. Listen deeply, and thank your client for sharing their concerns with you.
  3. Demonstrate caring. Your client needs to feel you genuinely care about them and their challenges. You show caring by being empathetic and concerned. By sharing how badly you feel about what has happened.
  4. Say you’re sorry.Even if you think the blame is equally spread, apologizing can help to defuse the situation and begin a new dialog. It’s hard to keep kicking someone when they apologize to you. (Note: apologize for letting them down, not supporting them the way you want to, not listening, and/or not sufficiently collaborating. Be careful about a specific admission of guilt until all the facts are known (e.g., before you say you’re sorry for delivering $100 million worth of faulty code…))
  5. Collaborate on the solution. Don’t jump too quickly to a solution (“We’ll put a new project manager in immediately…”). Involve your client in developing it, and only do so after thoroughly understanding all of their concerns and the actual circumstances.
  6. Offer amends.One of my clients accidently left a consulting report on a train, and the person who found it tried to blackmail the company it was written for. It was an honest (although awful) mistake. The company was furious. My client offered to do a study for them, at no charge, as a small amends. Two years later they were still doing business with them! If you have fallen short in some way, it can help to restore trust if you offer amends, e.g., doing a small piece of value-added work for the client, or giving them a price break on an order.
  7. Avoid excuses.It’s very natural to want to explain to the client all the reasons why you are not completely at fault, and why they may share some of the blame. But save that for later—if ever.
  8. Rebuild trust through small, frequent, confidence-building measures.When trust is lost, you must increase transparency and communication, and show you can deliver on small, discrete, agreed-upon follow-up steps. Sign off together on a plan. Say you’ll do step one, do it, and communicate that to your client. Repeat.
  9. Build transparency into your client relationships. Often, clients just vote with their feet—they get slowly unhappy with your work and/or the relationship with you. They leave without saying anything. Communicate frequently, and never be defensive about your client’s comments and suggestions. Create an atmosphere that makes your client comfortable about opening up.
  10. Get things out into the open.When negative emotions are kept in the dark—yours or the client’s—they fester and grow. When you move them into the light of day, they shrink and often disappear. This is illustrated in the opening stanza of William Blake’s famous poem, A Poison Tree:

A Poison Tree

by William Blake (1757-1827)

I was angry with my friend:

I told my wrath, my wrath did end.

I was angry with my foe;

I told it not, my wrath did grow.

The good news: If you successfully resolve a client dissatisfaction or crisis, your relationship will typically grow stronger and more resilient.

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