How to Handle a Client Crisis

It has happened and will happen to every professional who deals with clients: something goes wrong or your client gets upset about something you've done or said. Here are eight 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 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. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. Offer amends. If in fact 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 reducing an invoice.
  6. 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. 
  7. 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.
  8. Get things out into the open. When negative emotions are kept in the dark, they fester and grow. When you get them out 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.


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