No one wants to be known as the expert of what to do when you have a client that is disappointed, but here I am, writing to you anyway.
Chances are, if you have been in business for a reasonable amount of time, you have had a disappointed client, whether you realize it or not.
When I was in my first few years in business, I remember two specific emails from unhappy clients. Those emails read devastation to me. Those emails crushed me. Those emails convinced me that I failed at my job. I was a mess, completely inconsolable. I was ready to close up shop right then and there.
Fortunately, I didn’t quit, and I also didn’t immediately respond via email. This was really important when I was immature in my business because if I had responded immediately, it would have been emotional, defensive and not at all professional.
I had to collect myself and my thoughts first. I needed to take the time to remove emotion from the scenario in order to proceed effectively. Now that I have been in business for nearly 13 years, I could pick up the phone right away if I received such an email.
So what do you do when a disappointed client speaks up or you find that seemingly random negative review online? First, you must remember that this is business; do not take their complaints as a personal attack. When you can create that distance, you will be able to move forward more wisely.
Here are a few steps I’ve found helpful when proceeding with an unhappy client.
Address the problem. This may seem obvious but it is of the utmost importance to actually talk to them if they are willing because we all know that things are much easier typed than spoken and thus things can spiral out of control quickly over email or text.
Most of us do not enjoy confrontation, but talking to someone directly will eliminate any potential misreading of tone for both parties. Listen to your client’s complaints, and ask questions if things are not clear. It is important to not assume anything. Listen more than you talk.
2. Be compassionate
Put yourself in your client’s shoes. This may be challenging to do, especially if you just aren’t the type to complain, but imagine any time you’ve been disappointed in a service. (Recall disappointment in a flight experience – we’ve all had those, right?) How do you wish to be treated when things aren’t going as you expected? How much better is a solution when it has been reached with thoughtfulness and compassion?
Your approach to appease your client should be to move forward with caution and care. Giving away the ox with the cart will not be helpful to your business, nor is it a guarantee for a happy client. Often, you will have to replace, reshoot or refund, but the ultimate goal is for trust or, at the very least, peace to be restored, if at all possible.
3. Own it
Adopt the mantra of “the buck stops here.” Even if you have employees, this business is yours. Even if you think someone else is to blame for this dissatisfaction (perhaps your lab made an error), it is coming to you, and you need to take responsibility, own it and apologize appropriately. This may take a lot of biting your tongue (especially if the client is emotional or irrational) and this will require humility.
The best way to realize that you own part of this disappointment is to understand that expectations were not met. This means either expectations were not managed well or you did not deliver what you promised.
I’m not suggesting for you to lie in your apology. Instead, I’m suggesting that you do some searching in your process with this client to see where you messed up. We are human. We make mistakes. Your client will most likely appreciate it if you own your mistake, instead of passing the blame off to someone or something else. A simple apology could ultimately cut this entire exchange short and even possibly result in a happy, returning client.
Finally, take this opportunity to learn from this feedback. Chances are you can avoid this in the future, even if it just comes down to screening your potential clients better. More often than not, however, the lesson learned is that there is a better way to manage your clients’ expectations before they sign your contract. You may have to adjust your promises to clients; under promise and over deliver as much as you possibly can.
I want to drive this home: there is always room for improvement.
I encourage you to keep communication open after you think your job is done. Pursue both candid feedback and anonymous feedback from clients. The anonymous survey will help you catch feedback from those clients that may not have felt comfortable to openly express disappointment. We can’t fully understand our clients’ experience with our businesses if we don’t know how everyone is sincerely feeling about our entire process.
Communication is our lifeline. We need to serve our clients to the best of our abilities, without being defensive or emotional. Every complaint is a chance for you to choose to serve all of your clients better and to ultimately run a better business with loyal, happy clients.