So, you screwed up and your client is a jerk

What is the main ingredient in Zappos, Barbara Corcoran and Victoria Secret’s explosive success? A focus on delivering unprecedented customer service … even when they screw up, even when the client’s a jerk and even when the client has unrealistic expectations.

Given the ability for anonymous bad reviews to spread like wildfire on social media etc., you need to know how to effectively address your client’s interests, needs and complaints. So, what to do when you have a bully client? Unlike dealing with bully negotiators and bully bosses, you have to follow a much more accommodating approach.

Step 1: Determine the Client’s Motivations

These tips will determine how to approach your client and informs how you’ll negotiate and your likely outcome. For example, if your client feels like he should get something for his dedication to you or your company, you may have to give him a concession. If the client, on the other hand, is looking for a win and has showed no loyalty you can give in on inconsequential parts of your contract to make him feel like a superstar.

The top motivators(provided by Tom Searcy on Inc.) behind your angry or difficult client is:

  • Compliance – The buyer is going through the motions, including shadow-boxing on pricing in order to make the right appearances without any real desire to change things.

  • Consideration–The buyer needs a win, but is willing to give you something for your flexibility. This is a negotiation where both sides are willing to provide concessions in the discussion.

  • Accommodation–The buyer feels the need for a discount or a win in the discussion with no willingness to provide a concession.

  • Domination–The buyer wants to penalize or injure a supplier for either the purpose of making a point, establishing a position, or “righting a wrong” based upon some sense of having been taken advantage of in the past.

  • Termination–Buyers sometimes use unreasonable demands as a way to drive a vendor out of their company.

Step 2: Calmly Confront and Manage the Client’s Complaint

Before you interact with the bully/angry client, prepare yourself emotionally. They will yell, scream and say nasty things. Get into a state of “Zen” because the LAST thing you are permitted to do is show that you’re ruffled by their rage or uncertain that you did nothing but your best to deliver. Show either of these emotions and you’re open to attack. This is the time to let them vent and for you to take notes. And vent they will.

Step 3: Focus on the Customer

Next, shift your focus on what your customer wants (provided by Evan Horowitz, Advising):

Before you get into the bad news, show your customer that you know what they want and are working to get it for them.  This powerfully frames the conversation with you on THEIR side, understanding their needs and going to bat for them.  Otherwise, it will quickly become adversarial, with you as an obstacle to what they want.  If you’ve gone above and beyond in any way, this is a good time to mention that.

For example, if you’re a realtor and the property isn’t selling, start with: “Selling your property for a price acceptable to you is my priority.”

Step 4: Take Responsibility

Take full responsibility for the issue your client believes exists. Make this part of the conversation short, avoid going on and on about the issue as this will destroy your credibility and then move on to the solution. As Evan Horowitz puts it:

It’s our natural impulse to show the customer that it’s not our fault!  Don’t do it.

Blaming suppliers/partners/employees not only shows an inability to manage your business, but an unwillingness to take responsibility for satisfying your customer. People don’t buy from companies that don’t take responsibility for satisfying them.

Also resist the temptation to get into the story of how the issue happened, and how complicated it is.  This invites your customer to second-guess you at every step along the way.

Step 5: Identify the Solution and Clarify Expectations

Let the client know exactly what you’re going to do to solve the problem and what type of outcome they can expect. Vague responses will only insight nervousness in the client and doubt about what you’ll do to solve the complaint. Provide dates and estimates that you are CERTAIN you can meet and under-promise so you can shine when giving them great news later.

It’s imperative to outline how hard you’re going to work to improve the situation. Here are a few pointers provided d by Evan Horowitz:

  • Tell them how you and your team are busting your butts to fix the problem quickly.

  • OPTIONALLY, you can offer an apology gift (such as a discount for next time, free overnight shipping on the replacement, etc.).

  • If the client is the type who needs to “win”, then give him a few small concessions that don’t affect your position, but boost his ego.

  • Explain what you’re doing to make sure it doesn’t happen again.  (But, avoid the gory details as this will damage your credibility.)

  • Offer penalties you’re willing to take if you don’t meet the solution.

Step 6: Tell them why you’re committed to your client

It may feel dramatic, but a genuine statement clearly telling them they’re important to you goes a long way.  Do not use the tired cliches like “Your business is important to us.”  Rather, “tell them WHY you value them and how you look forward to a long relationship together“.

Step 7: Going forward, over-deliver

The client may still not trust you and doubts your ability to get the job done. To avoid any future confusion and to assuage these concerns, be sure to do the following:

  • Provide weekly reports that details what you’ve completed to move the client closer to the desired outcome.

  • Immediately inform the client of any issues. You’ll save a lot of time and demonstrate transparency and honesty.

  • Carefully listen to feedback and re-state their concerns to show understanding and be willing to collaborate with the client on finding a better solution.

An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

I learned – the hard way – that one should always begin the client relationship by outlining expectations and detailing what you’re going to do whenever an expectation isn’t met. For example, if your client expects his house to sell for $500,000, ask him “in the event that we don’t get offers at that price, when and what is the best way to tell you?”

If the client is stumped, tell them:

“My clients have told me not to deliver bad news on a Friday, to call them immediately, to provide market information and notes on responses from the purchaser’s agents, outline options and the implications of these solutions.”

Once the process and expectations are established, reaffirm how you’re going to handle any setback by saying:

“This is much too important for me to not get exactly right, because in the event we need to have such a conversation, I want to do it exactly as you have suggested.”

Repeat back exactly what they told you and ask them if you got it right and wait for them to respond with, “Yes, you got it.” If they alter the smallest detail in what you just said, start from the beginning and repeat those modifications back to them.

Finally, when that prickly problem rears its ugly head, remind them of this conversation and say:

“I’m not sure if you remember a conversation we had about how to best communicate with you about bumps in the road and if memory serves, you gave me these guidelines (then repeat what they told you above) and we’ve hit one of those bumps (and then follow exactly what they explained as the best way to communicate with them in such a situation).

Stuck for phrases that acknowledge their emotions? Here are a few from Customer Experience Insight:

I’m sorry for this trouble.

Please tell me more about …

I can understand why you’d be upset.

This is important — to both you and me.

Let me see if I have this right.

Let’s work together to find a solution.

Here’s what I’m going to do for you.

What can we do to resolve this now?

I want to take care of this for you immediately.

Do you think this solution would work for you?

What I’ll do right now is … Then I can …

As an immediate solution, I’d like to suggest …

You’ve come to the right place to get this resolved.

What would you consider a fair and reasonable solution?

OK, let’s get you in better shape.

I’m more than happy to help you with this.

If I can’t take care of this, I know who can.

I hear what you’re saying, and I know how to help.

You have a right to be upset.

Sometimes we fail, and this time I’m here and ready to help.

If I were in your shoes, I’d feel the same way.

You’re right, and we need to do something about this immediately.

Thank you … (for bringing this to my attention, being straight with me, for your patience with us, your loyalty to us even when things go wrong or your continued business).

It surprising how these words can sooth rage and force collaboration between you and the angry or bully client.  Use them in your next conflict and please let me know about the outcome.