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Summary:

You can’t please everybody. There’s a reason why that line is a cliché.  I’ve yet to hear of a freelancer who never encountered a client who was disappointed in their work.  Some clients keep their frustrations to themselves or simply stop working with you.  Others, however, […]

You can’t please everybody. There’s a reason why that line is a cliché.  I’ve yet to hear of a freelancer who never encountered a client who was disappointed in their work.  Some clients keep their frustrations to themselves or simply stop working with you.  Others, however, expect you to hear out an entire rant about what went wrong and how they feel about it.

In cases like those, it’s important to take calculated steps in fixing what went wrong.

520023_frustratedDon’t panic. Your client is probably emotional the first time they contact you about a problem.  Since that’s the case, it’s your job to be calm and logical.  No good can come from having a shouting match about who’s right and who’s wrong.

Of course, this is easier to say than it is to do – especially if the client calls you on the phone.  It’s easier to be calm and collected (or at least to seem that way) when you’re communicating via chat or email.  On the phone, it takes more willpower.

Read (or listen) between the lines. Oftentimes, when your client is saying something, that’s not what they really mean.  “This isn’t what we talked about” could mean “I understood your proposal differently”. A phrase like “I could easily replace you with a high school student” usually means “Fix this as soon as possible” with a dash of “I have no idea how difficult your work is”.

In other words, take the time to truly listen and interpret what went wrong.

Be accountable. At least a small fraction of the blame, if not all of it, should rest on you.  This is why you need to take control of the situation and start channeling both your energies into finding a solution.  You need to ask yourselves what went wrong and what could be done to repair the damage.  Speak in terms of situations and events, rather than people.  Otherwise, it will look like finger-pointing.

Remember that even if you’re at least partially accountable, this doesn’t mean you have to accept verbal abuse and enslave yourself to unreasonable requests just because you’re feeling guilty.

Provide options. Giving clients several options to choose from makes them feel empowered.  You’re not forcing solutions on them or telling them what to do.  This makes it easier for your client to accept your proposed solutions, since they know that the final decision is in their hands.

Give insurance.
Your client needs to know that you’re also taking steps to avoid this particular problem in the future.  Even after you’ve resolved their problem, it’s important to send them an update about any steps you’ve made towards prevention.

Ask for a testimonial. I know this part sounds unusual, but if you actually resolve the problem and your client is appreciative and pleasantly surprised, it makes sense to request a testimonial.  Most people take perfect testimonials with a grain of salt, so nothing stands out like a testimonial that says “I encountered this problem with her service, but she was there 100% to fix it with me.  Didn’t have another problem since then.”  This tells potential clients three things: that you’re honest, you’re a reliable problem solver, and that you take their feedback seriously enough to improve yourself.

Taking care of angry clients can be an emotionally exhausting task.  Although our instinctive response is to feel some anger as well, it’s important to remember that these disappointed clients are the ones who will teach us the most about what we need to do to be better web workers.

Have you ever had an angry client?  How did you handle the situation?

Image by Charlie Balch from sxc.hu

  1. concerned geek Monday, December 1, 2008

    A rule I’ve found successful when this happens: agree with them heartily on the parts of their complaint they are correct about. If that seems like nothing, get more general until something works (“You are so right to insist that timeliness is crucial”, etc.).

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  2. Great advice, and especially relevant when the economy is the way it is; clients are a bit more sensitive these days.

    I try to rectify the problem ASAP and keep my cool. If you remain confident in your abilities, I find that in itself puts the client at ease.

    It also helps if you can avoid working for people that are difficult…

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  3. [...] Handling Angry Clients [...]

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  4. If a client tells you there’s a high school student out there who can replace you, I can think of a decent couple of French words to reply with.

    But seriously, if anyone is that over the top, they’re not worth the hassle, no matter what they might be paying. One of the biggest reasons I enjoy freelancing is not having some hotheaded boss who doesn’t know how to control his emotions when dealing with things like this.

    I have, in the past, had a client who was normally a pretty cool guy go over the edge at one point and make some personal insults to me. I took the opportunity to remind him we hadn’t reviewed our contract together in awhile and that I would be happy to do that. I got back to him later that day with a higher monthly fee and told him that it was contingent on him never acting like that towards me again.

    He hasn’t since.

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