It doesn’t matter how awesome you are. It doesn’t matter how amazing your work. It doesn’t matter if you delivered on time and under budget. It doesn’t matter whether you have bad breath or good breath. There is one reality that will never die: Some clients just aren’t happy. You’re going to face them. They’re going to exist. And you’re going to have to deal with them.
But how do you deal with them? In many cases, you can’t change a client’s disposition from displeased to pleased simply by delivering higher quality work. As project managers, we are experienced in projects. If the situation calls for faster work, streamlined operations, improved communications, or a shorter budget, then fine, we can handle that.
It’s far more difficult to deal with the emotional, personal, and human-touch side of things. I have a few key phrases that can help. Similar to the conversational hacks covered in another article, I want to give you these solid phrases of affirmation, trust-building, and conflict-resolving that can change things with clients for the better.
Will you turn every Grinch client into a Pollyanna? No. But can you foster more goodwill, encourage longer-term clients, and maybe even cultivate a better approach towards business? I think so.
Say nothing. Just listen.
One of the most important things to say is nothing at all. Listening to the client’s complaints is powerfully therapeutic for the client.
I have seen this technique work like magic. I recall one conversation with a client who was angry with us. He was threatening legal action and Better Business Bureau complaints.
I knew he had a laundry list of complaints, so I was determined to hear him out. When he finished venting about one issue, I asked him, “Anything else?” More venting. “Is there anything else?” Venting. “Anything else?” Yet more venting.
After about 30 minutes of this, he was vented out. The catharsis of getting it all off his chest was just what he needed, apparently. After it was all spent, he was really easy to get along with. The conversation went beautifully.
I think he just needed to let loose. I did not enjoy listening to his tirade. It wasn’t comfortable, but once he finished, we got along great.
I would suggest the “what else?” or “anything else?” strategy if you have an irate client with a list of concerns. Make sure you listen intentionally and genuinely.
Repeat their concerns.
This tactic is equally easy. You don’t have to come up with any gleaming insight or brilliant observation. All you need to do is repeat what they just told you.
It goes something like this:
I cannot stand it when I try to communicate with you! Every single time I place a call to your business someone says, “I don’t know. We’ll have to get back with you!” Seriously?! I mean come on, where am I even supposed to get a straight answer. Look, we are paying you guys! We’re giving you guys money for your expertise, and you just sit around saying, “Sorry. We’ll have to get back with you!” I’ll tell you what. I want something back, too! I want my money! If this is the kind of disservice I get, then I can pretty much guarantee that I’m taking my business elsewhere!”
I see. So what you’re explaining is that you’re experiencing a lack of responsiveness from us? You have questions. And instead of answering your questions, we tell you that we’ll get back with you? Is that the situation?
See what happened there? You, the withering object of the client’s wrath, are getting grilled. You, however, rather than apologize all over yourself, simply repeat the client’s concerns back to him.
Now, the client has the opportunity to confirm, deny, elucidate, or otherwise respond to hearing his own concerns.
An attempt by the psychologist during a therapeutic interaction/setting/context, via verbal communication with a patient, and perhaps the purposeful inclusion of nonverbal gestures (animation/expression), to repeat, reflect, and represent a patient’s remembered emotional, cognitive, and historical experience with great accuracy and true reflection of the real (subjective), remembered experience by the patient.
That definition is a bit opaque, but the idea is as follows. If you mirror the other person’s language, actions, or emotions, a couple things will happen. First, the client will be able to see their actions objectively.
For example, in the client rant that I described above, the client may begin to remember that you actually did get back with them and answer their questions. Or, maybe they recall that they only placed two phone calls, and that only happened once.
Second, you will be able to empathize with the client’s concerns, which is a crucial component of effective client dialogue.
Mirroring isn’t just some psychotherapy trick. It’s a deeply rooted part of how humans are intended to interact. You probably engage in some level of mirroring every time you interact with people — colleagues, clients, or even your spouse.
We subconsciously reflect the body language and emotions of those around us.
Giving space for this mirroring process in client interactions is an incredible and science-backed method of softening the situation, and maybe even reversing it.
Ask clarifying questions.
When we react with antagonism towards a client’s frustration, the situation can completely spiral out of control.
If, however, we learn to ask questions of the clients, the situation can dramatically improve. Some of my most tense moments with clients have been resolved with the careful use of questions.
For example, in one case, a client was hurling complaints and venting frustration with an alarming degree of force and sizzling hot profanity. My internal response was, “Woah! Take a chill pill, man!”
Instead, I asked questions. “When did this happen? And how did you notice it? Can you show me the screenshot in Google Analytics?” (In that particular situation, I realized that the client’s problem was not something that we caused. Instead, we identified the problem, and actually used it to create more business with the client.)
What kinds of things should you be asking? You want to get specifics. This isn’t the time to go all counselor and ask, “How do you really feel?” Instead, ask questions like the following:
- “Who did you speak with about this?”
- “When did you talk with her?”
- “How many days overdue was the project?”
- “Where is the report?”
Your goal in asking questions is to find out exactly what’s going on.
Asking questions helps you to look past the smokescreen of the client’s emotional eruption, and identify what the problem truly is.
(Email only): “Let’s get on the phone and talk about this.”
The difference between an email and a phone call is like the difference between eating Easy Cheese and caciocavallo podolico. One is artificial and nasty. The other is flavorful and satisfying. (Sorry, I think I’m hungry. And I love cheese.)
If a client is unhappy on email, then your goal is to get them on the phone.
I can recall many times where a potentially explosive email thread was dissolved with a fifteen-minute phone call.
As Entrepreneur’s video explains, “Email equals phone call minus nuance.”
When an unhappy client is in the picture, a phone call beats an email every time.
“I agree with you.”
Agreement is one of the first steps towards mediation. If there is zero agreement between your client and yourself, something or someone is going to break. If you look for it, you will be able to find some level of agreement.
- “I agree with your concerns.”
- “I agree with the way you feel about this.”
- “I completely agree that there was a delay in the communication.”
- “Yes, I agree with that explanation of the meeting.”
- “I totally agree with those dates and times you just mentioned.”
When you respond to their unhappiness with disagreement, this forces them to grow even more entrenched in resistance, anger, and opposition.
Every agreement that you make is a concession to their point of view, and therefore, a smart way to get them to calm down.
There’s no need to be disingenuous about this. There is always something you can agree on. Keep it positive
Here are some variations on the “I agree with you” phrase:
- “You are right.”
- “I completely understand.”
- “Yes, that’s totally fair.”
- “Excellent point.”
- “Yes. I can see that.”
- “You explained the situation very clearly.”
“We’re having trouble communicating.”
Sometimes, a client is so irrational and irate that communicating with them is futile. What do you do then?
I recommend transparently admitting the problem: “We are having a problem with our communication.” The “we” is actually quite generous, because you realize that it’s them. But don’t say “you,” which is the verbal equivalent of pointing an index finger in a person’s face. Say “we.”
When you explain that “we’re having trouble communicating,” it is a signal to the client that something needs to change in the way that he or she is expressing her frustration.
Either he will soften up and communicate civilly, or you can say “farewell.”
“We think it would be better for both of us to discontinue this arrangement.”
This is the end.
According to Project Times, nearly one half of projects are unsuccessful due to ineffective communication.”
If your project is going off the rails because a client is upset, don’t blame yourself. You can, however, take control of the situation by terminating it.
Don’t waste emotional energy, time, and resources, on a project that is not benefiting your organization or the client. It’s a lose-lose for everyone.
End the relationship, and salvage your business.
There are no magic phrases that will make unhappiness POOF! disappear. The world doesn’t work that way.
It’s really not about phrases. It’s about the personal integrity and character that backs those phrases up.
Becoming an effective project manager requires navigating through the turmoil of a client’s bad day or cantankerous approach to life. It's crucial that you learn how to resolve project issues -to make them happy and avoid stress. When you think about it on a below-the-surface level, that client may just be having a really hard time. Who knows? Every life has a story.
Maybe that client is not lashing out at you personally as much as they are responding to the hurt and anger they feel in general.
Hey, if you can have a professional conversation that goes below the surface, I’m sure it will be incredibly profitable. And not just in a business sense.
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