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Project Management

How to Deal with Unhappy Clients

Daniel Threlfall
January 18, 2016
how to deal with unhappy clients

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. There is one reality that will never die: Some clients just aren’t happy.

So how do you deal with them? In many cases, changing a client’s disposition isn’t as simple as delivering higher quality work.

As project managers, we’re experienced in projects. If the situation calls for faster work, streamlined operations, a solid communication plan, or a smaller budget, then fine, we can handle that. It’s far more difficult to deal with the emotional, personal, and human-touch side of things.

The good news is, these key phrases that can help you 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. Listening to his tirade 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 your client’s 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:

Client:

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’m taking my business elsewhere!”

You:

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're getting grilled. Rather than apologize all over yourself, however, you 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.

If you’re familiar with counseling or therapy techniques, you may recognize this as mirroring.

How mirroring helps ease a tough client conversation

If you mirror the other person’s language, actions, or emotions, a couple things will happen:

  1. The client will be able to see their actions objectively. For example, in the client rant I described above, the client may begin to remember you actually did get back with them and answer their questions. Or, maybe they recall that they only placed 2 phone calls, and that only happened once.
  2. You will be able to empathize with the client’s concerns—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. Our minds and bodies are equipped with mirror neurons that make this kind of action and attitude possible.

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.

But learning to ask questions can improve the situation dramatically. 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 profanity. My internal response was, Whoa! 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 we caused. Instead, we identified the problem and actually used it to create more business with the client.)

Examples of questions to ask your unhappy 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 these:

Your goal in asking questions is to find out exactly what’s going on.

Asking questions helps you look past the smokescreen of the client’s emotional eruption and identify what the problem truly is.

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“Let’s get on the phone and talk about this.”

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 15-minute phone call.

With email, it’s all too easy for any nuance to get lost in translation. You can spend a lot of time drafting a response to ensure you strike just the right tone—and even then there’s no guarantee the person on the other end of the email will get a good read on your intention.

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 you and your client, something or someone is going to break. If you look for it, you’ll be able to find some level of agreement. 

Responding to a client's unhappiness with disagreement forces them to grow even more entrenched in resistance, anger, and opposition.

Every agreement you make is a concession to their point of view and, therefore, a smart way to get them to calm down.

11 ways to say you agree with your client

There’s no need to be disingenuous about this. There’s always something you can agree on. Keep it positive, and give these variations a try:

“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’re having a problem with our communication.” The “we” is important because saying “you” would be the verbal equivalent of pointing an index finger in your client’s face.

This phrase is a signal to the client that something needs to change in the way 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.

Communication matters when it comes to project success. Research shows that half of unsuccessful projects fail because of ineffective communication.

half of unsuccessful projects fail because of ineffective communication
Source: PMI's Pulse of the Profession Report (May 2013)

If your project is going off the rails because a client is upset, don’t blame yourself. You can take control of the situation by terminating it.

Wasting emotional energy, time, and resources on a project that’s not benefiting your organization or the client is a lose-lose for everyone. End the relationship, and salvage your business.

You can turn a client’s frown upside down

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 back 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. 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.

Keep clients happy with TeamGantt

TeamGantt’s project management software for agencies makes it easy to plan, track, and manage all your client projects. Keep clients in the loop at every step and spot and resolve project risk before it becomes a problem.

Watch this video to see how it works, and give TeamGantt a free try today!


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