Handling Upset Clients: Quit Trying to Talk Them Off the Ledge

One of most common customer service mistakes you can make is trying to talk an upset client off the ledge. Unfortunately, that’s usually our first instinct when dealing with an angry, distraught, blaming or otherwise difficult person. We want to calm her down because everyone knows it’s next to impossible to solve a problem when you’re really upset. We want to explain our side of it because if he just understood why we did what we did he’d see it made sense. We want to let her know the situation isn’t as bad as she thinks because it’s in our nature to comfort people and we want her to know it’s all going to be OK. Of course none of those things are bad things to want. They’re just ineffective.

When a client’s upset, they’re not in a place where they can hear those things. When you try to calm her down, she hears she’s being unreasonable. When you try to explain your actions, he hears you defending your mistake and not taking responsibility for the consequences. When you try and let her know it’s not as bad as she thinks she hears she’s overacting and you’re not taking the problem seriously. You’re saying one thing but the client is hearing another.

So what should you do?

First, get in the right mind space. For most of us, when we’re talking to an angry or upset person we feel uncomfortable. Some of us go straight to panicked. It doesn’t matter that intellectually we know we’re not the target or that we didn’t do anything to cause the reaction. We’re not reacting intellectually, we’re reacting emotionally and we just want to do whatever’s necessary to get out of the situation. However when we’re focused on managing our emotions, we can’t effectively focus on helping the other person. So get to know yourself, understand your reaction patterns and learn new, more helpful, ones. (And no, this isn’t something you can do on the spot.)

Second, listen and acknowledge. Being heard is a basic human need and until that need’s met, nothing else is going to get through in any real way. So simply give the client space to vent, let them say what they need to say and let them know that you hear what they’re saying. This doesn’t mean throwing in an “uh huh” here and there or repeating back their words in a robotic “I know about reflective listening” kind of way. It means listening with real interest and concern. When you do that, the other person knows it.

Third, be accountable. If you did something wrong, apologize. If you failed to do something you should have done, apologize. If someone else in your office or a nanny or family you represent dropped the ball, be accountable for the mistake and apologize. It doesn’t matter that it wasn’t your mistake personally. When it comes to running or working for a business, everyone’s part of the whole. A “that’s not my department” attitude is the kiss of death in a service driven company.

Fourth, do your best to solve the problem. In our industry, few problems have an easy or immediate solution. Your clients aren’t upset because they were billed incorrectly for cable. They’re upset because they haven’t interviewed any candidates they actually like and they have to go back to work in three days, or because the family they were supposed to meet at Starbucks never showed or because their new nanny just put the 2 month old baby down to sleep on his stomach. With a nanny agency, client problems are almost automatically infused with drama and intense emotion. So if you need more time to find a resolution, be honest about it. Commit to a game plan of future action and follow through. Your goal is to solve the problem, not simply put a bandage on it and pray it holds.

Want more ideas on providing great customer service and solving client problems?  Check out my on demand, recorded training sessions.