Turn an angry client into a loyal client (with one word)

September 21, 2009 by Dean Rieck
Filed under: Freelancing 

If you’re a freelance copywriter, it’s like getting struck by lightening.

You’re having a great day and then BLAM! Your client ambushes you at a meeting or starts yelling at you over the phone. Something is terribly wrong and you are in the hot seat.

What do you do?

Don’t panic! You’re human and there’s no way to be totally calm when a client is angry. But you need to keep your head clear. How? By remembering one word: ANGER.

It’s easy to recall, given the situation. Each letter gives you a step for dealing with the problem: Acknowledge — Nod — Guide — Execute — Retreat. I’ll explain each step. Then I’ll tell you how this word can help you turn your angry client into a loyal client for years to come.

Acknowledge. It doesn’t matter if your client is right or wrong. And it doesn’t matter if you think the situation is being blown out of proportion. The anger is there and it’s real, so you have to acknowledge it openly and deal with it.

The worst thing you can do is get defensive or start to debate the matter. That just turns you into the bad guy in your client’s eyes. Don’t make light of the situation or ignore it either. That’s like throwing gasoline on a fire.

Say, “I know you’re angry.” Then say, “This is important so explain the problem to me.” These simple sentences will demonstrate that you understand the emotion and that you take the situation seriously. That’s half of what your clients wants at this point.

Nod. When people are angry, they need time to vent. Don’t talk. Don’t interrupt. Don’t throw out a solution right away. Just shut up and nod as your client let’s it all out. You can’t rush them into getting over it even if you know there’s an easy fix. You have to deal with the anger before you deal with the problem.

In many cases, your client will wind down in a few minutes. It’s possible they will even start to feel a little embarrassed for becoming so emotional and could be willing to accept any solution you suggest. If they do start to act embarrassed, help them save face by saying that you understand completely, their reaction is reasonable, and you might react the same way if you were in their shoes.

Guide. Once the tirade has run its course, it’s time for you to start playing problem-solver. You want to guide your client from emotional venting to rational thinking.

The best way is to ask questions to be sure you understand the problem and find out specifically what your client expects. Suggest ideas. But also ask your client for ideas. You want to work as a team at this stage to arrive at a solution you are both happy with.

Of course, if the solution is obvious, you don’t need to ask a lot of questions. Your client will probably just tell you want needs done. In which case, you can move smoothly to the next step.

Execute. This is where you become the hero. Fixing the problem will show that you are reliable and responsible. Take the solution you’ve agreed to and execute it immediately.

Most reasonable people don’t expect perfection, but they do expect professionalism. That means accepting responsibility for problems even if you don’t necessarily accept fault.

Retreat. Once you’ve solved the problem, you may want to apologize and verbally mend fences, but that’s a mistake. It will take a while for your client to get over the angry feelings, so retreat for a while and give your client some space.

If you’ve handled the problem professionally and promptly, that’s all you can do. Only time will mend the wounds. If you can identify why the problem happened and have an idea to prevent it in the future, mention it. But try not to bring up the situation repeatedly. It happened. You handled it. Now move on.

Ironically, going through a situation like this can actually cement the bonds between you and your client. Once you prove you can save the day when things go wrong, you will enjoy a lot more confidence from your client. And likely, if there’s another problem, it won’t create such an emotional response.

Everyone would prefer that things always go right. But the relationships that have been tested and have survived are the ones that tend to be the longest lasting.

Related posts:

  1. 8 time-eating freelance client species to avoid
  2. Translating freelance “Client Speak” into plain English
  3. Dear Client: A letter from your freelance copywriter

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Smart Comments

3 Comments on Turn an angry client into a loyal client (with one word)

  1. Neil Mattingley on Sep 21st, 2009 11:57 am
  2. Hey Dean

    Thanks for the post. I always enjoy your stuff. I agree with most of this article. My experience (as a Client Relationship Manager for a Real Estate firm) is if you add the word “sorry” after you’ve listened and acknowledged what they’ve said, most people lose their anger almost immediately. So it comes out: “I’m sorry you feel that way. This is what I’m going to do to fix the problem…” I also find that if you can be systematic when you explain how you’re going to fix it…And then follow-up in the exact way you promised (this is very important), more often than not you will have neutralized a potential saboteur. Finally, if you want to turn them into a “raving fan”, over-deliver somehow (after the event) with an unexpected gift. It’s a symbolic acknowledgement that – “we appreciate your business and don’t want to lose it”.

  3. Dean Rieck on Sep 21st, 2009 5:36 pm
  4. Neil,
    You’re right on all points. Usually, though, clients don’t get angry, just express displeasure with something. So I wanted people to have a plan for those rare moments when a client really gets pissed. It’s better to be over prepared than under prepared.

    Over delivery works in nearly all situations. I try to do this for all new clients even if they’d be happy without it. It’s a great way to make yourself stand out as a real pro.

    [...] By the way, if you’re a freelancer and what you’re facing is an angry client, here’s how to turn the anger into loyalty with one word. [...]