7 Tips to Turn Around a Disappointed Client

— Amy M. Gardner

Whether you’re an accountant, attorney, bus driver, business owner, or teacher, you have clients.  Next week we’ll focus on how to keep those clients happy.  At some point, though, no matter how hard you try, you will inevitably disappoint and even lose clients, whether for a reason you can agree with (maybe they need a service you can’t provide) or one you can’t (they aren’t happy with the services you’ve provided).  How you treat disappointed clients not only reflects on you and your business, but also can impact whether they come back and what they say about you to others.

Here are seven tips to turn around a disappointed client, and to make sure even those who leave say good things about you.

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Tip 1:  Avoid being caught off guard when a client is disappointed.  Solicit and consider feedback from clients early and often.

Just as no one should be surprised when they’re fired from their job, you shouldn’t be surprised a client is disappointed.  Ask clients periodically whether they are satisfied, how you can exceed their expectations, and – this is critical – listen.

Three months ago, I received a survey from a small company that I’ve used for the last two years.  I was honest on the survey and indicated I was disappointed with some aspects of their performance over the last year.  They shouldn’t have been surprised then when, having received no response, I didn’t renew their contract for a third year.  If you have too many clients to ask your clients whether they’re satisfied and consider their responses personally (that provider did not), have someone else do it.

Tip 2:  Don’t argue with a disappointed client.

There are times when clients are confused or just plain wrong and in those cases, it can make sense to calmly and professionally address misunderstandings. But if you are arguing with the client over their perceptions of the services they’ve received or whether their needs are being met, you aren’t on the same side.  And if you aren’t on the same side as the client, why should they work with you?  

Weigh the cost to the relationship of arguing with a client. Because if you find yourself arguing with a client over whether you delivered what was promised, it’s unlikely you’re going to change their mind and very likely you will just widen the division between you.

Tip 3:  Thank the client for their feedback.  

If a client doesn’t care about you and your business, they will disappear quietly.  A client who gives you feedback either cares about helping you improve, is giving you the chance to turn things around, and/or is just venting.  Given how valuable your clients’ time is, venting is probably the least likely option, but if you let them vent to you, they’re less likely to vent to others.

Either way, if a client gives you the gift of understanding why they are disappointed, thank them sincerely and use the feedback to reflect (maybe with a neutral party not personally invested) in where you went wrong, how you can fix it, and what you’ll do differently in the future.

Tip 4:  Apologize.

I once had a boss who liked to say “the more senior you are, the more you have to apologize for things that have nothing to do with you.”  I saw that first-hand when he and I met with important stakeholders unhappy about something that neither of us was remotely involved in, or things we couldn’t change.  Time and again, I would walk into meetings thinking there was no way a mere apology was going to be enough, and time and again, I was completely wrong.

At the end of the day, it almost never matters who is at fault.  And just saying “sorry you feel that way” isn’t enough. You need to apologize for disappointing/upsetting/letting down the client, and you need to mean it and try to avoid it in the future.  Don’t send in a minion to do it, and don’t let your own ego or worries about not doing a perfect apology hold you back from apologizing and trying to repair the hurt feelings.

An apology carries considerable power, but one word of caution, don’t apologize to the detriment of your team.  Take personal responsibility, and don’t throw subordinates, or members of another team under the bus and assign blame.  That not only makes your firm or company look bad, but it shows that you are not a supportive person.  Your client will see that as a reflection of you and the possibility you won’t be supportive of them in the future.

Tip 5:  Ask to keep the business.

I recently attended a meeting between a service provider and some of his largest clients.  Over the course of the day, he lost over $75,000 in business both because he had disappointed clients but more immediately because he didn’t apologize or ask to keep the business.  If he had simply said “I’m sorry I let you down last year.  I recognize that and we’re going to do ABC differently next year. I hope you’ll give me the chance to do that, because I want to keep your business,” he would have kept most if not all of the revenue he lost instead.  

I’ve never forgotten the story of Tip O'Neill’s first election, when his neighbor and former high school teacher told him she was going to vote for him even though he didn’t ask.  He had assumed her vote was in the bag, so he said “I didn't think I had to ask for your vote.”  She replied, “let me tell you something: People like to be asked.”  Don’t assume that just because someone has been a long-time client of you or your firm, they don’t have other options.  When you ask for their continued business, you make it clear that you want the business, you want to work with them, and you don’t take it for granted.  Ask for the business.  Unlike generating new clients, asking to keep business costs you nothing and it can go a long way to keeping the business or at least making disappointed clients feel valued.

Tip 6: Don’t give up on retaining the business.

People almost never really want to switch service providers.  They’ve invested time and energy selecting you in the first place, they’ve (hopefully) built a relationship with you, change can be expensive and complicated logistically and emotionally, and, more callously, they don’t want to admit they may have made a wrong choice in selecting you originally.  Recognizing all of that, don’t give up on retaining the business. 

Recently as I was walking into a conversation with the provider mentioned above who I decided to stop working with, I thought to myself “well, it’ll be easy for him to turn this around.  If he does, I should be sure to give him the XYZ credit card since they have that miles bonus right now.”  That’s how easy it would have been for him to retain not just a client, but a formerly raving fan.  But he had given up on retaining my business.

On the other hand, someone I know recently informed her financial planner that she would be moving to another company.  The first planner asked her to dinner as a thank you for her support and business over the years.  By the end of the dinner, he had kept the business.  Why?  Because he made clear that he wanted her business, he apologized for past issues, he asked for the business, and he didn’t give up on retaining it.

Tip 7:  If you truly can’t keep the business, end things professionally and warmly, remembering that former clients can be effective advocates and future clients.

Imagine you are talking with two people about an accounting firm.  One is a current client who says the firm is excellent.  The other is a former client who left but recommends the firm highly.  Whose endorsement do you value most?  The current client who has to second guess herself if she says anything negative, or the person who is giving a more balanced endorsement without any obvious emotional or financial motivation?

Studies show that in some circumstances, positive endorsements that are tempered by at least one minor negative comment have more power.  (The research is summarized by Daniel H. Pink in To Sell is Human: The Surprising Truth About Moving Others, but essentially the “blemishing effect” means that the person who gives a glowing review may not be taken as seriously as a review that includes both positive and negative information.)

Because you want former clients to speak about you positively, allow them to leave on good terms, tell them you are sorry to lose their business, thank them for having been a client, ask them to keep in touch (and stay in touch with them), and end the client relationship on a positive note.  None of that costs you a dime, and taking those steps will make the former client more likely to return in the future, as well as more likely to send you business in the future.

As Pink advises, “Treat everybody as you would your grandmother.”  Surely you wouldn’t want your grandmother to feel disappointed by someone she did business with.  And if that seems too cheesy, he goes on, “assume she has 80,000 Twitter followers.”

None of us are perfect, and if you have clients, you will disappoint someone at some point.  But if you follow the seven tips above, you make it more likely that you will first turn the relationship around, and, if that’s truly impossible, keep your client’s support as they transition to the role of former client.

Getting and retaining business isn’t particularly complicated, but it can be intimidating.Attorneys regularly tell me they are great at what they do, but are afraid to go for partner because they fear they won’t be able to bring in business.If you’re an attorney who wants to make partner, but don’t know where to start or are overwhelmed by the thought of trying to develop business, our 2020 masterminds – including one just for attorneys preparing to go after partnership – open soon. Join the interest list by emailing keith@apochromatik.com.

Amy M. Gardner is a certified professional coach with Apochromatik specializing in career and career transition coaching. Amy is a former Big Law associate, partner at a mid-size law firm, and dean of students at a top 5 law school. Today she works with lawyers and other high-achieving professionals to build the career and life they want. Contact Amy directly at amy@apochromatik.com.