When a Relationship with a Client Goes Off the Rails

When a client relationship goes wrong, it can be tempting to go into denial or blame the client, but a smarter business strategy is to take positive steps to rescue the relationship. We asked the experts for advice.

How much do you care about your customers? Seems like a strange question, but businesses all too frequently forget who pays their bills. I once heard a consultant say, “This would be a great job if it weren’t for the clients” — funny, but all too often business owners treat clients as irritants rather than saviours.

I’ll admit that over the years I’ve upset a few clients; it goes with the territory. I once forwarded an email from a client to my techie, noting in the email how dumb the client was. The problem was, I accidentally hit reply-all, so my client got the email too. So embarrassing!

Michele Hansen, director of professional services at Applied Office Solutions, says, “You can’t be in business for even a year without having upset somebody somehow, and having an opportunity to learn from it.”

No matter how client-service-focused you are, things will go off the rails. When that happens, it all comes down to how you go about putting things right. Unfortunately, many business owners have a habit of throwing gasoline on the fire by creatively blaming the client, avoiding the issue or promising to put things right and then failing to do so.

So what are some positive ways you can salvage your client relationship when you blow it? 

1} Own the issue
The bottom line is, your client doesn’t care what happened; all he or she wants is for you to deliver what you promised, find a solution and/or get some form of recompense.

Deirdre Campbell, founder of Tartan Group, a global integrated marketing and communications firm based in Victoria, agrees.

“That’s one thing we’ve always done,” she says. “We’ve stepped in right away and owned the issue.”

Campbell tells the story of promoting a package called Fly Like an Eagle for the former Aerie Resort some years ago, in partnership with Helijet. Her team never made the connection between the name of the package and Steve Miller’s iconic song. A call from the great man’s lawyer soon fixed that. Campbell’s client was taken aback that her team hadn’t made the connection to the song. Campbell did the right thing: she called Steve Miller’s lawyer and admitted her mistake. Her apology was graciously accepted, but Campbell still had to take the package down.

2} Listen, learn, offer a solution
Hansen believes listening to the client is the number-one priority. “If [your client] is talking to you, it’s a good sign. If they’ve just given up and aren’t talking and have walked away, there’s no opportunity for you to reconcile the situation and create a win-win. If they’re venting, expressing frustration and anger … really pay attention to what they are saying and the emotions they are expressing.”

She suggests saying something like, “I hear that you are really angry, I hear that you are really frustrated, and I hear you have been disappointed. I’m fully committed to finding the best resolution for you.” Hansen also says that at no time should you make excuses. Finally, ask your client what kind of solution they’d like to see. Often, people are fair, and you may be surprised that putting things right is a whole lot easier than you might have expected.

3} Empower your employees
Consider the ways your company might fail to deliver, and then provide training and protocols to help your employees deal with client complaints effectively. This can mean anything from offering a refund to replacing a defective item.

Hansen has a good tip: “Anytime you bring on a new employee, ask them to be a leader in the business. Help them understand the scope of their role.” Giving your staff options for fixing client complaints, and even a discretionary budget to put things right immediately, is good for business and can reduce the drama inherent in difficult client interactions.

4} Keep ahead of the issue
Campbell says one of her company’s practices is: “Always, always, come with a solution. Never just say, ‘We made a mistake,’ but rather, ‘Hey, we made a mistake, but here’s how we are going to correct it.’”

5} Go the extra mile
Sometimes, putting things right won’t make your client happy; it might just make them less unhappy. However, when you exceed your client’s expectations, you can turn a disaster into a customer-service coup.

Campbell once flew out to her tourism client, the city of Quito, Ecuador, because she felt they might need help. She had invited the media to the destination but wasn’t getting itinerary details or sufficient information to ensure the writers that they were going to be well looked after.

“So I just flew myself out there and took over hosting them. These [media] relationships were important to [the client] and me, so I wanted to make sure to go above and beyond for the client. Sometimes you have to make that decision regardless of the cost.”

Anything that demonstrates you’re genuinely sorry and appreciative of their patience and business can make an impact on your relationship and often result in positive referrals and social media.

6} Keep it real
Earning the trust of your clients takes time. It happens through many interactions: each positive interaction builds on the relationship until finally your integrity is rewarded by your clients’ loyalty. The value of this should not be underestimated — returning clients keep businesses alive.

Hansen believes in keeping it real. “Know what you do well; don’t try to be everything to someone because that sets you up for failure every time. Have and know your boundaries. If a client wants to work outside those boundaries, help them find another supplier.”

Campbell agrees. She made a mistake some years ago with an international client: she used inaccurate language to describe the client’s industry, and it found its way to the media and subsequently to the industry’s association. She kept it real by firing herself. Although she owned up to the error, she learned that it happened because “we allowed a client to push us too fast before we truly understood the industry. We had counselled them to wait for both our sakes, but they really wanted to get out of the gate … my gut instinct was that if we had known the industry better we would have realized the nuances a little bit better.”

Is the Client Always Right?
There’s an old saying, “The customer is always right.” Well, they aren’t always, but if there’s a problem, it doesn’t matter. In almost all cases, it’s better to accept the client’s perspective and fix the problem rather than risk the escalation of conflict. Bad feelings, negative social media write-ups and the loss of future business are rarely worth the fight.

When something goes off the rails, turn it into a positive experience, regardless of the cost, and it may very well turn into winning results the way it did for Leon Leonwood Bean, an outdoorsman who sold rubber boots out of the basement of his brother’s apparel shop in the early 20th century. Bean reasoned that offering a money-back guarantee was a good business practice, but imagine his surprise when 90 of the first 100 pairs of boots he sold were returned. Apparently, the boots’ leather uppers separated from the rubber soles.

Although it nearly bankrupted him to do so, Bean made good on his customer-service policy. He refunded the money, fixed the problem and grew into one of North America’s most successful outdoor apparel suppliers.

Best of all, the company continues to offer a money-back guarantee. Though L.L. Bean is long gone, his company has grown to more than $1 billion in annual sales and is thought of as a business that keeps its promises to its clients — and fixes problems when they go wrong.