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How to Deal With Upset Clients
By Samuel Ryan     Freelance Lessons     Comments

One of the upsides of working for a firm is that you always have a layer of happy people between you and the client, also known as Client Services. When a client gets upset, those friendly folks get an earful while you get the same message in a much more amiable form. This all changes when you set out to freelance or start your own business. That's when managing (or containing) upset clients becomes part of your job – a part that can make a big difference in your future success. So here are some helpful guidelines to help keep everyone happy in times of trouble.



Check Your Reflex

So you've just gotten an irate email (preceded by numerous voicemails) about a website issue that, according to the client, needs to be fixed immediately. After reading the email, you find out that it's not really an emergency and that the client caused the error themselves by doing something you told them not to. Furthermore, you are currently working on another client's project that is urgent. So you go back to the email, hit the reply button, and type out a less than cordial response. You then hit the Send button and one minute later, you're regretting it. Why? Because despite the fact that they might have annoyed you with their so-called "emergency," they're still a reliable client who's given you good business and referrals over the years.

Email is already a "cold" form of communication, making neutral language seem questionable and questionable language seem harsh. So when you get a voicemail or email that seems demanding or accusatory, try not to respond in kind as an immediate reflex. You may be right on every level, but if your reflex response will not improve the situation, then wait a minute or two and handle it right.

Walk in Their Shoes

 Using the above example, imagine if you were the client and you accidentally "broke" part of your website. You don't have anyone in the office who can fix it and you feel like your whole business is at the mercy of your freelancer (who you can't get in contact with)...

Once you realize that your clent is simply trying to run a successful business and he needs you, you're more likely to be helpful and courteous.

Pick Up the Phone

 As mentioned, even the most benign emails can come across wrong. So as a rule of thumb, when any mildly caustic issue arises, I will pick up the phone. I know that email is easier and more preferrable when you're trying to be productive, but a phone call is a very powerful way to smooth over almost anything. And considering that you have no viable freelance business without clients, making phone calls isn't so bad.

Be Solution-Oriented

When a problem arises, every move you make says something about you and your business. Just make sure that your decisions and communication are solution-oriented (and not defensive). Don't respond if it doesn't contribute to the solution; otherwise, you're likely to just complicate the situation and client relationship.


Conduct Yourself with Courtesy and Confidence

Remember that the client is dependent on you, so try not to use language of uncertainty or apathy like, "Hmm...not sure what the problem is yet, but I'll try to get this fixed soon." Instead, show them that you are the reliable guy that's better than the rest by stating something like, "I am working on it and will have resolution today." Obviously, don't make promises you can't keep, but at the same time, do your best to help them in their time of "need." Crises (real or just perceived) don't come up that often, and it will be these moments that a client will remember in the future.

Don't ever forget that your clients are your partners and in a sense, you "need" each other. Try never to burn bridges with them, especially if the above steps can easily mend the situation. And besides, I'm sure clients have their own tips for dealing with us stubborn freelancers...

Community Comments
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Brad Pyne
You couldn't have posted this at a better time, I just when through something like this with a client. Initially I thought that he was very upset, he had sent me an email which at first glance made it seem like he wasn't happy. I was ready to reply to his email telling him it wasn't my fault and there were some problems with GoDaddy (of course).

Instead of the angry email I simply called him and explained what was going on. He didn't seem upset and he was very cooperative and understanding. Just goes to show you the difference between reading it and hearing it.

idea for future post: when you should apologize to your client

good post,
helpful information...
i think it's best to just take in what your client has said and wait a few minutes before you answer.

small business seo
as always this is great advice, but do you have any tips for when they've already done this twice before, and both times you have calmly explained the problem, and what they must and must not do, and then they do it again and STILL act as though its your fault? :)

small business seo: and how are you hurt by that?
you get more work (assuming that your contract handles these situations well). if they're too dumb to get it (and if you're sure that you explained it in a very clear way) then there's no way to fix them.
i'm not a freelancer yet, but i say, either put up with it and enjoy the extra money for fixing their errors, or dump them if they're upsetting you too much.

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What is all this?
My name is Samuel Ryan and I make websites. Sometimes, I write about it. I disappeared from this blog for a couple years, but I'm jumping back in now -- even began using my twitter account. If you care to know more, go here.