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.
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...