I’ve usually been able to manage my emotions in business settings. Everyone makes mistakes and I’ve always had a tolerance for that.
But every once in a while, you get a client who doesn’t handle their emotions well. And that can be contagious.
It happens quite innocently. Perhaps you need to check with your client to get an update on something they promised you a while back.
You catch him in a frustrated moment. Perhaps he feels like you, or someone else on your team hasn’t been communicating effectively with him and it’s been festering for a few days. On top of that, he’s having a bad day. Maybe he got caught in traffic or had a fight with his wife. And when you caught him in the hallway, you didn’t notice that he was dealing with a paper jam in the printer, a document he need for a meeting that started five minutes ago.
So as soon as you ask for status, the frustration with your team’s lack of communication is intensified by all the other fires going on around him and causes him to erupt in a tirade unbefitting the simple question.
He lays into you. “It’s not my job to report to you! If you want that [stuff] done you can just do it yourself? What are we paying you for anyway?”
This is not an everyday occurrence. But I’ve seen it happen in similar scenarios several times.
For more information, see Client Relations for Consultants
Whenever this happens, you have a few choices:
1) Join the argument. The client has just gone off on you with an emotional and unfair tirade. You can stand your ground and argue right back.
2) Try to settle the client down. They’re obviously overreacting. You can talk them off the ledge and settle them down so that they start thinking clearly and can rationally answer your question.
3) Walk away. Avoid the confrontation and let them cool down.
While I’m usually not one to avoid confrontation, this is one to avoid. Option 1, joining in the argument, will most likely only fuel their fire. This could escalate to something so unprofessional that it can only damage your reputation as well as the client’s. Even if you’re right, proving it to the client will not help your chances of having a good working relationship with him in the future. It could even affect your consulting career.
Option 2 may be tempting, but once the client reaches a boiling point, they won’t quickly settle down. Attempting to get them to settle down and think logically may cause just the opposite. They may feel that you’re trying to manipulate their feelings and amplify the tirade.
When a client is in an emotional state, the best approach is usually walking away. Leave them alone and give them time to settle down. I usually prefer to wait until the next day. I’ve gone up to the offending client the next day and started with something like, “I’m sorry I caught you at a bad time yesterday, but I want to clarify the tasks I’m going to be responsible for.”
How to walk away
Apologizing first, even for being at the wrong place at the wrong time opens the door for them to apologize to you if they are so inclined. I usually don’t expect an apology, and I don’t always get one, but it’s always nice if it comes. Sometimes you just need to fall on your sword for something that wasn’t your fault.
Two caveats about this approach. First, make sure you apologize for the right thing. If you think your only mistake was being at the wrong place at the wrong time, make sure that’s true. If the client had a legitimate complaint about your team’s lack of communication – or anything else – make sure that you apologize and address any valid complains the client may have, regardless of their absurd response to it.
Secondly, this is only an appropriate response to client behavior when it is atypical behavior. If it becomes habitual conduct, you’re most likely dealing with an abusive client. If they regularly talk to you like that, they probably talk to your entire team like that. Regardless of who they do it to, it’s unacceptable to treat a business partner like this. You may be better served to sever ties with them before they start damaging your own organization’s morale.
Having a bad client is worse than having no client at all. It prevents you from finding other good clients and you’re unlikely to get a good reference. It destroys your culture. – Patrick Lencioni.
If you would like to learn more about working in consulting, get Lew’s book Consulting 101: 101 Tips for Success in Consulting at Amazon.com
As always, I welcome your comments and criticisms.