Dealing with the Angry Client

Angry Client
The Angry Client

Most of the clients I’ve worked with have been rational people that are easy to work with.  But I’ve had to deal with a few that were completely irate with me.  Consider the following:

  • I once forwarded a document from our off-shore development center to a client for him to review in a meeting the next morning.  The mistake I made was, not only did I not review the document; I didn’t even open it to see if it was a document.  The next morning, he called screaming at me because all he could see was special characters.  Something happened with either the version of the software or the transfer of the document that caused it to be unreadable. I went to meet him to talk face-to-face and he cussed me out in the hallway outside of the conference room of his scheduled meeting.

  • I coordinated a 2-day demo with a software vendor for another client.  After a half day, I felt the demo was going well and they were showing the requested functionality.  At the lunch break, the client manager called me into a conference room fuming.  He didn’t follow the demo at all and was sure he had read on the faces of the other client employees that they were completely lost as well.  I dodged expletives as he resorted to name calling and threats.  He ordered me to cancel the demo until we could meet with the vendor to straighten them out.  Meanwhile, he would do damage control with his bosses.
  • As a new project was just ramping up, the COO at the client asked me to schedule a meeting with some key stakeholders to review their roles and responsibilities on the project.  I invited everyone on the list…except the COO.  He called me, infuriated that he had gotten wind of the meeting from one of his direct reports and he didn’t know anything about it.

For more information, see Client Relations for Consultants

Dealing with an angry client

The examples above were all situations where I should have communicated better with my client to avoid egg on my face – and theirs.  I learned from all of those situations and, although I feel I’m a better consultant because of them, I still regret each situation.

More importantly, I learned how to deal with that level of anger.  People make mistakes. Even the best of consultants do it. Clients usually deal with them rationally.  If mistakes are made too often, it may be an issue of carelessness.  But even when small errors happen sporadically, the client can go off the deep end.  They may hold consultants to a zero-tolerance policy for mistakes.  They may be under intense pressure at home, on the job or both.  Then again, they may just be an ass#@$%.

Whatever the reason, whether it’s justified or not, you have an angry client to deal with.  While there is no predefined formula for diffusing an intense situation, there are a few things I’ve learned about how to deal with it.

  • First and foremost, slow them down and have them explain the issue.  Make sure you understand the issue completely before you begin resolving it.   In the example of the software demo, there was only one point where the vendor had deviated from his expectation.  But combined with his insecurity of his bosses being there, he went postal.
  • Settle them down.  Along with slowing them down, slow yourself down.  Speak calmly and without confrontation.  Don’t say anything that will fuel their fire.
  • If you have made a mistake, fall on your sword.  Apologize for what you’ve done and begin identifying ways to make amends.
  • If you haven’t made a mistake and it was something completely out of your control, saying “It’s not my fault” will not settle them down.  Work with them to resolve the issue.  Deep down, they will know that it isn’t your fault, but pointing it out to them will cause them to lose face and won’t help the situation.  If you help them resolve the problem, they most likely will realize that they were wrong and that you still helped them with the resolution.  And although you may get an apology, don’t expect it.

See my related post: The Difficult Client Types

In each of the above examples, I was able to diffuse the situation and make amends.  The client settled down and none of them requested me to leave the project.  It’s important to strive towards never pissing off your client, but sometimes it still happens.  In those cases, it’s a special skill to talk them off the ledge and help them do what you do every day: solve problems.

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

What have you done to enrage your clients?

As always, I welcome your comments and criticisms. 

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