No matter how innovative your ideas, how tight your deadlines and how impressive your results, there will come a time when your agency will deal with unhappy clients.
Usually, a breakdown in the client/agency relationship is due to one of three factors: clashing personalities, a lapse in communication, and a failure to manage client expectations. In the agency world, you're commonly dealing with clients who don't know what they want (only what they emphatically don't want) and this can often lead to clashes between a creative team and a budget-conscious client.
But more important than the reason for the breakdown is how you deal with it. In the world of social media – where clients can voice their anger and disappointment to a wide audience online – it's vital that you handle every difficult situation with skill and dignity. In this article we look at ways of dealing with unhappy clients and how you can apply the lessons learned to improving your agency.
When you first receive a complaint, it can feel like a slap in the face, especially if you thought everything was fine. You may feel defensive and angry. It's important that you don't attempt to deal with the situation until you've calmed down – you don't want to respond in the heat of the moment, or you might say something you regret.
Instead, take several deep breaths. Go and talk to a colleague and get all your anger off your chest. Remind yourself not to take your client's complaint personally. At all costs, resist the urge to post passive-agressive rage on Twitter.
When a client is unhappy, they want to know you've acknowledged there is a problem and are taking steps to solve it. As soon as a client raises an issue, make it your top priority to get the issue straightened out.
Send them an email, or better yet, call them or speak to them in person as soon as possible and let them know you're investigating the issue. Ask them to clarify anything you're not clear on. Don't start assigning blame or offering explanations just yet - focus on establishing good communication from the onset.
Acknowledge & Apologise
This can be a tough one for certain personality types, but offering a timely and sincere apology will often go a long way toward resolving an issue. If you've apologised, it often discourages the client from continuing to pursue a complaint – after all, you've acknowledged their problem and owned up to a mistake – this is usually all a person wants.
On the flip side, I also don't believe it's wise to apologise for things that are out of your control. Often apologising isn't about admitting you're wrong, but about acknowledging the client's feelings (I'm sorry you're not happy with the draft"). Being careful with words will help you in this area, For example, if a printer (an outside contractor) has messed up your client's order, then say something like, "I am so sorry this has happened. We use this printer all the time and have never experienced this problem."
Offer a Solution
After acknowledgement, the next step is to begin working toward a solution. To do this, you have to figure out exactly that the client wants. Often this isn't the same as what they claim they are upset about. Sometimes the answer will be obvious, but other times, you'll need to do a bit of digging. Ask lots of questions, listen more than you talk, and see if you can drill down to the core of the issue.
Offer a solution even if the problem is not your fault. The client doesn't care about laying blame for an issue – they will, however, remember the way the issue was solved. Carrying on with the printer example, you could say something like, "I'll put my meeting for today on hold until I can source a new printer that can handle your project. I will call you at 3pm with an update on progress".
Cut Your Losses
In most cases, finding a solution to a client problem will eat into your bottom line. This is sadly unavoidable and it usually means you won't make much money on the project. Even though it hurts, you need to cut your losses for the future gain - by solving the problem and turning a negative experience into positive experience, you'll gain more than you lost in the long run.
Clients who've had issues successfully dealt with feel as though they can count on you – and often tend to be more loyal and more vocal about their support than clients who've never had any issues. A successfully-resolved issue can lead to additional referrals and more work in the future.
However, sometimes you can't fix a problem. Sometimes you will have clients who simply want to be antagonistic and cause problems. Sometimes you will have a personality clash that can't be resolved. In these cases, it is better to "cut your losses" again and pass the client on to another firm. Chalk it up to a life lesson and do your best to recover from any ensuing bad press.
Review and Take Stock
After dealing with an unhappy client, it's important to take stock of your current processes and techniques and look for ways to improve so the situation doesn't arise again.
A common problem experienced in agencies is around clients' expectations of revisions. If the editing process isn't carefully spelled out from the onset, clients can often press for an entire redesign at the re-editing stage. Another problem is clients not understand what exactly is included in their package. For example, I worked for a web design agency and because our initial client briefing process wasn't as clear as it should have been, clients often mistakenly assumed copywriting was included in their package, which it wasn't. Needless to say, we had a lot of angry clients when we asked for their site copy and they answered, "Well, haven't you written it yet?"
Clearing up contract working, re-working processes and establishing reporting can prevent the same mistakes happening in future.
Has your agency dealt with problem clients? What went wrong and how did you do to mend the relationship?