When a client complains

March 22, 2014

As an Account Manager, it's part of your unwritten job description that you will have to handle a truckload of complaints over the course of your career. An Account Manager is the proverbial 'jam in the sandwich' between a client's expectations and situational reality, so when these two forces fail to meet (which is more often than we care to admit), you are the closest person your client has to: 1) vent to; and 2) seek resolution from. Knowing that you are guaranteed to experience snarky emails, heated phone calls, and tense meetings, it makes sense to learn how to handle the complaints when they land.


The first and most important thing to remember is that (even though it may surely sound like it) a client's complaint is very seldom a personal attack on you. Once you realise that you can take a deep breath, drop any defensive attitude and figure out how you will resolve the situation. You can't control how miserable your client may be acting, but you can control how you react!


The second most important thing to remember is that a complaint is your client giving you a chance to make things right. They care enough about your business relationship to complain. They could have easily kept quiet, turned their back on you and walked away - straight into the arms of another supplier.


"Treat every customer as if they have 10,000 Twitter followers." (Myers Barnes)

The third most important thing to remember is that a client's negative experience can spread like wildfire (if not handled appropriately), and can burn both your reputation and your bottom line.


A handy chart to remember:

Compliments tell you what you need to keep doing (or do more of)

Complaints tell you where you need to improve

Suggestions tell you how to improve

FAQs indicate needs that are not being met


Not all complaints are justified, and sometimes the client is just plain wrong. Though "the customer is always right" is not always a correct notion, a client complaint is usually valid to some degree, and it's important to remember that the issue is very real from your client's point of view. Even if they are wrong, don't overly concern yourself about being "right", as this type of response can sometimes get in the way of creating a great client experience.

What can you do about complaints?
  • Listen: or, more specifically, listen with your mouth closed, letting go of the temptation to respond quickly or defensively. Sometimes what a client says is not exactly what they mean, and it's your responsibility to calmly get to the heart of the situation.
  • Empathise: 'empathy' differs from 'sympathy' in that you show you understand what your client is feeling, because you can put yourself in your client's shoes. 
  • Use the right words: three words that will go a long way in the right direction are: "I" (not the blame-shifting/hiding "we"); "sorry" and "thank you".
  • Respond quickly: be seen to be responding quickly to any complaint that is made. Acknowledge the complaint without admitting culpability until you can dig deeper into the situation. Be sure to get back to your client as soon as possible to let them know your response.
  • Offer a solution: always focus on what you can do rather than what you can't do - there is always a solution. You may need to talk through options with your client to find out what will work best for them.
  • Follow-up: make sure your client is happy with the solution, and that you have removed their concern.
  • Consider compensation: if a complaint is genuine and the mistake is on your end (and has cost your client through lost revenue, time, inconvenience, etc), then it's best to involve your client in resolution decision-making. You could ask a question such as "what do you think would be a fair way to compensate you for this loss?". You may find that you will likely be asked for far less compensation than you might have offered if you hadn't solicited their input. Often no compensation will be necessary other than a quick and satisfactory resolution.
  • Frequency: be aware if you are hearing repeats of the same complaint from either the same client, or various clients. This could be highlighting an underlying problem (with people or processes) that will need to be fixed.

Nobody likes dealing with complaints, but if you can take complaints in your stride, smile, and make everything right again in your client's world, you may be able to salvage a negative experience, and win your client over for life!


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