5 Entrepreneurs Share How They've Handled Client Disasters
Client disasters don’t have to be catastrophic. To read the full article, visit Forbes.
When customers go from being satisfied buyers to brand haters, companies should take the opportunity to learn what inspired the change and prevent it from happening in the future — or even turn it around in the moment.
Sometimes, though, clients are bound to stay unhappy. If the company stops offering an unprofitable service that a small group of clients needs, the former buyers will be upset no matter what. Rather than bumble through changes hoping for the best, businesses facing client-related mishaps must learn to anticipate potential strife and recognize when compromise is (or isn’t) possible.
Keeping Client Disasters to a Minimum
It’s imperative to anticipate certain customer issues and train your staff to handle those issues. The more you prepare your team for what it might encounter, the better it will do when faced with a customer service issue. During my time working in the consumer products and retail business, I’ve also learned that, as an owner and manager, I can defuse most customer service situations.
If you elevate a problem to a senior person, people tend to feel more confident that you are taking them seriously and care about their problem. In addition, even if the situation calls for you stepping in, it’s crucial to empower your team to handle customer complaints and to support them in their decisions.
Keeping customers happy isn’t just nice for the company’s reputation — it has a direct effect on the bottom line. Companies that provide great experiences enjoy higher rates of retention, customer satisfaction, and opportunities to upsell. Where price used to be the biggest differentiator between companies, the customer experience has taken the throne. More than four out of five buyers are willing to pay more for exceptional experiences.
No matter how much companies prepare, however, a few client disasters will always slip through the cracks. Someone’s unreasonable expectation will go unfulfilled, an employee will make an unforgivable blunder, or the forces of the universe will simply decide that the relationship needs some strife. When that happens, companies need to know how to handle the situation without losing face — and without letting one customer’s bad day lead to widespread displeasure.
After all, as much as companies love good clients, unhappy customers can do far more damage than happy clients can do good. One study by Dimensional Research found that 95 percent of people who experience bad customer service tell someone else about it, with 54 percent expressing their displeasure to at least five others — compared to just 33 percent who share a good experience.
Faced with these stats, I asked five entrepreneurs and business leaders to share with me what they’ve done in the face of client disasters:
1. Matt Clervi, CEO of Fresh Ideas Management
Growth is great, but it can make longtime customers feel like afterthoughts when personal service becomes less attentive. Matt Clervi knows this all too well. “We were growing fast, and one of our first clients said that our growth had robbed them of our attention,” he said. “They weren’t feeling the love anymore. They threatened to take their business elsewhere.”
Clervi believes that deep listening and hard questions are the key to salvaging damaged relationships. After that client complained, he challenged everyone within his company to slow down. They took time to listen to the challenges of their client and put timelines around a solution. Clervi said it taught his team members to be grateful for growth, but not to allow the rate of growth to lessen the experience they’re able to provide clients.
“When you appreciate the people who helped you grow and consistently listen to them, you put yourself in a position to consistently succeed,” he explained. He added that his company reviewed its culture and hiring practices and implemented techniques to better identify when a candidate is self-aware and able to slow down and ask hard questions.
2. Erik Huberman, CEO of Hawke Media
When small blunders carry massive costs, deciding who foots the bill can be a treacherous prospect. Erik Huberman shared a time when his company had a glitch occur with a client’s email system, which meant a discount email offer intended for a small subset of his client’s customers was sent to a much wider audience. When he recommended that the company retract the discount, the client declined — then decided not to pay its several outstanding bills for Huberman’s company’s services.
“They had asked me to just keep working and the bills would get handled,” he said. “They basically lied and took advantage.” After hearing that they would not be paying, Huberman said he told the company that he could get a lawyer to collect his money. The client’s founder began texting him slurs and threatening to drag his name through the mud.
That’s when Huberman said he made another mistake: “I jabbed back, threatened, sank to the same level. Then I said, ‘Good luck with marketing,’ and not to call me again. Then the other partner in the company called me apologizing and begging us to keep working together.” Huberman said his company ended up making some money back, but it was the beginning of the end for that client relationship. If Huberman could do it again, he said he wouldn’t let emotions guide the way he handled the situation. Customers can afford to get heated, but business leaders cannot.
3. Caroline Santiago, Founder and CEO of Utopia Life Consulting Inc.
Clients will be hesitant to work with a person whom someone else has selected, a phenomenon Caroline Santiago experienced firsthand. When the chief operating officer at one client company hired Santiago to work with the chief technology officer, the CTO felt saddled with an unasked-for partner and wanted nothing to do with her. Santiago arranged a daily 9 a.m. check-in meeting with the CTO, whom she described as an independent thinker and leader, but when she showed up on the first day to meet him, he didn’t show. He then ignored her attempts to meet with him the next several days.
Eager to get started on work the firm was paying her to do, Santiago met with the CTO’s technology department leadership team over the course of three days. After those three days of meetings, the CTO showed up to the scheduled daily check-in meeting with Santiago, but his reaction wasn’t what she was expecting. “The CTO proceeded to yell and scream at me, stating he didn’t want me here and asking what authority I had to schedule meetings and work with his leadership team,” she recalled.
“I told him he should interview me right now for this position, and if he did not think I was a good candidate for the role, I would not show up to work tomorrow.” The CTO’s shock at her proposal showed in his face. That on-the-spot interview went well, and Santiago received the buy-in she needed from the CTO to keep the relationship going. Santiago said that, through this experience, she learned to make sure she is able to speak with all key client stakeholders before signing a client agreement. Clients don’t always want the world. Usually, they just want to feel like they have a choice in the matter.
4. Josh Hudgins, Managing Partner and Director of US Sales at Global Ecom Partners
Every company makes mistakes. But the best ones take responsibility for them, especially when those mishaps occur early in the client relationship. Josh Hudgins learned this lesson when his company onboarded a new client but failed to walk that client through the onboarding process. That omission led to a lag in shipping time to the end customer, which was soon caught and corrected. Unfortunately, Hudgins’ company also failed to realize it had overlooked the part of the onboarding process in which the client’s in-house marketing is moved to its platform. That oversight resulted in zero marketing for all of the client’s products for a month.
“The most significant dilemma was maintaining our client’s confidence in our ability to execute what we had promised and not leave us after such a short honeymoon period,” he said. “Luckily, we had set the expectation that there would be bumps in the transition process but let them know we were committed to resolving any issues quickly.”
Hudgins reminds anyone in his situation that deals are not over at closing. They are a series of commitments, each of which requires appropriate fulfillment — a lesson he learned through this client mishap. The poor onboarding experience and transition led his company to create a new onboarding checklist. “This checklist allows complete transparency and accountability to everyone involved in the new client process, which has resulted in a better client experience,” he said.
5. Krister Ungerboeck, Strategic Planning and Leadership Consulting Expert
Krister Ungerboeck relies on what he calls “the language of license,” meaning that clients need to know when they’re getting in the way of a successful partnership. With this in mind, when one of his clients kept pushing their agreement to the bottom of the list and making his team run behind schedule on a project, Ungerboeck took action.
He and the client’s CEO engineered an agreement to give each other’s teams permission to raise red flags. That way, if a project is running behind schedule, each team feels comfortable enforcing the schedule. Ungerboeck said: “This discussion gave our teams authority to hold one another accountable. I call this move ‘the permission play,’ and it’s imperative to my leadership playbook.”
Businesses should not wait for clients to reach the brink of disaster before getting firm. Clients would much rather have a tough conversation early than missed revenue later. Ungerboeck added: “Be sure to give your team permission as a group rather than individually. Communicating this to the group will have a more powerful impact.”
Not every client relationship can be salvaged, but every business needs to know how to handle things when something goes wrong. By remaining flexible and keeping the lines of communication open, businesses can minimize client disasters and ensure every customer experience is as great as it can be.