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About Vickie Sullivan

Vickie Sullivan is internationally recognized as the top market strategist for thought leaders, professional speakers and B2B professional service firms. Specializing in brand and message strategies in crowded markets, she has helped thousands of talented people outsmart their competition since 1987.

Written by: Vickie Sullivan  |  February 02, 2015

3 Ways to Handle Misunderstandings — and Save the Client Relationship

Originally published on RainToday.com

There’s a lot of advice on how to prevent scope creep and project mistakes. It mostly depends on preplanning. But how we handle misunderstandings in real time can be the difference between having a raving fan and a client whose story is “well, they were OK, but…” Here are three ways to handle the situation when you, the client, or both of you make a mistake.

1.  When You Are Wrong

Despite your best efforts, sometimes you make mistakes. The key here is to not only fix the mistake, but also acknowledge the impact of the error. This is a chance for you to shine.

The big fear here is that the client will smell blood in the water and be unreasonable in negotiating a solution. That doesn’t always happen. And if it does, have some faith that you can handle that situation.

The best approach to handling this scenario is to listen, acknowledge what happened, apologize, and find a solution. Once you empathize with the impact of the mistake, clients usually become more reasonable with a solution.

Example: The custom cabinet folks I hired didn’t calculate the measurements right, and I lost 20% of my space. I was not a happy camper. They listened to me rant (“A 20% loss! Are you kidding me?!”), explained what happened (“The engineer just missed it.”) and apologized. In an instant, I felt calmer. I told them what it would take to fix it. (Extra cabinets to make up for the space lost and a discount for my trouble.) They agreed. I walked away happy, and I definitely will work with them again.

2.  When the Client Is Wrong

Sometimes clients are caught between a rock and a hard place. They thought they had everything covered, but despite best efforts, something went wrong. This is where logic flies out the window and stories are told to make the teller justified in their ensuing special requests.

The best approach is to not make the client wrong but to probe their thinking so they can see how silly their story is on their own. Most likely, clients are so distressed that they can’t think straight. Calm the situation down with a heavy dose of empathy. Then start asking questions. If the client is mistaken, let them off the hook with a little bit of help in the spirit of client relationships. (But make sure they know this help is a “professional courtesy.”)

Example: Years ago, a client called me, saying my market analysis was off and that the branding wasn’t working. He was 50 shades of angry. I quickly acknowledged his pain, and I reassured him that I guarantee the quality of my work and will fix whatever is wrong at no charge.

I asked several questions about his implementation. It turns out, he didn’t follow my advice in certain key areas.  I explained those recommendations in greater detail and gave him ideas to implement the strategy better. We’re good to this day because he remembers the extra help, and I put that first phone call behind me.

3.  When Everyone Is Wrong

To protect our time and expertise, it’s easy to depend on the letter of the agreement. But sometimes there is shared responsibility. When both parties re a little bit right and a little bit wrong, the best response might be generosity.

The best approach here is to acknowledge both sides and quickly move on to a solution. Ask yourself, “What is the true cost of the solution?” If the fix is easy, just do it. If not, negotiate on the side of generosity. Don’t let the details become more important than fixing the problem. This is how “whistling contests” are born.

Example: A web designer changed the client’s website copy per the client’s request, but he left off the “learn more” button. The client didn’t catch the mistake and approved the page. When she saw the omission two days later, the designer wouldn’t fix the mistake without an extra charge. The client’s head exploded, and after a tense conversation, the client fixe the page. The client still won’t work with the web designer again.

What the designer could have said is, “Ya know, I thought we were done with this page because you approved it. So, I’m going to change it this time.  Can we agree moving forward that your approval is final?” This puts the client on alert to be more careful, and it solves the problem without getting into a “well, you did this” argument.

Focus On the Innocence

The common denominator for all three scenarios: the power of empathy. If you listen with compassion, the solutions easily present themselves. You can build an even tighter bond with your clients.

If you focus on who’s right first and relent later, you will solve the problem but leave the client unsatisfied. Your initial reaction to mistakes sets the tone for how the client perceives your efforts to fix the problem.

Trust is built — or broken — one misunderstanding at a time.

 

Filed Under: Experts


About Vickie Sullivan

Vickie Sullivan is internationally recognized as the top market strategist for thought leaders, professional speakers and B2B professional service firms. Specializing in brand and message strategies in crowded markets, she has helped thousands of talented people outsmart their competition since 1987.