By Andrew Neitlich

The virtues of falling on your sword at the appropriate time

By Andrew Neitlich

At some point, no matter how skilled you are, you are going to make a client upset. There are lots of circumstances where this can happen, some your fault and some not:

– You make a mistake.

– You say something that is insensitive to their style and organizational way of doing things.

– You manage the process poorly, so deadlines are missed.

– There is a mismatch between client expectations of results and your expectations of delivery.

– The client has a crisis, needs to change the project plan, and you resist.

– The client makes a mistake.

In these cases, I find that — for whatever reason (Early childhood issues? Genetic predisposition? Lack of training? Taking the work too personally?) IT professionals tend to get defensive. They try to avoid blame rather than work with the client to get a positive outcome.

These situations feel like a tug of war, with both parties tense and struggling to win. Or, a different metaphor is: pushing against a wall — both parties feel like they are pushing and pushing, getting tired, but making no progress.

In many cases, the best way to handle these situations is as follows:

1. LISTEN to the client, and acknowledge their frustrations. They are stressed out in these circumstances, and can’t listen to you until you let them vent. This is basic Steven Covey, 7 Habits of Highly Successful People stuff. You should take the initiative to meet with them in order to get things on track; don’t wait for them to explode.

2. Take 100% responsibility for the outcome of the conversation. Even if you are not to blame, it is your job to make the project successful. Get on the client’s side, and empathize with their situation.

3. Be prepared to fall on your sword. Apologize for the situation, and especially your role in it. Make amends as needed.

4. Suggest ways to move forward and get back on track.

5. Take action to move forward and get back on track.

Steps 1-3 are especially hard for many professionals. For instance, I coached a client last week who was about to be fired by the client. As we role played (I took the client’s point of view), he refused to just say, “I understand your frustrations, and take 100% responsibility. At the same time, I have a plan to get you back on track in 2 days.” Instead, he kept focusing on his own frustrations with the project, how the client doesn’t acknowledge his hard work on the project, and how the technology he implemented works fine but the client isn’t using it right.

All of his issues were valid. But as a professional, he needs to get into his client’s shoes and figure out how to get things back on track. Otherwise, he risks having someone in the market speaking badly about him, lost fees, and even legal action.

So we role played and role played until he figured out that he needed to listen, fall on his sword (e.g. make amends), and show the client how to move forward. He also realized that he had to take more responsibility for the client’s results. If they weren’t using the technology correctly, he needed to intervene to show them how to use it properly.

What happens when you follow this advice?

1. The client vents, and so has room to hear you.

2. The client knows you are on their side, and appreciates that.

3. The clients views you as a professional, not a vendor.

4. Everyone can relax. In a tug of war, if you gently drop your rope, nobody falls and everyone can stop struggling. That’s what this process feels like.

5. You actually earn respect. Time and again, I’ve seen that clients respect professionals who fall on their sword during these situations. Even if YOU make the mistake, this kind of behavior can lead to rave reviews and referrals. (It’s not always perfect customer service, but rather how you respond to extraordinary and difficult situations that wins a client over).

Yes, this advice does not apply if the client is looking to get a huge amount of work done for free (scope creep), or if they are dishonest and out to get something for nothing. But it does apply in situations where both parties began the project in good faith and have hit a snag.

Okay, let the responses begin…..I’m confident that some of you will have the usual, “Well, MY situation is different. We started out okay, but now my client is really getting antagonistic and annoying….” That’s almost always a sure sign that you may benefit from the above advice.

  • I think the hardest thing when you are dealing with people is how you can handle their complaints. You have to examine every situation from another point of view (e.g. if you were the client, what do you do?), and I think when the case worth it, you should take the responsibility – even if it is not your fault.
    But, in some cases I think there are additional facts when you have to consider to close the relationship with the client, because you don’t understand each other.
    Misunderstandings can kill good relationships so I always lay down the requirements (also the clients’) in advance, so everybody has a clear vision about the commitments. This method can help to avoid a lot of subtle situation.

  • Following this advice is the quickest way to turn a client into an advocate. Look after people when they complain & they’ll love you for it. Resolve the complaint & you’ll have a client for life.

  • Steve Rose

    There is a practice called “nonviolent communication” that teaches people to understand each others feelings and needs first. That is what the anger is all about. After that is done both parties can usually decide upon a strategy to resolve the problem. No blaming is necessary.

  • Unit7285

    I think the concept that customers become even more enthusiastic about your service if you resolve their complaints successfully is very optimistic. It has become a bit of a ‘business myth’ and it’s trotted out as a truism whenever the subject of handling complaints rears its head. But these situations are almost certainly the exceptions rather than the rule.

    In reality, if you’ve screwed up, the best you can reasonably hope for is to get back on an even keel and take it from there. Even that might not be possible. The client’s relief that you’ve resolved a problem shouldn’t be confused with praise. Most clients are going to have long memories about things that go wrong, and shorter memories (or no memory at all) about the many things you did right. Call me a cynic, but that’s the way the world works!

    Having said that, however, one book I read at least once a year is ‘Getting To Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In’ by Roger Fisher and William Ury, both academics at Harvard Law School. It’s a very well known book. Though not specifically targeted at complaint resolution, their methodology is ideal for sorting out problems in a non-confrontational way and nicely complements the very sound methods Andrew describes above.

  • I’m actually in a similar situation with a client. This is my first job for them and I failed to pass their deadlines because of both business and personal reasons so they weren’t able to start their site in time. After sitting down and finding out how to go on, everything turned right. We are actually 3 months after the 2-weeks deadline, it’s a very frustrating situation for both of us. I give them lots of useful tips and info every day that helps their job–now it seems they look at me as a partner rather than one more contractor they have to pay. Now they see that it worths to pay me, because besides doing the job well they get lot more for free.

    Unit7285 is also right: this won’t always work. But even if there are negative times in a relationship, you can always do something to make it better. I think it’s basically simple, even though most people fail to do it: you have to listen and behave fairly. That’s all. What I achieved with it is that this company offered me additional projects for the next months.

    Some months ago I wouldn’t behave like this because I had no idea on how to handle these things. I learned a lot, many things from this blog. Now I do have a question, maybe Andrew wants to write about it at some time: what if a business relationship starts to turn into friendship? I actually feel like this with two clients of mine, they even mentioned this to me. At the same time, I’m afraid if these relationships become a friendship, we will face new problems in the business part.

  • Customer is always right, right? I actually do not agree with this at all because honestly there are just some very difficult people out there that you are forced to deal with. I actually know somebody who gets her way almost ALL of the time because she complains so well. Example, she has no problem going to a nice restaurant and complaining that the food is cold or something doesn’t taste right and getting a free meal out of it. In fact, I know she does this quite often regardless if the meal is good or not. For the record I am not friends with this person (I have just heard this about her from a mutual friend).

    My point is that some people just have some wires crossed in their heads and they just have to be difficult all the time, they just can’t help it.

    My advice is to just be the bigger person and bite the bullet and be nice and fix the problem the best you can regardless of who is at fault. The blame game only causes more grief for everyone involved. Once the situation is resolved, if possible I would be VERY careful in dealing with this client in the future.

  • karunnt

    Nice article

  • moagw

    I think the problem lies more with the IT professional than the customer. I have won over client after client not for resolving complaints but by really taking time at initial meetings to KNOW this person. If you are an adult, and have any interpersonal skills whatsoever, meeting with someone will bring you to an understanding about who they are professionally and what they want. Period. I would love to admit to you that I can somehow READ people better than others, but I don’t think it is impossible for people to be read.

    when you meet:
    1. Learn who you are dealing with
    2. Let them know who THEY are dealing with
    (and I don’t mean being antagonistic, just be professional)
    3. set up guidlines that you BOTH understand ( I have even quizzed them {almost jokingly} about what our obligations are)

    If you do this, and a problem arises, you need to fix it. NOW. If you argue with a customer, you might win the fight, but when they tell 30 people they work with about you (and it may be false, but they will tell them) and your methods you LOSE business.

    The hard decision is this: Pride, or Profit?

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