Recently I got an email from a client, that I hadn’t heard from lately. It read, “Lica has been acting unprofessionally” and if we could schedule a conference call to discuss. It was short, terse and sent from an iPhone. As I sat there reading the line over and over again, my temper was starting to rise.
My immediate reaction was a defensive one. My inner dialogue was set aflame. “How dare they! I’ve been working my butt off, going above and beyond and now this. Their representative stood me up four times in a row and they have the nerve to call me unprofessional!!!”
I started to write a scathing email back, calling him out on all the unprofessional things I had to deal with from them. I was in such a tizzy that I was banging away at the keyboard with a speed that could compete with any professional typist. I decided to just give it a moment and stretch my legs. It’s a good thing I did, because I realized that by sending him exactly that email, filled with sarcasm and snark, I was only going to prove him right.
I regrouped, erased the email and thought to myself about what I wanted to happen next. I came up with three things:
- I wanted to stick up for myself and my professional integrity
- I wanted to appear professional and unemotional
- I wanted to be able to bill the hours that I had recently worked.
I believe that the idea of the “customer always being right”, is not necessarily a healthy one. In my experience, my most successful projects have been where the client has been open to advice and not assumed the stance of “I’m the customer, I pay you, now do as I say”. (side note: check out this article by Gene De Libero on this very subject)
So, I also wanted my email to reiterate the reasons why they initially hired me and how I had come through on all my promises.
The email I ended up sending was a polite, professional call to action that would decide if we would continue as partners or go our separate ways. And, of course, a gentle reminder of my billable hours.
I quickly got a reply back: “Sorry, I didn’t mean you were unprofessional. That was a typo. I meant xxx (the representative who stood me up four times in a row).”
Turns out that they fired the representative who was unable to commit to the meetings I had scheduled (rightfully so), and they just wanted to keep the project on track.
Let me tell you, I am SOOOOOO glad I didn’t send that first email!!!!
So, what to do if a client insults you, here are some tips:
Whatever you do, don’t take it personally.
This is probably the hardest thing to do, and yet it is the most critical. As a rule of thumb, don’t answer insulting emails right away. Take a moment, stretch you legs and let your emotions subside. If you can wait at least an hour before replying, do so. But don’t wait a week either, even if you no longer want to continue your working relationship with your client, it’s better to “fire your client”, than to remain completely silent. If in person, try to get some distance in a polite way. A calm “I understand you are unhappy, but let me get back to you on that” might suffice.
Focus on the underlying problem, not the person.
Usually an insult stems from an expectation the client has that is not being met. Sometimes these expectations are realistic, sometimes they are not. For instance, as a web designer, I don’t think it’s realistic for a client to expect me to answer calls at three in the morning for design issues. I do think it’s realistic to get a call at three in the morning if the servers are being hacked. A lot of misalignment of expectations can be solved by setting up a solid contract prior to starting work. It should clearly define each parties responsibility and when these responsibilities shift as the project evolves, so should your contract. (At the very least, send an email that highlights the new direction and have them sign off on it). Try to find out what the underlying problems are by asking “open ended” questions to get to the root of the problem. Then offer solutions.
Educate the client on the process
Don’t you hate it when you hear, “Well, what you do isn’t really all that hard. Anyone could do it!”. I used to answer that with, if it was so easy everybody would be doing it… but wait… everybody is doing it now. There’s just a huge difference in quality between those that do it and those that do it well. Sometimes, you need to educate the client on why and what you are doing, and how it’s going to help your client achieve their goals. If you can back up what you say with metrics, even better.
Let’s face it, insults hurt, and some, quite frankly, end up in a business breakup. Anybody that’s been doing this for a while, will tell you that they have lost clients. It hurts, it sucks and makes you feel inept, but not all relationships are meant to be. When you part ways with a client, don’t let it get you down. Analyze why and learn from it. Maybe you will qualify your next client a bit more, or maybe you will clarify points in your contract, reply to those emails a little faster, whatever the case may be, a business break up is a chance to learn and grow professionally. For a quick pick me up, take a look at this site, clients from hell.