This Business of Clients

Calming An Angry Client

By | Jun.14.12 | Client Service, Daily Dispatch, Law Practice Management, Relationships

As much as we like to believe that, if we do everything well, our client will always love us it’s just not true. So, in a week of posts devoted to “This Business of Clients,” Attorney at Work’s Merrilyn Astin Tarlton offers a relationship-rescue roadmap for what you should and should not do when a client thinks things have gone terribly wrong and starts breathing fire. 

You know the scenario. It’s the end of the day. The phone rings and you pick it up knowing you really shouldn’t. You should just let it go to voicemail, pack up your laptop and go home.

“What the bleep is this?” are the first words you hear. It’s your client. The one for whom you’ve worked like a dog, around the clock, for the past two weeks. It seems this month’s bill has arrived and he’s in flames! Now what?

First, just breathe. Then try not to:

  • Argue with him about it
  • Tell him it is someone else’s fault
  • Ask him to call you back tomorrow
  • Hang up on him

Sometimes that lawyer training works exactly against you when you are confronted by a client. (Or your spouse, your assistant, a cab driver, the cable repair guy . . . . ) These are not situations to be won or lost. You can claim success when you calm the client and neutralize the conflict.

So, after taking that breath, ask yourself what the client wants. You’ve been angry about a service provider’s performance before. What did you want? It’s one or more of a fairly standard list:

  • To be listened to
  • To be treated with respect
  • To be taken seriously
  • Immediate response
  • To make sure it doesn’t happen again
  • To avoid blame from someone else in your organization

Research has shown that first impressions are made up of 55 percent visual cues (body language), 38 percent vocal (tone of voice), and only 7 percent verbal (words.) One expert estimates that the percentages shift significantly when you communicate over the phone to 82 percent vocal and 18 percent verbal. So when you respond to your client, it is critical to modulate your voice  to communicate concern, patience and caring. And choose your words to convey that you are informed and respectful. It is an old but proven speaker’s trick to deepen your voice a bit. Lower voices are perceived as being more mature and in control.

Nearly every one has an inner child who shows up when we’re angry. Anyone who has parented a toddler knows that rule one is to remain calm. People feel out of control and a little unsafe when in mid-tantrum. If you can maintain your calm, control the situation and guide both of you to a good solution, your client will relax.

Here are the basic steps to take:

  • Express empathy (I can tell how upset it made you)
  • Get clarification of the problem (ask gentle fact-finding questions)
  • Apologize (even if you are not in the wrong)
  • State that you want to help
  • Probe for more information
  • Repeat his concern back to him to make sure you understand (and so that he feels “heard.”)
  • Show you value him as a client
  • Explain possible options for resolution and ask what he’d like to have happen
  • Summarize the actions you agree to (yours and his)
  • End pleasantly

If you have kept your head and created agreement about resolution of the issue, then congratulations. You win!

Merrilyn Astin Tarlton has been helping lawyers and law firms think differently about the business of practicing law since 1984. She is a Fellow of the College of Law Practice Management, among the first inductees to the Legal Marketing Association Hall of Fame and Adjunct at the University of Denver Sturm College of Law.

This post from the Attorney at Work Archives was originally published in December 2010.

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One Response to “Calming An Angry Client”

  1. Sue Stock Allison
    15 June 2012 at 11:46 am #

    I just read a blog post about how to deal with a client who is angry about an invoice. The author had very good advice about voice modulation, understanding the client’s desires at this time, and the specific steps to take to control the situation and come to a good solution. But why were you in this situation in the first place?

    Communication is critical. I never send an invoice without letting my client know when I am planning to send it, how much it is, and what it covers. Sometimes they ask me if I can postpone it until after the end of the month, quarter or year. Sometimes they ask if it can be split into two smaller invoices. Most times they thank me for the advance notice and let me know they’ll keep an eye out for it. Anger is averted.

    This is just one of those little aspects of communication that contributes to a client feeling that you are providing good service with attention to their unique needs. And these are the sorts of things law firm clients mention when talking about how much they love their attorneys – “He always returns my calls within two hours.” “She always copies me when she’s doing work for one of my subordinates.” “Their invoices are very clear, so I always know what they’re billing for.”

    So while the end result of the work is paramount – a successful deal, a litigation victory – it is the little things – the communication – along the way that makes your clients really enjoy their time with you so they want to work with you when their next need arises.