10 ways to salvage bad client relationships

Your relationships with clients are key to a successful business--but sometimes things go sour. What can you do to head off a disintegrating relationship?

Image: iStockphoto.com/KatarzynaBialasiewicz

You've worked so hard to build up your business. Word has spread and you're getting more and more gigs. Your client list has grown enough that you're finally living the dream. And then tragedy strikes. A client relationship turns sour. For whatever reason, the client has decided your work isn't up to standard or a personality rubbed someone the wrong way.

Regardless of the reason, the most important thing for you to do is to mend that relationship. Otherwise, you run the risk of word spreading around the community and your dream will turn into a nightmare.

But how do you salvage that soured relationship? I have 10 suggestions, one of which just might do the trick. Let's dig in and see if one of these methods is right for your situation.

1: Recognize what's happened

The first step in patching up a soured relationship is understanding what actually went wrong. This isn't about laying blame; it's about knowing how something that was working fell into disarray. What you uncover might well point to you being the guilty party. Or maybe there is no guilt to be found and the client relationship simply went south. But until you understand what went wrong, you can't begin to try to resolve the issue at hand.

2: Apologize

There are situations where either you or the client has done something to cause friction in the relationship. Regardless of who caused the issue, step up and offer an apology--even if you're certain you were not at fault. The truth of the matter is, this is a business and you don't want to put yourself in a position where ego prevents you from smoothing over a rough patch in a client relationship. This isn't your personal life, so there will be times when you must swallow your pride and take responsibility for something you may not have done. In doing so, you could prevent that client from getting angry enough to spread malice about you or your business.

3: Remind them

You probably have clients you rarely visit. Why? Maybe their support needs are few. However, you should treat them with as much care as you give your bigger clients. Although they may not feed your coffers like the big-ticket businesses, they do have a voice--and it can carry through your community. If a client feels like you've forgotten them, your reputation could suffer. To prevent that relationship from unravelling, stay in touch. All it takes is a quick email, phone call, or visit to remind the client that you care about their interests and want to make sure everything's running smoothly. That will go a very long way toward smooth out a relationship gone bad due to absence.

4: Stop talking down

This one is challenging to some, so pay close attention. One of the reasons clients have a hard time dealing with those in IT is that they spend much of their time feeling like IT pros are talking down to them. What does that mean? Simple: You know exponentially more about technology than your client... and that comes across in how you speak to them. Your tone and your choice of words make it clear you think the client has the IT IQ of a deflated balloon. Don't do this. The second you start speaking to your client as an equal, you'll win them over. No, this doesn't mean you have to assume they have the same tech knowledge you do. But you can at least speak with them as if they are intelligent members of the human race.

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5: Communicate

Even if you're not talking down to the client, you may not be communicating with them effectively. If clients feel like they're being kept in the dark, they will get upset. It's on you to make sure the lines of communications are open (and remain open). Make sure the clients know what the problem is and that you have a solution (and an ETA on implementing it). Don't leave them guessing about what's going on with the issue or when it will be resolved.

6: Fix the real problem

Sometimes a client relationship goes sour because of something you actually did. Maybe you failed to fix a networking issue in a timely manner and it's still causing problems. If that's the case, do the job you were hired for to completion. If it turns out the job is above you--and there's no hope you'll be able to resolve the issue--subcontract someone who can take care of it. In the end, it's crucial that the problem gets fixed. Period. Remember, the person or company that hired you might not be able to do business properly until you resolve the issue. Put yourself in their shoes and understand how quickly this can escalate into a far worse problem.

7: Hand over the job

Worst-case scenario: A problem is well beyond your skill set and you have to hand it off to another support group. But at least that will smooth over your reputation as someone who takes care of clients, even if it has a negative effect on your bottom line. Yes, you may be sending in a new consultant who will retain the client. However, the repercussions of swimming upstream against a current you can't fight will have lasting ramifications for your business. You are much better served putting the client first and knowing when it's time to send in the cavalry.

8: Make yourself available

One of the biggest issues clients face is the inability to reach support. This is especially true when you're a one-person shop doing your best to put out all the fires during the day. And it's even more difficult if you don't give your clients a way to contact you quickly. Sure, email is great, and that ticketing system you implemented is swell. But if it doesn't enable your clients to reach you, it's a failure. Give your clients at least two ways to reach you: Ticketing system and phone. Make sure they know the first route to contact you is the ticketing system (or email, if you haven't deployed a ticketing system) and that phone is for emergencies.

9: Respond to requests in a timely manner

What good does it do to give clients the means to contact you if you aren't responding to their requests in a timely manner? If a client frequently reaches out to you, and you take your time responding, that relationship will quickly sour and you'll have to go out of your way to smooth it out. That means giving that upset client priority when they reach out to you for help. Don't necessarily make this the standard for that client, but you will want to favor them until the relationship has healed. Once you're back on solid ground, give them standard priority.

10: Know that you're not always right

It's sometimes hard to admit you're wrong--especially when it comes to IT. You have to remember, though, that your stubbornness could very well be preventing your client from doing business and keeping your relationship from functioning properly. There may be times when you attempt to solve a problem and your solution isn't viable, or cost effective, or right. When those things happen, stop pretending you're infallible. Admit your mistake and fix it. By admitting that you weren't right, you'll regain the respect of the client and that the relationship will quickly improve.

Your thoughts

These are but 10 possible ways you can salvage (and/or prevent) troubled client relationships. Of course, there may be instances where a relationship simply can't be fixed. In those cases, it's best to simply cut your losses and move on... before more harm is done.

Have you encountered any discord in your client relationships? How did you resolve your differences? Share your experiences and advice with fellow TechRepublic members.

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