10 ways to handle client complaints

Client Relationships tax professional on the phone

In this perfect storm of COVID-19, a slumping economy, and a volatile market, the chances of having a client complain about something – even if unwarranted – is likely to increase. While I assume you work hard to make sure all of your clients are happy with your service, things do fall through the cracks. Some clients are inclined to blame you for anything that contributes to their uncertainty and stress.

Encourage client complaints

I believe you should be doing everything you can to encourage clients to complain. Some will complain about anything and everything, and others will only complain about the big stuff, but most will not complain about the little things. They prefer to let things slide. The problem with this is that it usually leads to resentment toward you that can build into anger.

A client with an unexpressed complaint is not going to give you referrals, and they’re probably a candidate to move their business somewhere else sooner or later. You have to create an environment of doing business that fosters your clients’ candid communication.

Learn to receive complaints well

“How” you receive a complaint goes a long way in determining how satisfied the client will be in your resolution of the problem.

When a client is registering a complaint with you, the first few words out of your mouth and first few actions you take can make a big difference. Here are 10 specific tips to help ensure you are handling complaints in the best possible way.

  1. Say, “I’m sorry.” Saying “I’m sorry” is not admitting fault. You’re sorry they are upset, you’re sorry they are frustrated, or you’re sorry they are not happy with something you or someone in your firm did. Saying “I’m sorry” in a genuine manner is an expression of empathy that begins to diffuse any negativity they may be holding.
  2. Honor their perspective, whatever it is. Their perspective on the situation may be way off base, but that doesn’t matter. Treat their position with honor. As you learn more about the issue and they feel heard, you can begin to work on changing their perspective if appropriate.
  3. Don’t get defensive. There is a natural tendency for most people to want to protect themselves when someone complains. Resist this at all costs. Demonstrate you are there for them with statements such as “Tell me more.”
  4. Don’t make excuses or argue. You’ll never win an argument with a client. Even if you win the battle, you’ll probably lose the war and the client will walk. After you have completely heard the client’s position and come up with a solution that pleases the client, you may tell them some of the reasons that contributed to the problem. However, doing this too soon in the process will appear as if you are making excuses and not taking responsibility.
  5. Fully understand the problem. To demonstrate that you fully understand their complaint, repeat back to them what you think you heard.
  6. Tell them what you’re going to do next and when you’ll be done. Let them know what the process will be, but remember that some complaints have no resolution; your client may just need to be heard.
  7. Tell them when you’ll call them back. Make and honor a commitment. If you can’t honor the commitment, call them and let them know you’re still working on it.
  8. Thank them for bringing the issue to your attention. Especially for the little stuff, you want to thank your clients for not holding back. You want to let them know that you desire communication that is as candid as possible.
  9. Resolve the issue as quickly as possible. The quicker the resolution, the less it will affect the overall relationship.
  10. Follow through. Follow up until the problem has been resolved and all residual emotions have been cleaned up.

A relationship that’s had a problem and been handled well is a stronger relationship than one that’s never had a problem. Get good at encouraging candid communication from your clients to stop a small problem from becoming a bigger one. When clients complain, learn to be comfortable in the complaint. Your clients can tell the difference.

Editor’s note: Bill Cates presented “Communicating compelling value to attract ideal clients” and “Multiply your best clients with referrals” at the “Transforming Client Success” Intuit® Accountants virtual conference on May 20-21, 2020. Watch the recording now.

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