Upset Clients? How to Flip Frowns Upside Down

By Eden Gillott Bowe

You’re a seasoned business traveler. There’s no traffic on your way to the airport because you know all the shortcuts. TSA waves you through with a smile. You even snag a spot for your luggage in the overhead compartment. All is wonderful in your world.

Then you hear an altercation, which turns into screaming and pleading. Welcome to United’s Flight 3411 from O’Hare to Louisville: a classic case of exactly how not to treat customers or clients.


Practice mindful listening. Think back to the last time you felt truly listened to. Made you feel pretty good, right? In today’s hyper-connected world, people want results immediately and attention spans are shorter than ever. Train yourself to focus your attention on your clients. Make sure you’re truly listening rather than simply waiting for your turn to speak.

Put yourself in the client’s shoes. Based on what you hear, you’re better equipped to see things from their point of view. A multitude of things could be going on in their lives, and it’s up to you to cut through the noise and figure it out. What might they be going through? Are they directing their aggression towards you even though it’s really meant for someone else? Is it their busy season, so they’re complaining about having “yet another thing on my plate”?

Treat others like you’d like to be treated. This goes hand-in-hand with putting yourself in the client’s shoes. Don’t you prefer when someone listens to you and helps get to the bottom of an issue instead of treating you like an inconvenience?

No one wants to be on the receiving end of an angry email. One wedding caterer ended up in the hot seat after an employee went off on a client over “excessive” demands. The client then took to the internet to show the world what shockingly horrible customer service the company had. After months of bad press, word of mouth, and slumping business, the company threw in the towel and shuttered itself.

Some people simply enjoy complaining and won’t be happy with anything. Sometimes no matter how nice you are to clients, they have a permanently bad attitude. They don’t always channel their feelings properly. As a result, a domino effect of bad vibes ripples through their lives. Don’t pass it on.

Be careful what you put into writing. This is a double-edged sword and can be extremely dangerous if it’s not wielded properly. On one side, it’s good to document actions that were taken in order to CYA. On the other (more dangerous) side, committing things to writing may come back to bite you later. For example, don’t put confidential information in an email to someone who isn’t covered under privilege. Nor should you talk negatively about another person because, unbeknownst to you, they may be BCC’d when you hit Reply All.


What’s your current protocols for responding to unhappy clients? If you don’t have a system, get one fast.

Who’s responsible for responding to complaints? Does it make the most sense for the account manager or owner to respond? It depends on the nature of the situation. To the extent possible, empower those who work directly with clients with the flexibility to make decisions and take corrective action.

What form(s) is most appropriate? Automated email, personalized email, or telephone? Depending on the situation, it may also be beneficial have a combination.

What are you willing to do for the client? When’s it better to change vs. incurring the cost of attracting a new client? Does this vary depending on the client? If so, what are the cutoffs or metrics?

Are you receiving multiple complaints about the same thing? If so, how do you improve your offerings? Is this an opportunity for growth or a new service line? Can you reduce returns of defective products by looking at production?

Are clients researching you beforehand or are they pre-sold? More and more, clients are looking at online review sites such as Google, Yelp, Better Business Bureau, Trip Advisors, etc. Hence the first time potential clients “meet” you is online. Make sure your pages properly reflect your level of service.


Breathe. If you feel you’re ready for battle or stressed out, take a moment to recalibrate.

Listen. You’d be amazed what you learn. There’s a reason you have two ears and one mouth.

Don’t take it personally (even if it is). This is especially hard when it’s about a decision you made, initiative you spearheaded, or a company you started. It’s your baby.

Don’t be defensive. No one wants to talk to someone who is confrontational.

Repeat back what you heard (or think you understand). Make sure the conversation is based on clarity. This reduces or eliminates miscommunication and misunderstanding.

Prepare (or refine) your customer service response plan. Now that you’ve brainstormed with your management team, put it into action.

Enhance your service and product offerings based on client feedback. Take customer service lemons and turn them into lemonade.

Learn more from wins and misses. When you document clients’ complaints/frustrations, don’t let them sit in a drawer and gather dust. Learn from them and make improvements.

Permission is needed from Lighthouse Consulting Services, LLC to reproduce any portion provided in this article. © 2020

Eden Gillott Bowe is President of strategic communications firm Gillott Communications and is a former business professor. She resolves issues both in and outside the media’s glare — from celebrity scandals and corporate fraud to criminal and civil litigation. Eden’s been interviewed about brands in crisis by the LA Times, Wall Street Journal, NPR, the Washington Post, and Forbes. She’s worked in Manhattan, Seoul, and Los Angeles. She is the author of A Board Member’s Guide to Crisis PR and A Lawyer’s Guide to Crisis PR.

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