You are sitting at your desk. The smell of freshly brewed coffee fills the air. The day is only starting, there is nothing urgent to grab your attention yet. You’re slowly getting into the work mood. Perhaps you catch up with your Twitter stream or check news on your favourite SEO blog.
Suddenly a phone rings. You know the number and the person behind it. You’ve been working together for few months now. Happily you pick it up.
- “Heyah John, how are you?”
- “Don’t you ‘how are you’ me’here! Why there’s still no traffic to my site!? We’ve been paying you for how long now?!” answers the person on the other end and proceeds to list all issues they have with your business relationship.
Your jaw drops.
Conflicts with customers do happen. It would be silly trying to deny that. Even the best relationship with a client can face tough times. That’s the nature of business life.
There are many reasons for those conflicts too:
- Your clients might feel that you don’t deliver to their expectations. Like in the example above, perhaps they expected to see results sooner. Or they had completely different expectations towards results they are going to get.
- Their site might got penalised. Of course they will blame you for that, regardless of the actual reason.
- They feel you neglect them and deliver poor customer service. Even though it might not be the case, the way you handle communications could indicate to your clients that you don’t treat their projects seriously.
- Or they want to switch suppliers and don’t know how to communicate it with you. To some people starting a conflict is the simplest way to end a business relationship.
But you could be the one to blame as well:
- Perhaps you had a wrong attitude from the start. Maybe they are a small fish client and you don’t think of them as seriously as of your bigger clients. And, it shows.
- You may have lost their trust. Perhaps you didn’t admit an obvious mistake or tried to hide something else from them but the truth came out.
- Or perhaps you’ve broken some promises. After all, it’s so easy to say yes to those tiny requests clients make during sales meetings and then forget about them. The problem is, clients rarely forget. And the disappointment from not having this delivered may cause irritation and become a basis for conflicts.
Regardless of the reasons, the person who should end the conflict is you. And here are some ideas for that.
Preventing Customer Conflicts
Let’s be clear about it, you can’t prevent all customer conflicts. But there are some things you can do to minimise the possibility of many:
1. Educate your customers
I bet not many of your clients understand the perils of SEO. Yet they have their own expectations and understandings of many things involved in the practice. Many of these, however, are wrong. Continuously educate your customers about the industry, SEO practice and issues related to it to help them:
- set the right expectations from the start
- understand the industry and SEO practice
- see the potential dangers of SEO
2. Set customer service standards
Many large companies operate on clearly set service standards. Almost every client facing employee behaviour is standardised which means that clients receive the optimal customer service every time. But how many consultants work on the same premise? Even if you work on your own, set standards that you want to work by. Base them on your customers expectations of course. Define it in all typical customer interaction elements. Here’s an example of a customer standards document Patrick from Kalzemeus developed when hiring a VA to help him with running his business. Note how he includes both information about the company and what it stands for as well as customer support policies.
3. Never overset the expectations
As I already mentioned, it’s easy to say yes to every client requests at an initial sales call. Rankings? No problem, that’s what you’re there for anyway. Leads? Signups? Social media audience? We both know you can’t guarantee many of those things, there are too many variables at play. At the same time, you might fear that by being open this you might not get the job. The problem? Those promises will eventually haunt you back and cause a serious crisis with a client. Be honest about what you can do. This way you will set the right expectations from the start.
As said, you can’t prevent all conflicts. But you can overcome most of them. Here are few suggestions how.
Solving a customer crisis
There is a number of steps you should take when the customer crisis occurs.
1. Listen for the real causes
It’s hard to think straight when a customer yells at you. Believe me, I know. But often, behind their anger or irritation, there’s a real cause for the problem. And it’s often not the one they openly voice.
A lack of progress on your end might make them look bad for their superiors. A Google Penalty might reveal their past mistakes. Perhaps their over promised to their managers too. Or they personally vouched for you and now you’re letting them down. Try to find out the real cause, it will make it easier to find a solution.
2. Don’t apologise, act
Well, of course you should say “I’m sorry” but don’t let it end there. Your client is not interested in apologies but in solving the situation. That’s where knowing the real causes for the problem comes handy. They will allow you to come up with a clear plan of action.
3. Don’t try to blame anyone
It’s only natural to try and prove that you are not to blame. But whether it’s really your fault or the clients, it doesn’t matter. Your client isn’t looking for a scapegoat but a solution. Yet prolonging on who caused the problem might only make things worse.
4. Be specific
Don’t just state “I’ll look into it” when offering a solution to solve the problem. Be specific, offer a timeline and mention actions you will take. This is especially important with bigger problems as knowing what’s going to happen next will put the client at ease. They will know that you are working on a solution and how.
5. Be empathic
Last but not least, be empathic. Your customer has a problem and you shouldn’t be indifferent about it. Your empathy will convince them that you really want to solve it for them, again, regardless of who is at blame.
What to do if you can’t come to a solution
Sometimes there are crises that just can’t be solved. It might be because of issues you have no control over or the problem escalated so much that there is no way to continue the business relationship. In that case, you might have to fire a client.
Firing a client is never a nice thing. It involves telling someone that you will no longer accept their business and believe me, very few people like to hear that.
But, don’t just email them saying you fire them. Conclude your business relationship professionally:
- Organise all documents and project data and hand it over.
- Tie up all loose ends. If there are bits you need to finish, an audit you started for instance, complete them. This will help you avoid litigations that you handed over an unfinished aspect of a project.
- Document and backup all emails and other communication for future reference.
- Get your client to sign over all materials you are handing over. Unfortunately, chances are that their new provider will try to raise their profile by pointing out what you might have done wrong (or what they think you might have done wrong). Best to be prepared in case a customer comes back looking for compensation for supposedly bad service you have provided.
Unfortunately, conflicts with clients happen. You can prevent some but there will always be something that will stand on the way of a good working relationship. And the future of that relationship largely depends on how you handle the crisis.