Event: The most nerve-wracking moment of my career
Location: The conference room of a massive social media company

I was looking at twelve angry eyeballs. Two of those eyes belonged to my client’s Treasurer. The other eyes belonged to my client’s Lead Auditor, Treasurer, Accounting Manager, and two other accounting staffers.

Forty-eight hours earlier, my firm and I had made a seven-figure mistake. A mistake that could force my client to re-file their quarterly “10-Q” filing with the SEC.

And my client was pissed. I mean — they were really, really pissed.

As I walked into the conference room, the Treasurer told me he had just gotten off the phone with the CFO. The CFO was trying to gauge how the market could react to a re-stated 10-Q filing.

As I sat down, the Lead Auditor grilled me with a million questions: How could this possibly happen? What controls do you have in place? How can you ensure this will never happen again?

I spent an hour and a half answering these questions (and many others) while diagramming my company’s process workflow and controls on a whiteboard.

By the end of the hot seat session, things were okay. The client and I weren’t ready to grab a beer together yet, and I definitely wouldn’t have asked them to fill out an NPS survey at that moment, but we had a path forward.

The 7-Step Issue Response Process

I’ve worked for numerous companies, and I’ve dealt with dozens of sensitive client situations like the one above. Regardless of the situation, I’ve learned that most clients ultimately want the same type of issue response, and it comes down to seven steps.

If I were you, my eyes would have glazed over when I read that last line: Oh yeah, a seven-step process? How cute!

I’m not trying to undermine the difficulty of these situations. Explaining major screw-ups is not simple or formulaic. However, I truly believe that simplicity (like a seven-step list) can help us remember important concepts.

1. LISTEN and ask questions

Yup. You had to know this one would appear on the list. Upset clients don’t want you to spout off answers immediately. They want you to listen to the problem. Numerous times, I’ve made the mistake of jumping in too fast to solve a client problem, only to find that I was addressing the wrong issue. I had made a poor assumption or didn’t understand a critical element of the problem. The first way you can earn respect in a difficult client situation is by shutting up. Only then can you get a full understanding of the issue and its implications. Sometimes the most persuasive argument is a listening ear.

2. EMPATHIZE with the concern

Listening is one thing. Empathizing is another.

Listening is hearing the client’s perspective on what happened, whereas empathizing is understanding and feeling how terrible it was for the client to deal with that situation.

I’ve learned that to fully empathize with the client, I often need to repeat back to them what happened and what impact it had upon their team:

  • “I would be upset if I were you too. I know how painful it is to have to bring bad news to a boss.”
  • “I know your team had to work overtime to fix this mistake. I’m sorry that we put you and your team in that situation.”

Ultimately, the client wants to know you heard them. They want to make sure you know how much the situation sucks for them. Acknowledge the difficulty of what they’re dealing with and apologize for the trouble you’ve caused.

3. RESPOND with urgency

In most client situations I’ve dealt with (including the story I shared above), I haven’t immediately known what caused the error or how long it would take to fix. Hence, I couldn’t provide a resolution time frame.

Clients will often push you to give them a time frame for when the issue will be resolved. If you honestly don’t know, don’t give them a resolution time! Offering a time will only set your client up for additional frustration.

Instead, promise that you will follow-up with an update at [X] time.

Here’s what that sounds like: Our team is working on this immediately, and I don’t know yet how long it will take for us to address it. This is our number one priority, and I will follow-up with you in one hour to give another update.

You cannot control when the problem will be fixed, but you can control when you’ll provide further communication to the client.

The client wants to know that you’re treating the issue with urgency. Nothing conveys urgency more than providing frequent updates and working to solve the problem quickly.

Your level of urgency to solve the problem should exceed the client’s level of urgency.

I’ll never forget the advice I received from a past CFO I worked with:

“If the client is looking at the situation as DEFCON 3 (medium urgency), then we’re at DEFCON 1 (highest urgency). There’s no drawback in treating something with more urgency than the client.”

4. FIX the problem

Sometimes, you or your team have everything you need to fix the problem. At other times, you’ll need to coordinate across multiple teams to solve it. In my experience, the gnarliest problems always require cross-team coordination.

For example, to fix the seven-figure mistake that opened this story, I had to work with other Customer Service reps to understand the client’s specific report, then coordinate through the Product Management and Engineering teams to deploy a code change to ultimately fix the problem.

Whenever you face an issue that crosses multiple teams, you must serve as the voice of the client to convey appropriate urgency to everyone involved.

DEFCON 1, remember?

Ensure that every team who is involved understands the scope of the problem and why it must be addressed immediately.

5. EXPLAIN what happened

When you tell the client the problem has been fixed, offer a brief explanation of what caused the problem. Be honest — not defensive or slippery.

Big problems often don’t have simple explanations, especially whenever software is involved.

When you’re explaining the issue to the client, use simple terms. Avoid acronyms and jargon. If the client continues to ask more questions to understand what happened, gradually explain more of the complexities.

Some clients will not be satisfied until they understand 100 percent of what happened. For those clients, you may need to bring in the big guns and let the client speak to one of your technical product managers or head engineers. (Yes, in certain situations, I’ve even asked my software engineers to join a phone call to explain the nuances of a situation to a client.)

6. PREVENT future issues

As soon as you fix the problem (or even before you fix it), many clients will ask what you’re doing to prevent that issue from ever happening again.

I cannot tell you how many times I’ve heard those words: Make sure this never happens again.

Resist the urge to promise the client that they’ll never face another problem. Instead, explain the additional checks and controls you’ve put in place that will help prevent similar issues going forward.

When I was in that pressure cooker conference room with my social media client, I explained the changes my team had already deployed to prevent future issues.

I also asked the client what additional controls they’d recommend us putting into place. Some were reasonable, while others were not.

I immediately agreed to a few of the more reasonable requests, knowing that I’d have my company’s support for those initiatives. I also tabled a few of the other requests and said I’d need to explore those with my team further.

As the client tells you what additional controls they want in place, listen for the underlying need or concern behind each request.

Perhaps the client asks you to schedule a full team of people to work overnight to prepare their quarter-end reports. The underlying need they’re expressing is timely reporting, attentive service, and priority treatment. Brainstorm other (more reasonable) ways to address their underlying need.

While their specific request may be unreasonable, the underlying need is not.

7. FOLLOW UP again later

In many customer service roles, it’s easy to feel like you’re a client punching bag. You get off the phone with a client who’s upset about their pricing, then immediately receive an email from a different client who just stumbled upon a bug in your software.

The problem is that sometimes a client’s only touchpoints with your firm are negative ones, and no relationship can survive for long with only negative touchpoints.

Once you’ve addressed a client’s problem, it’s imperative for you to initiate a positive touchpoint with them sometime in the next month or two.

An easy way I’ve found to do this is to call the client a month after the issue has been resolved to provide an update on the additional preventative measures I agreed to tackle. On that call, I also offer a value-add like complimentary training on a new product feature — anything to show the client that I’m going above and beyond for them.

Creating a positive touchpoint can be the difference between keeping and losing a client.

When dealing with difficult situations, I often remind myself of this quote:

“Don’t wish it were easier, wish you were better.” -Jim Rohn

I know how draining it can be to deal with tough client situations. But I also know how rewarding it is to come out the other side and realize that I did everything in my power to address the situation appropriately.

Control what you can control. Don’t worry about what you can’t.

Take comfort in the fact that each difficult situation you face is carving the person you’ll be tomorrow.

This blog originally appeared businessbookreviewer.com