The Alchemist's Lair
Thoughts on writing, language, life as a freelancer,
and what comes to mind.
and what comes to mind.
No matter how smart you are, how good you are at your job, how hard you work on your customers' projects. Sooner or later in your career you'll find yourself reading an angry e-mail, or picking up one of those weird phone calls where you can feel right from the start that something is wrong.
For freelancers, dealing with customer complaints often comes with a full load of anxiety - being our own boss often means we're also our own worst critic, and complaints may cast gloomy shadows on our self-esteem and the perception of our value as professionals.
Furthermore, the possibility of losing the customer adds up to the self-inflicted anxiety package, thus making it even more challenging to handle the complaint properly and effectively. Still, when that time comes you need to face the unexpected and get on your feet again - and hopefully this quick guide will help you out a bit.
#1 Leave emotions behind
Not only your own emotions, but also your customer's. Focusing on why the customer is angry and what exactly makes them dissatisfied will help you understand the problem and how to fix it. And, eventually, focusing on the facts will help you manage your anxiety as well.
I know this is often easier said than done, for all the reasons we already mentioned. Still, if receiving a complaint makes you feel overly stressed, you can use a very simple scheme: acknowledge receipt and set a time for discussion. Something like "Thank you for calling / for your e-mail. I will look into this and get back to you by XXX" would do. The customer knows you are now aware of the issue and working on it, and you can handle the request once you "steamed off".
#2 Wrap it up and ask questions
As mentioned above, understanding what the customer is complaining about is crucial to handling the complaint effectively - and to do so, I suggest you invest some time in practising the active listening technique, which is commonly used in conflict resolution but also comes handy in personal and business communication at large.
Active listening fosters mutual understanding and constructive discussion by requiring the listener to wrap up the most important information within the speaker's message. By acknowledging the problem in your own words (e.g. "So you're not satisfied about the vertical layout of your brochure" or "So you'd like me to change wording for that paragraph, as you don't see it fit to your target audience") you
Also, don't forget to ask questions that will help you clarifying how you can make it better. Building on the active listening wrap up phase, you can ask for specific examples, or explore the often too general "quality issues" further.
Read more about active listening on Wikipedia
#3 Apologise, but don't be apologetic
Don't forget that you should behave professionally, no matter what. People make mistakes from time to time, and when it happens it's OK to just say "I'm sorry".
When dealing with customer complaints, the emotional need for defending our work and behaviour can be disruptive. Do not indulge in talking your customer through all of your disgraces - because most of the times it will only make it worse.
#4 Take action
All in all, receiving a complaint ultimately comes to trying to fix the problem and bring your work up to the standards required by the customer.
Sometimes complaints are not based on your actual work, but rather on the expectations (or misconceptions) the customer had. Maybe at some point during your initial discussion of the project something went wrong, and maybe the customer just assumed they understood all the steps involved in the project but actually didn't.
In said cases, it is important to provide an educated explanation of what happened. Also, offer them to work things out differently over the next project. Here are a few examples:
Some other times the customer's complaint originates from your own mistakes. If this is the case, offer them to go through the project again at no additional cost to fix the problems and make it better. If this is not enough, you might want to offer a discount on the project original pricing, or some other kind of compensation (e.g. next website update will be for free; offer fast track support; provide premium services at a special rate; ...).
Finally, pay attention not to slip in the "blame game". Keep your comments neutral and professional, and do not indulge in personal comments or remarks. This will help keeping the complaint constructive for both parties, and shows the customer you care about the business relationship and can take responsibility for your own actions.
Once the complaint is filed, look at it as an important piece of feedback you can use to improve your own work flow. Look at what has gone wrong, ask yourself what steps of the overall project management contributed the most to the situation, review them and think about how you can act differently in the future.
What are your biggest challenges when dealing with customer complaint? What are your resolution strategies? How do you transform negative feedback in constructive criticism about your own work?