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How to calm down the angry client and hold on to the business

The client is angry. The client is upset about the bill. The client says the firm did work that wasn’t approved. The client may be ready to walk.

There’s a way to salvage that relationship, says law management consultant William Cobb of Cobb Consulting in Houston.

It calls for tact, saying the right things, and giving the issue full and close personal attention.

Take a train, take a plane

The client calls with a problem.

“Don’t try to solve it over the phone,” Cobb says.

Set up a meeting to talk about it, and do so even if it means driving across town or flying to another state – particularly if the client is a big revenue producer.

Showing up in person shows sincerity.

Equally important, it gives the firm time to review the file and see what actually happened and decide what to do about it.

Personal meetings can make a big difference in how quickly and how well and even whether a dissatisfied client becomes satisfied.

He cites one situation where a group of attorneys left in dark of night and took their clients with them.

The firm went out immediately and met with those clients and got most of them back. And they were able to do so “because they went out and talked to them personally.”

No meeting? Stall a bit

If a meeting is impossible, delay the conversation.

Right now, that client is angry and may not be rational.

In addition, the attorney doesn’t have all the facts at hand, and the client may not have them straight to begin with.

Ask to set a time to call back. Say the firm wants to take a close look at what has happened so it can get the issue straightened out. It’s one thing to hear “I’m too busy to talk right now. Can we discuss it later?”

It’s another to hear “May I call you back in a couple of hours? I want to get to the bottom of this as fast as possible. And I need to talk with my team here about it.”

Again, that shows sincerity.

It also gives the client time to calm down and think about what happened and what needs to be done.

It also forces the client to get the facts straight. A caller who is a representative of a client business, for example, now is forced to go to the boss and say “The lawyer is going to call me back in a few hours to discuss this. Can you tell me why we aren’t paying this bill?”

Behind the scenes research

Before the callback, meet with everybody associated with the mistake, from associates to paralegals to secretaries. Ask “What did we do to tick this client off? Tell me exactly what happened.”

Sooner or later, the cause will come out – that someone didn’t call the client back or spent too much time on some aspect of the work.

Then at the call, ask for permission to use a speakerphone and let the others listen in. But don’t say the team is there. Say instead “I’m on speaker phone so I can take notes.”

Afterwards, discuss the conversation with the others. With everybody listening and taking notes, nothing gets lost in the translation.

Offer a discount

Depending on the seriousness of the problem and the agitation level of the client, offer a discount – a significant discount, Cobb says.

“It’s worth taking a short-term loss for the longterm retention of the client.”

Also, he says, a discount alone is not enough. It needs to be coupled with a convincing promise that the error will be fixed and will not be repeated. That’s best said as “We are going to fix this. We are not going to bill you for it. And we promise you this will never happen again.”

“That hits at the core of what clients what to hear,” he says. It’s usually enough to reel in a client who is about to get away.

Call it a wardrobe malfunction

What if the firm has done nothing wrong and the problem is the client’s fault?

Don’t gloat and say “you were wrong.” That client is still paying the bill.

Just call it a communication breakdown and phrase the solutions as “let’s try to find a better way to integrate your people with ours so there’s no miscommunication going on.”

Cobb points out that a lot of mistakes are the outcome of miscommunication. A client’s representative asks the firm to do one thing and then someone else adds another item to the list. The firm does them all, and the company says the work was unauthorized.

But miscommunication or not, never defend the firm, “and never throw it in the client’s face that, ‘we did it right.'”

The solution has to be ongoing

Don’t solve a problem and end there.

Check back with everybody several times to make sure the corrective measures the firm has taken are working and are continuing.

Verify that the team understands what the problem was and what caused it and how it was fixed and what is being done to prevent a recurrence.

After all, the firm has promised that the issue will never happen again. And a promise that strong calls for “diligent” monitoring to make sure things are being done right.

Don’t beat a dead horse

Some clients are always upset about something, and when that’s the case, don’t try to solve all their issues, Cobb says. Tell them good-bye.

That’s admittedly a last resort, but when nothing can satisfy a client, it’s the only thing left to do.

Be brief and be polite. When the last-straw complaint is made, respond with “Thank you very much for your information. We obviously are not satisfying your interests, so let me refer you to a firm that can help you more than we can.”

Related reading:

Manage client anger to avoid malpractice claims and bad publicity

What you can do to help resolve partner conflict

How to prevent violence . . . and deal with it when it happens









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