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CLIENT RELATIONS

Manage client anger to avoid malpractice claims and bad publicity

Angry clients can be hard on the nerves. They can also be potential malpractice claims and probably bad PR for the law firm. But if you know how to respond to an unhappy client in a respectful and helpful manner, you may be able to turn that person into your firm’s biggest fan.

Dealing with the angry client is an art.

Dealing with the angry client is also a necessity.

An angry client has a lot of power. Besides the risk of a malpractice claim, an unhappy customer is likely to spread stories about what caused the dissatisfaction.

Here’s how to practice third-person anger management

First, a little theory:

It all starts with understanding what’s going on.

Whether it’s a client or a retail customer, when somebody gets dissatisfied, the first reaction is to imagine how the other side is going to respond to a complaint. In that vision, the other side is not kind and generous about the mistake but defensive about it.

So the next logical reaction is to figure out a way to fend that person off. The client gets defensive and is soon in a first-class snit.

However, that anger is illogical. It is not focused on the dissatisfaction or on the mistake but on how that client thinks the firm is going to react when told about it.

Thus, the first job is to debunk the expectation of a curt response.

Start at the front door

The client has called, is angry, and is on the way over. Meet that person with a warm greeting. Be positive.

“Thank you for coming in. I am so glad you did. This is exactly what we want you to do when you have a concern. Let’s sit down. We need to talk about this.”

The client is flabbergasted. The firm isn’t defensive after all. It wants to hear about the mistake. It even wants to do something about it.

Let the client vent. Listen respectfully. And be aware that anger generates exaggerations such as “always” and “never”, as in “your bills are always inaccurate” and “the attorney never returns my calls.”

It’s natural to want to correct that. But don’t. An angry person is emotional and the emotion does not respond to logic. Work first to quell the emotion and then use the logic.

Also, it’s attitude that wins the day. When the client is ready to poke someone in the eye, the natural reaction is to poke back, but when the anger subsides, it’s the firm’s initial response the client will remember, not the problem.

An angry person has a need to talk, so encourage that.

Ask questions about what the client says. That says the matter is important and the firm cares about it.

The client’s real fear may be that the firm doesn’t care what has happened and will take a casual attitude toward the problem. The questions are proof the firm is genuinely concerned and wants to get the issue corrected.

More still, questions de-emphasize any angry remarks the clients may want to make and force a constructive conversation.

To illustrate yet more concern, use the client’s name repeatedly throughout the conversation.

Offer an apology

Once the complaint is voiced, offer an apology. Do that whether or not the firm is at fault.

There’s no need to accept the blame and admit to a mistake.

Simply say, “I am sorry this has happened” or “I’m sorry you had to take your time to come in.”

Then make a promise of attention. Don’t commit to anything. Just promise that the firm will give the matter attention. “I’m not exactly sure what we can do at the moment, but I will make you this promise: We will give you our best service.”

The make-sure part

After that comes the make-sure step. Make sure that’s the only problem. “By the way, are there any other problems with our service? our billing? our staff?”

Most people don’t like to complain. So by the time they do, chances are there are other issues aggravating the problem that’s now in the open.

If the client does cite some other issue, once again, listen, apologize and make a promise of service.

Now let’s solve this

Now come up with a solution. Ask, “What do you feel should be done to correct this problem?”

Use the word “feel,” not “think,” because that forces the person to examine what he or she expects to come out of the issue. Count on it that the recommendation will be something less than what the firm would have been willing to do.

By now, that not-so-angry person is feeling somewhat bad about the behavior and wants to look like a nice person. Making a reasonable suggestion will do just that.

What if the suggestion is not feasible? Ask for another. But keep up the positive theme. Don’t say, “We can’t do that.” Say, “That’s a possibility. Is there another way we can solve this problem?”

Once a solution is agreed on, start the wheels turning right there in the client’s presence and assign someone to be responsible for it.

Tell the client, “I think I’ve got the picture here. This is what needs to be done. Can you give me a moment while I contact Attorney B to make sure we get on that right away?”

Follow-up is the clincher

Call the client the next day and explain what the firm is doing and how the problem will be addressed.

Use this positive approach to turn an angry client into a happy one. That client can become not just a satisfied customer but a cheerleader who builds business for the firm.


Related reading:

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


Avoid the lawsuit lurking in your employee handbook


Chicago firm discovers in-person interviews can sharply increase client service and satisfaction


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