Pro Tips

9 Steps for Managing a Client Complaint Gracefully

by Tiffany Markarian

Every interaction a client has with you is part of their client experience. Not every contact is positive, and sometimes there will be a negative experience or client complaint. It is everyone’s job to be prepared and above all else, protect the client experience. An upset client is never fun, but if you avoid the conversation, deflect or shy away from the responsibility of the situation, it will only escalate. Escalated complaints can quickly lead to a public relations issue, legal or regulatory consequence.

When a client complaint occurs, it is usually for good reason. The very act that they are reaching out to you means something is frustrating them and they want it fixed. Something is not meeting their expectation and they need someone to take charge and resolve it. After all, they put their trust and their money in your hands. You want them to stay loyal and committed to the firm. It is equal parts competency and chemistry. Your goal is to listen, help them resolve the problem, check in to make sure it was done, and ensure relief for the client.

Clients do not want to be pandered; in fact, it is maddening. It’s fine to say, my apologies that this happened. But what they really want you to do is step in, fix the problem and help them get back to their life.

It’s Not Always You

The client complaint may not be with your firm. It might be due to a mistake made by an external service team or your home office. That does not mean you should turn over the problem – especially if you know the external service partner is not competent. If the home office or external service team caused the problem, you may not be able to trust them to resolve the problem correctly or swiftly. It will be far less painful to step in and help resolve the problem on the client’s behalf.

Remember, when a client complaint is brought to your attention, even if the client is irate, be grateful. A client complaint may expose hidden inefficiencies or staff training deficiencies in your firm that can be rectified. This will help elevate and protect your overall client experience before it becomes a systemic problem for other clients.

Rest assured, if not handled properly, you can lose the client or have a compliance or regulatory matter on hand.

Below are 9 steps to help you manage a client compliant and resolve it in a gracious manner. The real benefit to you is protecting the client experience and keeping a client loyal.

1. Stay Calm, Listen Carefully and Keep Control

When dealing with a frustrated client, they are feeling disappointed and let down. A client complaint is often not personal. It may seem like they are attacking you personally; but they are attacking the situation. Stay calm, listen carefully and keep control of your own emotions. This will help you maintain a clear head to resolve the problem. The client will eventually calm down when they say what they need to say. If they go overboard, they may even apologize.

Even if it’s hard, stay the course and keep your cool. It will emotionally connect you to the client and help preserve the overall relationship. Apologize for their discomfort and let the client know you are here to listen and provide guidance.

Ask the client to explain what happened in detail. Take good notes, because you may need them later. If the problem is something your firm did not do correctly, be honest. Admitting a mistake is never easy, but a client will appreciate the honesty.

Take a deep breath and remind yourself the issue can be resolved. You need to find the swiftest and best course of action. Tell the client you are going to take good notes – this will help demonstrate you are taking this seriously and respectfully.

2. Understand the Facts.

After listening and helping the client calm down, you can then begin to lead them through the situation. First, you need to make sure you fully understand what happened. Start by asking deeper questions. Seek to get more detail so you can understand the situation better.

Ask Probing Questions

  • Tell me more about that…
  • Who did you speak with, if you don’t mind me asking…?
  • What happened when you spoke with…?

Use clarifying phrases after each answer, such as: I see, I understand.

After the client has stated the problem, make sure you captured it correctly. Say to the client, So, if I understand you correctly, you were supposed to receive a tax statement yesterday afternoon and that did not happen?

The client will usually say, ‘That’s correct’ or ‘Exactly.’ Clarifying the problem lets the client know you heard them. This will further help alleviate tension.

3. Ask to Share Your Thoughts on What Happened

The client needs to know you fully understand the problem before they can accept suggestions. After listening to the situation, it may be clear what went wrong. Ask for permission to share your thoughts on what happened. You can ask this in a couple of ways:

  • May I share what seems to have happened here?
  • Would you like hear more information? This will help clarify what happened.

4. Don’t Blame Other People or Departments

This is hard, but don’t defer the blame to others – the goal is to solve the problem. If you bash another person or department the client may lose confidence in your overall service team. Let the client know you are here to help, even if it was out of your control. Take charge of the situation and let the client know what you are going to do on their behalf to solve the problem.

5. When It’s Your Fault

If you or your firm made the mistake you cannot make excuses for it. It will not be helpful. Above all, you need to maintain the client’s confidence in you and your abilities. The best way to do that and preserve the client’s trust is to be honest. Admit the mistake, apologize and state what you will do to correct the problem. Then let them know you will reach out to them as soon as it is done with an update.

Don’t Make Excuses

Never ever say you were so busy or overloaded. This sends a message to the client they are less important to you or your other clients. Take ownership. Be humble, apologize and correct the problem. This will preserve your client’s trust when you own a mistake. If it was a logical issue such as a snow emergency or you went to the emergency room unexpectedly, that is understandable, but being too busy is never acceptable.

Alert the Client Before They Find Out

If there is going to be a delay, or a mistake was made that will affect the client’s timeline, you need to let the client know right away and what you will do about it. It is much easier to tell a client there will be a delay upfront than have you miss a deadline (an implied promise). If the client calls you first, wanting an explanation, you failed in your communication.

Alerting the client in advance lets them know you are watching things and catching issues as they arise. They will see you as a person who takes charge and manages well. It is easier to swallow a little pain upfront than have it escalate into a bigger issue down the road.

6. When It’s the Client’s Fault

Having to tell a client they are wrong, or it’s their fault, can be one of the most difficult issues to resolve. It must be done in a warm, helpful manner. Moreover, the client’s mistake could be due to your team’s miscommunication or lack of clear direction.

If the client made a mistake, be calm and say, I see what happened. There may have been some confusion here and we apologize for that. Here is what we need you to do, if you don’t mind me asking. This will help us resolve the problem swiftly. My apologies if we were not clear about that earlier.

Blaming the client, especially in an accusatory tone is not appropriate. Gently suggesting what the client needed to do is appropriate. You can state things in a gentle way, such as, we may not have explained things clearly for you and we apologize. Here are the next steps we need you to do, if I may ask, so that we can expedite things smoothly. Let’s do this together.

If the client is cursing or personally berating you, you should calmly tell them you are here to help, but it is hard to get there when you speak to me this way.

7. Offer a Solution and Manage it Through Completion

When you offer a solution, make sure you can track progress and check in on completion. Making a promise you cannot commit to will only make the problem worse. Follow up with any external parties and give them deadlines that are needed. If an external party is not getting back to you, escalate the situation to your firm’s executive management team.

8. Close the Loop

A quick follow-up phone call to the client to communicate the issue is resolved will help the client feel relieved and comfortable again. Closing the loop and offering a final apology will help a client see you are someone who can be trusted when times get challenging. Sometimes handling a complaint is the ultimate way to showcase your value and accessibility.

9. Responding to a Negative Online Review

There are times when a disgruntled prospect or client will turn to social media or the internet to express their frustration. Digital reviews can last forever; therefore, you need to be especially tactful and swift in managing a response. The worst thing you can do in this situation is not respond or retaliate in kind. Yes, you can call the client to take things offline, but you still need to respond online so viewers will see positive action was taken.

If something legitimately went wrong, respond by using the client’s first name and express on behalf of the firm your apologies. This shows a real person is behind the response. Apologize for the mistake and ask the client if they would be willing to speak off-line to discuss and resolve the issue. Offer your contact information. Be brief and to the point.

Sometimes clients are venting, albeit poorly, and this gives you a chance to let them know you saw the review. If the issue is resolved, post an updated response and say you are glad everything was resolved well. Let them know how much you value them as a client, and they are always welcome reach out to your firm with questions. Thank the client for bringing this to your attention.

Everyone in your firm is responsible for protecting the client experience. One negative interaction or a less-than-helpful approach can undo all the positive aspects of your model. When you resolve client complaints successfully, you tie your competency to the emotional needs of your clients, which ultimately leads to greater retention, client advocacy and loyal relationships.


The services offered by Advantus Marketing, LLC are not intended to replace the need for independent legal, regulatory, tax, human resources, financial or operational business guidance. Individuals and firms are advised to seek the counsel of such licensed professionals concerning the application of these areas to their specific, unique circumstances. No guarantee of business or future profitability results should be inferred.


Tiffany Markarian9 Steps for Managing a Client Complaint Gracefully

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