How to Deal with Unhappy Clients

Imagine that you deliver a major victory for an important client—one that exceeds expectations. You’re happy for them, but you’re especially hyped about what the big win may represent for you: more business. Not only from them but from others in their network. 

However, this doesn’t happen. Not only does the client decline to send business to your firm, but they go elsewhere as soon as their case wraps up.

Sooner or later you’re going to have an unhappy client. What’s especially difficult is that you may have given them stellar representation, but that’s not always enough. Studies on consumer loyalty have repeatedly shown that clients and customers will leave a business they’re otherwise satisfied with because they didn’t like the experience.

Think about the last time you stopped supporting a business you otherwise loved. Why did you leave? Chances are that the product was as outstanding as ever, but the experience wasn’t. Maybe the wait times for service were too long. Perhaps the new manager was arrogant, or the expectations that were set for you simply weren’t met.

Whatever the situation, there are ways that you can address what happened and preserve the client relationship, particularly if they’re clearly upset.

Stay Calm and Listen

Stay calm and don’t get defensive. While negative feedback is hard to hear, let the client vent. Maintain eye contact, nod, and refrain from crossing your arms. When they pause, paraphrase or acknowledge what they said to show that you’ve been listening.


The next step is to apologize. Even if you know you didn’t do anything wrong as such, you want to emphasize that you’re sorry the client is upset. Appropriate responses include:

  • “I’m sorry you had that experience”
  • “I’m sorry you are disappointed with our services” 

Avoid deflective responses such as “I’m sorry you feel that way” or “Thank you for telling me.”

Identify the Real Problem

What caused them to be so upset? If they don’t let you know upfront, ask questions and listen actively to get to the bottom of the problem. Did your assistant fail to pass on an important message? Did an unexpectedly large bill cause an issue?

Work Together to Identify a Solution

Problem-solve together to find a reasonable solution. Be open to suggestions for resolving the complaint. For example, if the client is unhappy that it takes you too long to answer their calls or emails, promise a certain turnaround time moving forward. 

Promise Only What You Can Deliver

Be careful not to make promises you can’t keep. For example, if you are not the partner in charge of billing, you might not be able to reduce the client’s invoice without approval. You can, however, tell the client you will inquire about what can be done next.

Follow Up

Your clients will perceive your commitment to them based on how quickly you resolve their problems. Whenever someone else is responsible for the solution, make sure they follow through. Once the issue has been resolved, follow up with clients to thank them for bringing it to your attention and confirm that they’re happy with the solution.


It may not seem like it, but a client who complains is a good thing. Too many simply go away without giving you a chance to make things right. When they speak up, you not only get a chance to fix the problem, but you can also build loyalty by demonstrating your commitment to their satisfaction. Client relationships can be shaped by how you handle problems as well as how you perform the job you were retained to do.

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