How to deal with an upset client

Avoid getting verbally assaulted and focus on what matters: helping someone with their issue

If you interact with clients directly, you have probably spoken to one who was upset or displeased. Maybe the project they paid for is past deadline and over budget. Maybe the client didn't care for the word choice in an email that was sent to them. But now this person is talking to you and wants you to address their issue(s). When passing the buck to a superior isn't appropriate (or isn't an option), you become obligated to deal with this person’s problems.

In my role at in my company I am often called upon to assist in a situation like this. Nine times out of ten I am not the person that was the cause of the client’s displeasure, yet I am the person who needs to resolve their concern. But simply dealing with the problem they have isn't enough—the client is angry and they want someone to deal with that too! I’m going to outline a few ways to help you deal with an upset client the right way.

Identify Pain Points

The heart of any complaint is the cause of the client’s frustration and your first move should be to identify what the cause(s) are. This is an essential step that is often glossed over by assumptions, especially if you've been provided notes or documentation in advance of speaking to this person. Never assume what someone is upset about and instead ask them to explain themselves.

“Hello Bill, I spoke to John earlier and he told me a brief summary of your issue, but I was hoping you could provide me some more details in your own words so I can fully understand”.

The sentence above communicates a few important facts:

  1. I am somewhat familiar with Bill’s problem and am not ignorant of his situation
  2. I am interested in hearing what Bill has to say for himself
  3. I want to understand his problem (empathy) and presumably provide a solution.

While I may have heard some details about Bill’s situation, I don’t want to assume that what I was told is the extent of his problem. If I were to lead off by assuming I knew the full breadth of his problem, I risk making him feel marginalized, rushed, and unimportant. The goal is to insure that Bill doesn't think I’m brushing him off or trying to make his problem(s) less important.

Now I listen to Bill discuss his problem: The marketing widget Bill asked to have installed in his eCommerce Store was published 3 days before it was supposed to. According to Bill, he made a point to inform the person who sold the service to him that this was a requirement of his and he is upset because his instructions were unheeded and now he has a widget active on his site earlier than expected.

Real Empathy

Now that Bill has told me about his problem it is my duty to respond (essentially to react) to what he just told me. I could say any number of different things in a situation like this, here are a few examples of a first response:

“I’m sorry the widget was installed early. This type of thing really never happens normally!”

This response is terrible for a few reasons. Saying I’m sorry implies ownership or responsibility which makes no sense since I didn’t personally install the widget. Instead the apology sounds more contrived and risks putting off the client further. Telling Bill that this issue “never happens normally” may be a legitimate true statement, but the only way that declaration comes across is negative. It leaves the impression that Bill didn’t get the same treatment or experience as other customers due to an (as of yet) undefined snafu in the service process.

“Wow, that’s weird. Did you share this information with the Account Manager who was running the project?”

This response is even worse. The first sentence (which may come out involuntary more than on purpose) indicates that Bill was unlucky enough to have a bad experience (like the above example) and puts the responsibility for the frustration immediately back onto Bill, which (to many) would cause anger and further frustration.

Instead, go for a response like this:

“Bill, I understand this is a frustrating situation for you and while I can’t undo the past, I want to do all I can to help you out with this problem”.

The objective in this response is to make Bill feel validated and to communicate my willingness to assist him with his issue. Validation is extremely important in here, since Bill doesn't want to be told he is at fault. Generally, people want you to agree with them and in this case, it’s really easy to do so. I can put myself in his shoes and say: If I were Bill, I wouldn't want this widget activated earlier than I asked either.

At this juncture, the legitimacy of his claim is not important. At the base level, he feels his given instructions were not followed. Telling him that I understand he is frustrated shows that I have listened to him and I understand the “seriousness” of his issue. On a subliminal level, I’m saying to him: You’re upset and that’s OK.

The last half of the sentence in the example is in a way the most important: “…I want to do all I can to help you…”. This statement explains to Bill that my main purpose here is to actually help him with his problem. This is a statement that will be repeated throughout the interaction and serve as constant reinforcement to this fact.

Analyze the Situation and Develop a Solution

Now that I have heard Bill out and committed myself to providing him with assistance, I do some checking into his issue. I discover that he did send an email about this to his Account Manager for the project and the Account Manager didn't communicate this requirement to the programming and QA team. I determine that I (personally) can easily turn the widget off so it doesn't appear on Bill’s site.

My focus now is to sort out Bill so he’s not upset anymore. So I’d ask:

“Moving forward here, how would you like this matter to be resolved? Would you like to have me turn the widget off for you?”

In this statement, I confirm to Bill that I want to know what he considers to be a resolution, but I still proactively offer what I consider to be his ideal resolution. This is a subtle indication that I am actively analyzing and listening to him and I see a resolution from (my perspective) that he can receive. This is important because if I just asked: how would you like this resolved, I’m not proactively trying to do anything for him. I’m just reacting to his issue instead of actually offering assistance.

Don’t accept apologies (sort of)

Once Bill starts to calm down, he may decide to make amends for shouting at you earlier or (hopefully not) calling you names or whatever else. While putting up with verbal abuse is certainly not part of most job descriptions, it nevertheless happens.

Going back to the empathy section, I've already established that it’s OK for Bill to be mad. I've established that I am not the cause of his frustration and just want to help him. That being said, his anger is not directed at me. Bill is angry with the people who installed the Widget early (and possibly his account manager). If he is venting, he may get short tempered or otherwise irate with me, even though I've offered to help and am not the cause of his frustration. I recognize that his anger really has nothing to do with me and is really being directed at someone else.

This makes it very easy for me to not actually be offended or otherwise put off by Bill’s anger. Also, customer service is often all about solving people’s problems and not dealing with them when they’re happy—client anger is considered an occupational hazard. So, when a client (like Bill) says: Hey Ian i’m really sorry I yelled at you earlier. I’m just really frustrated by this whole situation and I've had a really hard time getting help.

My response is usually something like this:

“Bill, I appreciate it but no apology is necessary. I understand you’re upset and helping you out here is part of the job here. I just want to make sure you have a great experience and your issue gets fully resolved, so as long as that is happening I am satisfied.”

Did it feel good to hear him apologize to me? Of course it did. But I don’t need him to apologize in order to proceed with a resolution. When dealing with a frustrating situation, it’s natural to be upset. I've put myself in his shoes and said: if I were Bill, I’d be mad too. Instead of focusing on his initial reaction, I yet again remain committed to my previous declaration: I am here to help you. By giving that response, I show Bill that I care more about the way he feels than the way I feel, which has a great softening effect for the majority of people who would actually take the time to apologize in the first place.

Besides, if I had a really thin skin, I probably wouldn't be able to handle talking with customers that much to begin with.


Every situation is going to be slightly different, but by applying these principles to your interactions, you will be able to control the discussion and put focus on what matters: solving the person’s problem. It’s important to remember that no one wants to be mad at you and most people would rather be doing something else than complaining to you or having issues at all.

By constantly reinforcing your willingness to help, you make the client feel more secure and foster trust between you and them. Your actions make them think: this person cares about my situation and wants to provide me a resolution. When you’re part of an organization, “this person” often represents the company (since you as an employee represent the company). This type of feeling is not only good for business image, but it softens the client for future interactions and makes them feel better about doing business with your organization.

You always have the opportunity to improve the situation. Its just a matter of asking how.

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