By Adam Wright, president, CEO and co-founder of Associated Graphics (AGI)
Mistakes happen. Crises outside of your control can arise. An update sent over email may be misinterpreted.
Business owners need to be prepared for when things don’t go as planned, especially if an unexpected issue upsets or even angers a customer. But in my 20-plus years as a CEO, I’ve found tried-and-true methods that help to mitigate any conflicts before they have a chance to escalate.
1. Prioritize direct communication with clients.
I have always been an advocate for conducting important meetings face to face. Direct contact is the best way to establish trust with a client. Amid the pandemic, videoconference calls may have temporarily replaced in-person meet-ups, but the blueprint is the same.
I stress this because messages can be misconstrued over email. A minor setback may appear to be much more serious when discussed in written form.
If an issue arises with a client’s project, pick up the phone and explain it fully. If the problem is minor, a call with plenty of information should suffice. At my company, we instruct our project managers to stay several steps ahead by anticipating any potential issues that could come up and having contingency plans in place to fix them.
If the problem is more serious, make sure a member of your team is physically present at the job site. I will drop whatever else is going on and fly across the country if that is what is necessary.
Clients are paying you to make their lives easier. They want reassurance that you have their project under control, and the best way to do that is to demonstrate your commitment by physically showing up. This is especially important if you’re hoping to establish a long-lasting business relationship. Clients are more likely to become repeat customers if they feel they can trust you.
2. Set expectations early.
Be upfront at the beginning of all negotiations. From a financial standpoint, be honest about all the expenses and fees involved with a project in order to give the potential client an accurate estimate.
The last thing you want to do is surprise a client halfway through a project with an unexpected added cost. If a customer feels you’re trying to pull some sort of bait-and-switch operation, they won’t be back for a second project.
Think of it like a marriage. Any partnership stands a better chance of long-term success if both parties are open from the get-go. Imagine if you were in a romantic relationship and your partner hid the fact they were loaded down with credit card debt and then surprised you with it three years into the marriage. Money aside, you may feel betrayed that your partner was not honest about this problem.
It’s the same thing when managing a business relationship. Disclose any speed bumps that could pop up before signing a contract. The client will appreciate the transparency and enter the partnership already armed with knowledge about how you will manage any issues.
3. In a crisis, don’t promise anything until you have all the facts.
Even the best-laid plans can sometimes go awry. That is true in life as well as business. Entrepreneurs need to keep their heads on straight in order to navigate a tense confrontation with a client.
Imagine this scenario: A client calls because something went wrong that could jeopardize a project’s timeline and delay its completion. The client may raise their voice or even curse at you.
Take a deep breath and pause before you offer any promises over the phone, especially if the person on the other end of the line is screaming at you. The first thing to do is to respond in a calm manner and offer reassurance that whatever the problem is, it will be fixed.
It may be tempting to quickly offer some sort of discount, especially if the customer is angry. This type of hasty response may get you through this specific job, but it won’t be enough to entice this client to use you again.
The customer is most concerned about getting the issue resolved. As I discussed above, this is where a project manager needs to get to the job site. Get all the facts about what happened, and figure out a solution. Then explain the fix to the client in person.
Many entrepreneurs launch businesses with the idea that they no longer will have to answer to anyone else. But this isn’t an accurate mindset. Every client is your “boss,” and entrepreneurs who understand this philosophy will increase their startup's odds for success.
This article was originally published in Forbes on October 26, 2020.