We would almost rather have a client blow up in outrage, fire us and storm out the door than endure that crushing moment when you show them your work and their face drops. It has happened to all of us (or will, if it hasn’t to you yet), and is an unnerving and confidence shaking experience. The reason for that is client disappointment strikes we entrepreneurs where we are most vulnerable: our sense of expertise.
Think about it; we go into business because we believe we are better than the rest at something. If we didn’t, we’d still be working for someone else. However, that means we are constantly putting ourselves out there. Our work, to a large extent, is who we are, and when someone doesn’t like our work, it makes us question the very reason we went into business in the first place.
Entrepreneurs are perfectionists and people pleasers. We have incredibly high standards for ourselves, and if we feel we are not meeting them, it upsets us deeply. And nothing makes us feel more like we have failed our standards of excellence like a disappointed client.
But, a disappointed client is not the end of the world. In fact, there are some silver linings here. It is hard to see them in the moment, but give it some time and you will see.
So what should you do when a client is disappointed with your work?
1) Consider it a blessing (of sorts)
I’m not going to blow sunshine up your skirt, disappointment hurts. But remember, at least your client didn’t fire you. A disappointed client is one who is still communicating. The dangerous ones are those who go to radio silence with you. They are usually shopping around for other vendors. But if a client expresses disappointment in your work, it means they want to continue your relationship. It is actually an opportunity to improve and excel. Again, you won’t want to hear that right when it happens, but try to remember that at least you are still in the game. Tough it out.
2) Listen hard
A moment of disappointment is a sensitive thing. It is not the end of the world, but clients will not give you many of them. If you blow it one time, you must make sure to get it right the next time. Hence, you must, must, must discover the roots of your client’s disappointment, and it is not always what they say it is. As shaky as you may be in this moment, you have got to listen very carefully for what the issue is so you can resolve it. There are some specific listening techniques you can practice to get better, and you should. Disappointment is an opportunity, and like all opportunities, you must seize it and do the right thing, because it won’t repeat itself often.
3) Do not argue
You are going to be defensive; you are going to be hurt. And you are going to want to argue. Please don’t. At least not that moment. It will go badly, I guarantee. What arguing tells your client is you are not willing to listen to him/her, and that is a mistake (see point 2). By the way, it does not mean your client is necessarily right. You can come back later, after you think it through, and make a reasoned argument why s/he is incorrect. But if you try to prove your point at the moment of disappointment, you will lose every time. This is a time for discretion to be the better part of valor. Just retreat and regroup.
4) But don’t apologize too much
You are going to want to grovel. You are going to want to plead. You may even want to quit and go home crying. But you cannot do any of those things. You made a mistake, and always know the person sitting across the table from you has disappointed important people in their business life as well. So say you are sorry. Say you will do better, and then do. But don’t lose your self respect. If you melt into a sobbing pile of mush in front of your client, s/he will actually lose more respect for you than if you take your lumps, rise to the challenge and move on. Handling disappointment with decorum is a great way to show your client you are a finisher and someone who can be trusted to act like an adult; that in itself sends a great message. Remember, you are not their subordinate. That is employee thinking; not entrepreneur thinking.
5) Give yourself a break.
Literally and figuratively. In the moment of disappointment you are not thinking clearly. You are emotional and will make bad decisions. So, on the day your incident happens, do not try to fix it. Go home, have some wine, and watch reruns of your favorite ridiculous TV show. In other words, let your mind get away for a while. The next day you will have a much better perspective on the situation and will make better choices.
Figuratively, let’s get real. You have impossibly high standards for yourself (it’s part of being an entrepreneur), so you were not going to match up on something eventually. And because I am talking to entrepreneurial types, I can say what I’m about to say: for most of you, your worst day of work as a business owner is better than most 9 to 5er’s best. We just live by different, and much more stringent rules. So lighten up a little (but only a little).
Successful entrepreneurs, more than anything, are tough. We simply will not give up on our ambitions. So, understand that at some point a client is going to be disappointed in your efforts, that it happens to all of us, and that you will survive it. It’ll make you tougher. It’ll make you better. And, if handled properly, it will help you succeed.
Thanks for reading.