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Unhappy Customer

Q. I own a small business and I have a problem. I sent an invoice to a client. He wrote back saying that he thought the invoice was unfair and that I should not have charged him for some of the hours we worked. I disagree, but I’m not sure what to do. What’s your advice?

A. Regardless of the reason and whether or not it is justified, you have an unhappy customer. Your response is critical. This is a pivotal point in the relationship. Respond wrongly and you’ll lose a customer. Respond correctly and you’ll gain a loyal customer. It all depends on how you react.

You could write a response justifying your invoice in no uncertain terms. If your client is an honorable man, he will probably pay it in full. Unfortunately, you’re likely to have heard from this client for the last time. At best, he’ll never use your product or services again. At worst, he’ll tell others not to do business with you every chance he gets. You will have won the battle and lost the war. We suggest an alternative approach.

Our advice is one-to-one communication. You said your client wrote. We assume this was via letter or email. Do not use these channels to respond. We advise a face-to-face meeting. At a minimum, make it a phone call. You need to be able to communicate empathy and concern. You can’t do this nearly as effectively in a letter or through email.

When you meet (or speak) with your client, your initial focus should be on his grievance. Ask clarifying questions. Seek to understand. Do not begin by justifying yourself, your company or your invoice. Do everything you can to see the issue from your client’s point of view. Most people do not voice a concern unless they believe there is a justifiable reason. Understand the reason for your client’s concern.

After your client has finished explaining his concerns, use active listening skills. Tell your client what you understand his concern to be. He may correct you. That’s fine. Restate your clients concern based on your new understanding. Continue this process until he says, “That’s right. You’ve got it.”

Once you understand your client’s concerns decide how to respond. If you agree that he has a valid concern, acknowledge it. Agree to do remedial work to correct the situation free of charge. Reduce the charge on your invoice. Do whatever is necessary to fix things. Make sure that your client is thrilled with your customer service.

Even if you still disagree with your client’s point of view, begin by acknowledging that he is upset. Tell him how sorry you are that there has been a misunderstanding. You can explain your point of view in a very non-defensive manner. Do not raise your voice or show the slightest bit of hostility. Bring new information to the discussion of which your client is not aware, if possible. At least, cast the information he already knows in a different light. Reiterating what he already knows with no new prospective, is less likely to be effective.

Then, even though you think you are completely justified, give your client a peace offering. It may be 20 percent off the current invoice. It may be 40 percent off his next purchase (this has the benefit of increasing the probability that he will do business with you again). Offering nothing says you are right and he is wrong. Even if this is true, you’ll be the loser. The client may not always be right, but the client is always the client. He is the one who writes your paycheck. Never forget this.

On rare occasion, you may find a customer who continuously takes advantage of your generosity. In this case, you may need to end the business relationship. This will not often be necessary and when it is, it’s better for it to be your decision.

You can respond to an upset customer by proving you are right. Even if you are successful, you’ll lose. It’s better to take the opportunity to create a loyal customer. A small expense now will yield great returns in the future.

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