How to deal with email complaints from clients without losing your cool

You work incredibly hard for your clients. You put in extra weekend hours to bend over backwards and meet their deadlines. You even think about how you could help during your time off, when you should be relaxing.

All seems to be going well. They love your work and you seemingly have a great relationship. Then suddenly, just when you think it couldn’t get any better, you’re hit with ‘one of those emails’. An email to end all emails. Where a complaint or negative comment causes all hope, happiness and life to drain from your entire existence.

Ok, so I’m being melodramatic. But you know what I mean. When clients complain about a perfectly good piece of work, that you spent forever perfecting, sending you on such a downer that you can’t possibly fathom any motivation to make amends. Or worse, they start to question whether all your hard work really is making a difference and whether you should actually be paid.

Never fear! Creative Boom has the following top tips to help you cope with a soul-destroying email from a client, and enjoy the best possible outcome…

1. Don’t react immediately

When you first receive a complaint email from a client, don’t respond right away. Give yourself a chance to read and digest the comments before you do anything else. Print it out, if you feel it would help.

Give yourself time to calm down. Because chances are you’ll have an initial emotional response, probably one of anger, confusion or negativity. And that’s not the right frame of mind to respond to a client. Follow the next steps before you construct a reply email.

2. Don’t take it personally

The world doesn’t revolve around any of us. There’s always something going on with others that we’ll never truly understand. Which is why you can’t take anything personally.

I like to consider one of the Four Agreements from the Toltec Wisdom: “Nothing others do is because of you. What others say and do is a projection of their own reality, their own dream. When you are immune to the opinions and actions of others, you won’t be the victim of needless suffering.”

It’s wisdom that you can apply as a creative professional. So when you first receive that critical comment or feedback, take a step back and breathe. Don’t allow your emotions to overwhelm you. It’s nothing personal – the client just has things going on that you’re unaware of. For example, they may have pressure from their own boss, or they might just be having a bad day.

3. Don’t make assumptions

As you try not to take anything personally, your human brain will start to make all kinds of assumptions – from the obvious to the absurd. You’ll literally send yourself into a state of all-out panic if you allow yourself to.

Instead, stop the drama in your head! And again, refer to the Toltec Wisdom and one of its Four Agreements – Don’t Make Assumptions: “Find the courage to ask questions and to express what you really want. Communicate with others as clearly as you can to avoid misunderstandings, sadness and drama. With just this one agreement, you can completely transform your life.”

4. Put yourself in the client’s shoes

Now that you’re not taking the critical feedback personally or making any assumptions, you have the space in your mind to consider the client. You can actually put yourself in their shoes and show compassion.

You can ask yourself the question – is the client right? Accept that they might be making a valid point before you respond. Could you have done things differently? Is there a way to meet the client in the middle and come to some sort of compromise?

5. Get a second opinion

If you’re still not sure how to respond or how you even feel about the comments, grab a colleague, friend or family member you trust to offer a second opinion. It could be that your emotions are still riding high and you’re not thinking straight. It’s quite normal to overreact, but others who aren’t involved will be able to calmly offer a non-emotional opinion – helping you see things from a different perspective.

6. Draft your email response

Now you’ve had time to mull things over, it’s time to roll up your sleeves and write an email response. First top tip – remove the respondent’s email address from the draft email, just so you avoid accidentally sending anything mid-draft.

Next tip – it will take you some time to draft this email, as it’s so important to get the tone absolutely right. You certainly don’t want to come off as defensive or rude. My advice would be to type without over-thinking and allow things to flow. Get your main points down onto the screen.

Once you’re satisfied you’ve got everything there, you should sit back and read the email aloud. Does it sound calm and friendly? Is it professional? Can you spot any passive-aggression? Does it sound a tad emotional?

Keep redrafting each sentence until you’re completely satisfied the email hits exactly the right note.

If you need a little more help with drafting your response, include the following:

  • Thank the client for their feedback
  • Say how you’re sorry that they’re not happy
  • Explain humbly how you’ll do everything you can to solve the issue and make them happy
  • Ask questions, if necessary, to further understand their complaint
  • Offer some further suggestions on how to rectify the situation.

One final tip – get someone to read your email and ask if they feel it’s friendly, calm and professional. A second opinion can be invaluable.

Hit send and await the client’s response. Try not to be anxious about this. Take some time out, away from your desk, to refresh yourself.

7. If an email won’t cut it, pick up the phone

There are times when you’ve been sat at your desk, trying to draft an email response, when it just isn’t working. Everything you type just sounds defensive, and you’re becoming increasingly frustrated – ready to throw in the towel.

Stop! This is when you should just pick up the phone and speak to the client. Sometimes, a five minute phone conversation is all it takes to resolve things. Just follow this top tip – write a bullet point list of all the things you want to say, and smile as you talk. Remember, the client isn’t out to get you – they just want to have a satisfactory outcome, just as much as you. They’re on your side.

8. Future-proof yourself from future complaints

Clients are only human. It’s easy for them to forget everything you’ve achieved for them, so ram it down their throats constantly – that’s whether you send a weekly email update, listing all of your achievements over the past seven days, or a regular report – outlining successful stats related to your work.

Prevent clients from ever having to send ‘those kinds of emails’. Or at least make it less likely that they’ll do so. You can do this by maintaining a strong relationship with them, through attending regular face-to-face meetings and being open and honest with one another as much as possible.

If you’re ever in any doubt, just pick up the phone. Be humble, open to suggestions and always strive to be compassionate and caring. Try to anticipate problems before they arise, and learn to trust your gut feelings – you’ll be amazed how your own instinct can avoid any problems.

9. Learn from the experience

When all is well with the world again – consider what you’ve learnt from this whole experience. In my eight years of running a business, I’ve naturally had moments when I’ve felt disheartened by a client email. Crushed, even.

But I’ve learnt that it does no good to react emotionally to these things. You have to take a step back, remove your emotions from the equation and be completely objective and professional. Complaints are nothing personal. The client doesn’t mean to drain you of all motivation. They’re simply after a happy outcome for their business. And you have the power to make that happen. Just as long as you control your reaction. Trust me, you’ll soon become a pro.

10. Remember that you are not alone

Follow the wise words of Michael Jackson and understand that you are not alone. All creative professionals have to face criticism from clients. And you'd be surprised just how common those complaints can be. For further advice, read Creative Boom's tips on how to deal with an unhappy client. Or for some light relief, check out the most amusing Clients from Hell.