Clients on the Ledge?

Posted on March 16, 2009. Filed under: Communication skills |

Many small business owners, me included, are under considerable pressure these days. Our clients are coming to us with fear, anxiety, anger, even hopelessness and expecting us to “talk them off the ledge.”  They also may be blaming us and in words that are hard for us to hear.

What I know about any of us when we are under this kind of emotional stress is that we need to be accommodated and allowed to get it off our chests.

With clients, until the upset is fully heard they have no ears. This is not to say, of course, that they need to be agreed with. They really just need someone they trust – and hopefully that’s you – to hang in with them and give them the time and space to say what’s on their minds. Some of what they say will not make sense to you. Some of it may even be outlandish and irrational. That doesn’t matter. You can be most effective if you simply listen and acknowledge “message received.”

For example, a financial advisor client of mine had a client call and say, “I’m losing my entire retirement! My daughter will have to drop out of college and my son has to give up playing in his band after school because he has to get a job. I’m losing everything! How could you let this happen to me?”

If the approach is to try to talk them out of what they’re believing, you both lose. Every single thing you say could be spot on and it will make no difference to them. Remember: they have no ears.

This is one of the most simple, though not easy, ways to be with them and to help them get their feet on the ground. Listen generously (no interruptions!) and with genuine empathy. The person before you is upset and needs to be treated with respect and understanding. Repeat back in their own words the key things they have just said. In my example above, the advisor said, “What I heard you say is that you’re losing your retirement, your daughter will have to drop out of college, your son will have to give up his band and that I let this happen.” “What else do you want me to hear?”

Repeat this until the client has been fully heard. Until he or she gets it all said, nothing you say will get through. Once someone is fully heard, however, about 80-90% of the upset is gone. At this point, you can shift the conversation by saying, “Thank you for letting me know how you feel. It’s important to me. Are you ready to shift to talking about the options and what you can do how?” If they aren’t ready, ask what else they want you to hear and repeat what they say.

I know it seems that this takes a lot of time. Believe me, it takes far more time if you don’t offer generous listening. You can come up with the best solution in the world and they won’t get it or won’t be committed to it. Two days later, they’re on the phone again, and perhaps more upset than ever.

So, when a client is upset, don’t try to “talk them off the ledge.” Listen with generosity and empathy and they’ll come off the ledge themselves.


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