Maybe it’s this time of year. Maybe there’s something in the water. Maybe someone needs to take this quiz. (kidding!)
When things go pear-shaped, we usually get hung up on why this particular issue is rearing its ugly head. Should I have given them clearer guidelines? Were my expectations unreasonable?
But in those first few hours of unraveling, how you react is more important than why this problem occurred. Let’s save the post-game analysis for a few days down the road.
In the meantime, here are seven things you can do when a professional relationship does hit the rocks in spite of your best efforts:
1. Don’t respond to any communication until you’ve had time to think about it and you’re not upset.
Your mom was right when she told you to take a deep breath and count to 10 before you responded to your bratty brother. The same rule applies if someone is unprofessional enough to send a rude business email. If you feel your blood pressure rising when you start to draft a reply, wait until you can read those words with calm and detachment.
2. Write a point-by-point response (if possible).
If someone sends an unprofessional laundry list of your personal failings, you’re not required to address each of them–and you know it’s really not about you. If, however, you can address each issue by pointing to a section of your agreement or former piece of communication, by all means do so–respectfully.
Whatever you do, avoid responding to to someone defensively or worse, in-kind. When you take the time to professionally respond to someone’s concerns–whether founded or not–you’re showing them you’re a professional in challenging circumstances, and you’re reducing the likelihood of future email exchanges.
If you feel the communication is truly offensive and unfounded, rather than write a point-by-point response, write a nice, short reply–something like this one–that can be used in almost any situation (feel free to grab this and use when you need it):
“Thank you for taking time to share your thoughts. We’ll be sure to consider them carefully. Please feel free to review our agreement and let me know if there’s anything you feel hasn’t been done and we’ll be happy to take care of it right away.”
3. Realize that there is a good chance the issue may not be about you.
In fact, it probably isn’t if you have a long record of happy clients. When someone is rude and critical in a business setting, it often has much more to do with their own unhappiness and self-criticism than anything else. Maybe you look like this client’s ex-girlfriend. Maybe your employee is struggling in their personal life, or your vendor’s mother is sick. There are so, so many variables in everyone’s life; it’s pretty unlikely that their vitriolic outburst is 100% about the font choice on that website header. Take a deep breath and try to feel compassion about what they might be going through–I promise, it helps!
4. Remember the law of averages – you really, truly can’t win them all.
If you’re in business long enough, you’re eventually going to run into a few unsavory people–it’s simply the law of averages. If you fly frequently enough, your luggage will get lost and if you eat an apple every day, you’ll eventually find a rotten one. You can’t please everyone 100% of the time and you don’t need to try–it’s impossible anyway.
Instead, choose to view a business relationship gone sour as meeting your yearly quota of “not someone you would choose to hang out with–or do business with!” and know that you’re not likely to encounter another one for a while.
5. Know that this is not a commentary on your value as a human.
Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that you really did mess something up and your client was right to be upset. That doesn’t mean you’re a bad writer/developer/consultant/person; it means you’re a human who made a mistake. It also doesn’t change the fact that you’re a good friend, an amazing cook, and a diligent thank-you note writer. Learn from it and move on.
6. And by learn from it, I mean: consider if there’s a nugget of truth to the person’s complaint.
As I mentioned, some judgment most definitely reveals more about the speaker than the recipient, but if you’ve heard the same critique from several people, maybe it’s time to be honest with yourself. If multiple people have commented on your tardiness or typos, think about how you can right your ship and do better in the future.
“Failure is an opportunity to more intelligently begin again,” said Henry Ford. Wise words to be sure.
7. If you feel discouraged by the interaction, take time to remind yourself of all the great work you’ve done.
I bet that 99% of your clients, employees, and collaborators are thrilled to work with you. If you need a pick-me-up, look through your own testimonial page. I actually devote an email folder to kind, uplifting emails and reference it in times of frustration. You’d be amazed how a single “I’m in love with my design!” or “Your support and guidance has been a game changer for me!” can lift your sprits!
At the end of the day, all you can do is your best. The right people will recognize that. And if they don’t? Send them that inoffensive template email, pour yourself a cup of tea, and know that tomorrow is another day and another opportunity to do great work with great people.
P.S. You’ve made sure your website is mobile responsive, right?