This post first appeared on Flying Solo.

    When a client gushes over the quality of your work, it’s an incredible thrill that can send you over the moon. But when a client sends you negative feedback so brutal it borders on cruelty, it can be devastating and even depressing.

    It’s especially painful when you’ve busted your hump to deliver, thought you’d knocked it out of the park — but got hammered anyway. Feedback like this can have the most disciplined professionals reacting poorly but this can only lead to more difficult situations.

    Here’s how you handle brutal feedback better and avoid making a difficult situation worse.


    Don’t take it personally. Ever.


    This isn’t easy to do, but it’s the first thing you must do.

    Taking bad feedback personally is the quickest route to losing your cool and messing up your composure. Letting bad feedback get under your skin will cloud your emotions and taint all your actions from there onwards.

    Whether you’ve received bad feedback face to face from a client, via an email, over the phone or other means, the trick is to take a deep breath.

    Don’t snap back in your meeting. Don’t scream down the phone line. Don’t author a lengthy email why they’re wrong, why they suck and then hit ‘send’. Don’t get defensive!

    Instead, you need to —


    Breathe. Get some distance.


    Clarity of thought, precision in planning and elegance of execution is the key to success — in anything. It’s definitely the key to navigating your way out of a bad situation with a client.

    If your client has just taken a massive swing at your head, it’s imperative you clear your mind before you respond in any way, shape or form. You need to get away from what you’re doing, at least for a little while, before acting on anything.

    If you’re in a high-pressure situation where time is against you, a quick tea or coffee break will help. But if you can afford to take more time, take as much as possible. The more time you have to breathe, the clearer your solutions will become.

    Those solutions will be much better than the ones you come up with when you’re all riled up.


    It’s not you. It’s them. Maybe.


    If you’re beating yourself up for your client’s horrible feedback, consider that it mightn’t be you. It might be them. Remember, your clients are still people. They’re susceptible to the same pressures and pains of life you are. Their negative response may have nothing to do with what you delivered at all.

    Your client may be getting picked on by their boss. Your client’s work environment could be increasingly stressful due to a nose-dive in sales and, as a result, they’re under immense pressure. It could be one thing or a million. It might even be a personal situation taking an emotional toll on your client.

    There’s no excusing bad behaviour, but the fact you got blown up may just have been bad luck. A case of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. And some people choose to lash out at suppliers because they’re removed from the hierarchy of their own role.


    Find out what the real issue is. If you can.


    Now that you’ve taken a step back and achieved some mental clarity, it’s time to get down to brass tacks — to get to the bottom of what your client is really saying.

    The key to defusing a tense situation is to talk in person – in a meeting, via a video call or at the very least, on the phone. Emails and text messages are out of the question as they can easily be misinterpreted.

    Asking your client questions in a meeting directly gives you a chance to pick up on your clients body language and tone of voice. It means you can navigate the conversation and elicit valuable information more easily than if you were trying to communicate remotely. If your client volunteers information that’s confusing, ask more questions until everything makes sense.

    Most clients appreciate that you’ve made time to meet with them. If they’re reasonable, they’ll understand you’re trying to help and so they may open up.

    They may even apologise for their horrible feedback — especially if they’re a long-standing client with a lot of time invested in the relationship.


    Get it done.


    If you’ve got a clear direction as to what you need to do, get on it as soon as possible. Don’t make your client wait. Clean up your business processes, optimise your services, revise those project elements and get the work done.

    If your client is important to you, do what you have to. Deliver as per your client’s needs and make them happy!


    If they’re not helpful…


    If your client is repeatedly abusive towards your work and downright hostile in meetings, consider firing them. You always have the choice. Clients who deliberately hide their true intentions, obfuscate meaning and play power games are a waste of your time, your resources and in turn, your money.

    It’s your call whether or not you think the client is worth it. But if you’ve done all you can and you’re getting no closer to a resolution because of them it’s time to let them go.


    Remember, they hired you to help them.


    Negative feedback is never easy to take, especially if you’ve put your heart and soul into what you’re doing.

    If you’re copping flak from a client, just remember, they hired you to help them in the first place. They want and need your help to move their business forward. Take that deep breath, set that meeting, find out what your client needs and deliver it.

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