How to handle an upset client, when its NOT your fault

I saw this video some time ago, and it reminded me of a time when a close friend of mine got a call from a client who was very upset at something the his team did. We all get these every now and then.

The obvious way to react would be to just apologise and to move on. But his biggest challenge was that he did not believe that the team really did anything wrong, and his defensive response made the client even more upset, which clearly made things worse. So what’s the best way to react without being a pushover but still appeasing the client?

Steve Jobs, well known for being a strong communicator, was put to the test in public. Here’s a video of someone from the audience being very upset at Steve Jobs and accusing him of not knowing what he’s talking about. And how he responds made the crowd cheer.

The key lessons from this video are:

1) Be calm, do not respond emotionally

When he first heard the question, Steve Jobs paused, and took some time to think, and responded in a very calm manner. When you respond with emotion, this aggravates the situation, and your upset client will no doubt respond by being even more upset.

2) Agree with them

What? Why should I agree with them if it’s not my fault? Steve Jobs started his response by saying “this gentleman is RIGHT, in some areas”.

In the beginning, its not about assigning blame. It’s about validating their feelings, and letting them feel heard. When you do this, you can then use their energy and direct them towards solving the problem rather than being upset.

3) Apologise (of course!), and help them understand the positive intentions behind the mistakes

Steve Jobs actually apologised and admitted that sometimes he doesn’t know what he’s talking about. But he also pointed out that everyone was working really hard to do the best work possible, and that he’s not perfect either. He also mentioned that “some mistakes will be made, and that’s good, because decisions are being made”.

If your client can understand WHY those mistakes were made (maybe you had a short time to make a quick decision, or it was a new employee in the team that was trying too hard), that the intentions were right, they are more likely to understand and feel better about you and the situation.


Remember that once you have calmed them down, the next thing to do is to agree on how to improve things moving forward, and also if you can get them to play a role in some areas, for you to make things better for them. Because very often, when things go wrong, both parties may have contributed to it in some way.