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Handling Client Conflict for virtual assistants

virtual assistant clientsHave you ever had one of those sinking moments of realisation as an email pings into your inbox and you think “Oh crikey, I’ve screwed up!”  We all have them – I have them, the world’s best VA has them, and newbies have them lots!!!

The good news is: How you handle the situation can actually have a positive impact on your VA:Client relationship, far more than if you’d not screwed up at all.

Of course it’s better if you never mess up – but let’s assume that we’ve had a mistake – what steps do you take?

Number 1: Establish the facts

If something has gone wrong, find out what it is and how far reaching it is.

I’m a big fan of making sure I have an email trail on everything – I will not accept instructions over the phone from clients for that reason and if they insist on doing so, I’ll send them an email confirming what was said and the actions I am going to take.  This will help you to find out where it’s gone wrong and if the mistake was your fault – a lot of the time clients make a mistake themselves – a typo, an assumption, something they haven’t checked when you send work back…  You need to make sure you have all the facts before going back to your client.

Secondly you need to find out what’s actually happened – and this can take some time to establish, but it’s important you get the full story before going back to your client.  If you go back with an explanation for the mistake you’ve discovered and then something else goes wrong it will jeopardise your relationship.

Number 2: Keep communicating

The worst thing you can do right now is go AWOL…  It will only inflame the situation.  Communicate with your client, even if it’s only to say you are investigating the situation and will get back to them ASAP.

You must make sure you make this your absolute top priority – sorry but your children will be going hungry, your other clients will be pushed to one side and you will not be going to sleep until you’ve found out where this has gone wrong.

Ensure that you respond to the client when you said you would – if you said “Let me find out what’s happened and give you a call back ASAP” then if you haven’t resolved it by the end of the day, call the client and give them that update…  Don’t leave them hanging, it’s unprofessional and makes you look even more inept.

Number 3: Explore the options

Listen carefully to what the client is saying – they may well be suggesting a solution to the problem.  If they are truly irate and blaming you for everything under the sun, ask them what they would like you to do to resolve the situation?  This takes a lot of the heat out of the situation – it may or may not be something you can agree to, but at least you get an idea of what they expect.

Do you need to check additional costs to put this mistake right?  Do you need to send out a new email with the correct information on it?  Is this something you can forget about this time, but put new measures in place to ensure it doesn’t happen again?

It’s much better to admit your mistake and go to them with a potential solution than just to tell the client what happened – if nothing else, it gives them something to focus on rather than having a go at you.

Remember: your professional indemnity insurance may well expect you to contact them as soon as you discover the mistake!

Number 4: Apologise

I’m a big believer that an apology goes a long way – if something is my fault, I put my hand up to it.  That’s not to say you should be a doormat and let the client yell at you for four hours, but you do need to apologise if something was your fault.

See also  Becoming a new VA

(Again, before you do this – check with your insurers!)

Number 5: Agree a course of action

The main thing in all of this is you discuss how to move forward…  It could be the client does not want to work with you any more, in which case your course of action is to put in place steps that mean this mistake can’t happen with any of your other clients.

You might need to re-do the work, rectify mistakes, agree a course of action with future work – whatever it is, make sure they are done quickly and accurately at your own cost.  I also make sure the client isn’t charged for that work if the mistake was our fault – it will appear on their bill, but it will be £0 total.

Case studies:

The airplane ticket

We were arranging tickets for one of our clients to attend a meeting in London.  We looked at flight times, sent her an email with them on, she approved the costs and gave us her credit card to book them with.  Except due to an inadvertent click with the mouse, I booked her the wrong day! 

Luckily she realised this when she got the airline confirmation.  I admitted the mistake straight away (as her instructions had been for that specific day) and as the ticket was non-refundable and she needed the credit card which she used to pay for the flights in order to check-in, I rebooked the tickets using her credit card but did a BACs transfer for the erroneous flights straight into her bank account. 

An expensive mistake and one we would be unable to repeat as after this we made it a rule that no purchases were to be made on behalf of clients using their credit cards.  We now do the research for clients’ purchases but let them do the payments.  It’s an added hassle for the client to have to do their own booking, but especially with travel things can go badly wrong very easily. 

The client is not always right

The client asks us to do some data entry for him – we’d previously agreed a rate and a turnaround time for this work, but he sent us six months’ worth of receipts jumbled in a plastic bag at 4pm on a Friday and needed them done for 9am Monday morning…  This is not what we agreed, which I pointed out to him but say that we will do our best to help him out of a tight situation.

We filled in his required database with all the relevant issues – some of the receipts were very faded, others aren’t VAT receipts when they were clearly for VAT purchases, others have a mixture of VAT and non-VAT goods on the same receipt (so the total VAT wasn’t the same as the total minus 20%). 

We highlighted where we suspected there were issues, we bundle up all his originals in a catalogued file to return to him so he can cross reference the originals against the entries on the database and we send him our bill with payment terms of 7 days for 9am Monday morning – we hear nothing more.  Two weeks later the bill is outstanding so we check in with him to see where the payment is.  He tells us there are errors in the data so I go and check.  There are no errors in the data (I cross check them against the scanned originals we have). 

Then he tells us that the amount was not what we agreed for the monthly receipt processing – I point out we’ve done 6 months and actually we’ve charged him less hours than we agreed per month’s processing and that I have an email from him confirming that our standard rates will apply to this urgent work. 

Still he refused to pay the bill.  For the amount it was, it wasn’t worth taking to court.  We know he bad-mouthed us at various networking events, but there wasn’t much I could do other than explain the work we’d done was correct and that he hadn’t paid the bill – which I suspect did him more harm than us.

The computer says no

Using an email programme which we hadn’t used before we were to send out an email to a database of 15,000 people…  Somewhat against my better judgement, but the client assured me she had used the programme before and that all these people had opted in as per the terms of the Data Protection Act.  However we explained upfront to the client that we’d never used this programme and she talked us through a small test selection email which went fine so we did exactly the same thing with the bigger database. 

Somehow (and to this day I have NO IDEA why!) the email looped itself sending the same email repeatedly to the whole list…  It caused a major problem with spam reports that took down her email and all her websites for 48 hours.  

We worked with her webhost, the email programme providers and the client to get the loop stopped and to send an individual email to each person who complained.  The cost to the client was astronomical – she lost advertising revenue for the websites being down, her reputation suffered from the spamming and from people not being able to get onto the websites…  But truly we had done everything possible to make sure we did the mail out correctly.  We worked with her to put the mistake right and we didn’t charge her for the work – technically you could say that we were admitting guilt but here was a good client of ours who was in a mess and I wanted to help.  I felt I was partially to blame for agreeing to use the email programme in the first place – now we stick to our guns and only use proven software that we have worked with extensively. 

The “I want something sexy” client

In my past I was an advertising exec – I used to flog marketing to call centres, golf resorts, chocolate companies and property developers.  Not massively exciting, but it paid the bills.  We had a particular client who would always call us asking for “something sexy” – as in “I have 200 call centre jobs to recruit for – do me an advert, I want something sexy”.  So I’d brief this to the creatives and they’d come back with a suggestive secretary, a tropical beach, wads of cash… None of this was sexy to this client.  In fact, I still have no idea what he was after – reams of adverts got rejected and he still couldn’t explain what he actually wanted on the ad, just that whatever we’d put, that wasn’t it!  He’d get increasingly frustrated by us not coming up with what he wanted, but he couldn’t articulate what that was.

I describe clients who don’t know what they want as “something sexy” clients – our job is to guide them, advise them, but we can’t actually do their job for them.   It’s not your job to run their business, they do need to take responsibility for their own business.  If you’ve offered what you can do for the client, told them what you need in order to get started…  That’s where your responsibility ends.  So many people love the idea of having a VA but actually don’t have work they are willing or able to outsource. 

One thing we have done to discourage these “Something sexy” clients is to get advance payment for a block of hours that expires at the end of the month – this focuses them on finding actual work for us to do reasonably quickly rather than us being paid for work we haven’t been briefed on.  And we make sure we take an extensive brief of what their “something sexy” is!

You’re HOW much???! 

Yes – we all have these prospects.  They are known as “bottom feeders” “tyre kickers” or “bargain basement” clients… Whatever you call them, they will always insist you are charging them too much – they could get it cheaper elsewhere.  Here’s our top tip for handling this conflict:  Let them go elsewhere. 

The service you are offering is not comparable to a temp, an offshore VA or Joe Bloggs down the road.  You will have set your prices so they cover your living expenses, marketing costs, investing in equipment, and so you can afford to keep going in business.  That is the rate you can afford to work for, it’s not a number you’ve plucked out of the air, which you’ll cut in half just because they asked for a discount!

 My favourite phrase to use is “That’s great if you can get it cheaper elsewhere for the same service – that’s the lowest I can do it for.  However if you find that the service isn’t the same and you want us to help, please do get back in touch”.  That way the door is open for them to come back to you when the temp gets a permanent job or the offshore VA charges 5 hours for a 15 minute task or Joe Bloggs goes out of contact because it’s the school holidays…  Stranger things have happened – I have a very good client who originally told me I was extortionate and went elsewhere.  He’s been paying my “extortionate” prices for about 5 years now, so it can’t be that bad.

Just having a bad day…

The cat’s been sick on the carpet, you spilled your coffee on your daybook, a client is niggling over where you put a comma in a document…  It’s officially a bad day.  Herein lies the strength of being a VA – you can actually just go back to bed! 

Clear your desk, chuck the “out of office” on, take your Smartphone with you and go for a walk, browse the shops, get a cup of tea with your fave biscuit…  Be your very own HR Dept and activate a stress management policy. 

Taking a break is an important part of keeping healthy and doing a good job.  Imagine responding to the client email above with your nippy head on…  Emails can be read in all sorts of different ways, but you can certainly tell when someone is being defensive or aggressive.  Step away from the computer, grab a cuppa, chill out and then go back with a fresh head to deal with it.

The one where they don’t pay…

So there’s no problem with the work – but the client doesn’t pay their bill.  And to add more insult to injury, they’re still sending you work!!!  You don’t want to lose this client, but if they don’t have the money to pay you, you can’t afford to work for them. 

  1. Establish the facts – get on the phone to them and ask if there’s a problem with the bill, when the payment will be in and how they are going to pay. Be very quiet until they answer those questions – make it awkward!
  2. Keep communicating – put a note in your diary to check that they’ve paid when they said, and call them if the payment isn’t there. 
  3. Explore the options – do they have something they could trade instead of paying for it? Do they have a payment from a client coming in which they can pay you from?  Or do you need to bill them at a different time of the month?  Can they pay you something just now? 
  4. Make sure they realise it’s not acceptable – There is no apology here from you, but I would be looking for one from the client – it goes a long way to making me feel better about the situation and to convince me they intend to pay. 
  5. Put in place measures to ensure it doesn’t happen again – prepayment from this client?   We like www.gocardless.com

Have you had any good solutions to client conflict?  Share them here…

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