Dealing with Difficult Clients

Remember that you are the public face of the firm

Every firm has them. The clients whom we politely call “demanding”. The clients who ring up and must speak to your boss right now about their latest difficulty; the clients who turn up at reception shouting the odds; the clients who angrily dispute their bills with you and claim that your boss didn’t actually do the work; the clients who threaten to – and frequently do – take their grievances to the Legal Ombudsman, the Solicitors Regulation Authority, and the press. 

They are among the most challenging aspects of our job. Working out in advance your own strategy for dealing with them can be a godsend when they do turn up – because it is in the nature of things that the difficult client can appear out of the blue, often at the least convenient moment, and can transform a routine encounter into a confrontation within the blink of an eye. 

It always helps to put yourself in the client’s shoes and understand why it is that they are being so demanding. They are almost certainly paying your firm and your boss a significant sum of money to sort out a problem which is very important to them, which may have a very tight deadline and which may be upsetting by its very nature. 

A client who is going through a messy divorce is a classic example. He or she may be constantly ringing up or emailing your boss asking for the latest bulletin on the negotiations, without considering that your boss has other cases to deal with and can’t, in any case, force the other side to respond instantly to emails or telephone messages. 

It clearly is objectively unreasonable to expect a solicitor to be at the beck and call of just one client at all times, and to be ready to have long conversations with that client about how things are going. But no matter how objectively unreasonable it may be, it is entirely understandable. The client’s entire financial future depends on the outcome of those negotiations, and s/he is entitled to feel that s/he should be getting full value for the large sums being spent on legal fees. Inevitably, some clients will get agitated in the course of the negotiations, and some will lose their tempers – particularly if they feel that the solicitor is trying to avoid taking their calls. 

It’s worth keeping at the forefront of your mind, if you have to deal with angry telephone calls or visits, that you are not only the public face of your firm as far as that client is concerned, but you are also the representative of your boss. Even in the face of what can be extreme provocation from a client, you should never take a tone that is critical or angry. Stay calm and professional. 

It’s also worth remembering that if the worst comes to the worst and the client does make a formal written complaint, you don't want (for your own sake and the firm’s) to be described as rude, obstructive or unhelpful within that complaint. 

Cultivate the skill of listening to what the client has to say, and try, as far as you can, to respond to what is being said in a helpful and positive way. Put aside your personal opinion about whether the client is being unreasonable. Sometimes you may feel that the client actually has got a point, and paradoxically those are often the situations in which support staff tend to become blunt and defensive. In a situation like this, it’s not about your personal opinion, it’s about giving the client the best service possible. 

Let’s say that your (exhausted) boss is in a meeting and has told you that she can’t be disturbed, particularly not by that particular client. The client, however, is insisting, in his/her third phone call of the day, that s/he must speak to her right now. 

If you have offered to give the message to your boss as soon as her meeting is over, and the client still insists on being put through, it can help to make some polite and tactful enquiries as to why the matter is so urgent – but the words “polite and tactful” are the key. Some clients will be so angry that they will refuse to discuss matters with a “mere” secretary rather than the fee earner, and may use pointed and even impolite language when refusing. No matter how rudely they put it, it is clearly their right as a client to refuse, so don’t push matters if this turns out to be the case.

If they are willing to discuss it with you, you can say, for example, that it might help if the client could explain to you why the call cannot wait. This can sometimes take the heat out of the situation for the client, because they can go into some brief detail with you; it may well also turn out, when you've heard the explanation, that the client is actually right and the matter cannot wait. 

If not, and the client is panicking unnecessarily, it may well be possible to go on to agree a satisfactory time when your boss can call back. What you absolutely must not do is give the client the impression that you do not take his/her call seriously. Make sure also that if there is some slippage in the timescale, you keep the client informed; the worst thing any firm can do in that situation is to promise a return call that is not made, or is made late. 

Clients’ perceptions of how important their business is to the firm, and how seriously the firm takes them, are created and moulded by their interactions with support staff, particularly secretarial staff. You can leave a good impression, even when the client considers that s/he has received bad service, by listening politely to his/her complaints and not taking matters personally, no matter how angry or rude the client may be to you.

That good impression reflects well on the firm, as well as on your boss and on you personally. In fact, it’s one of the areas in which good service from support staff are absolutely crucial to the welfare of the business. Demonstrate your people skills and your professionalism with difficult clients, and your firm will value you much more highly.