Secrets of Dealing with Unhappy Clients

Thursday, October 24, 2019

Just typing the title of this blog post made me cringe. You see, I’m an enormous people pleaser. I hate conflict. I would rather crawl into bed and hide than face an unhappy friend, relative or client head on. It’s one of my greater weaknesses.

This past summer, I took on a new role of working as an editor for a monthly lifestyle magazine. I had worked for this particular magazine for more than 10 years as a freelance writer. However, there were a few things I didn’t consider until the complaints came in.

First of all, I will preface this by saying that, regarding my performance, I’ve heard mostly great feedback from the publisher, creative director and sales team. But the former editor of the magazine is a beloved member of our community and was the face of the magazine for 10+ years. When I started in the role, I was mostly focused on doing the best possible job I could and meeting my production deadlines. I quickly learned there were people in the community (media contacts and advertisers) who had developed systems with the previous editor that I was unaware of.

One example is that I showcased a product in one of our advertiser’s stores that they were unhappy with. This confused me at first. I recommended a product they sold in one of their stores—what was the big deal? Free publicity! What they had a problem with was that I had taken a photo of the product and didn’t run it by them first. They didn’t feel like it represented their brand very well (they are in the business of home decor) and reached out to let us know.

Another example is the that the communications contact for the local college music department thought if he sent me images for consideration in an article, I would send him a proof with any of those images on a page before running. I thought he wanted me to run an image by him if we were using it as a cover photo. We got our wires crossed and he reached out to me when a photo ran that he hadn’t approved first (although he had sent it to me in a gallery of images).

These are just two examples of things that happened in a recent issue. Add to that an unhappy photographer, a photographer who told me she would do an assignment and then failed to tell me when she couldn’t get to it, writers asking about past due payments, and I feel like I’ve been volleying issues left and right. Lucky for me, I have a background in public relations.

When problems like these arise, there are a few basic things you can do:

Admit when you’re wrong. In the case of the unhappy advertiser, I called the person in charge and apologized. I told her I was under a deadline and didn’t realize in the past we would have run products by them before featuring them in an editorial layout. She simply wanted to be heard, and about a week later, I made sure to chat with her and the rest of her team at a networking event the magazine held, and we have worked harmoniously together ever since.

Make things right if you can. In the case of the unhappy communications director, I also immediately apologized that we got our wires crossed. I explained to him that I only thought he wanted to approve a cover image, and he explained how he was used to working with our previous editor. I agreed to run any event copy we used for the department by him for fact-checking in the future, and we agreed upon a photo submission process.

In the case of the administrative issues, I handle those on a case-by-case basis. I forward payment inquiries to our publisher, who is in charge of issuing payments. I try to build trusting and open relationships with the writers and the photographers, because they are the bread and butter of our magazine.

It it always easy? No. There are issues that keep me awake at night with worry. I try to let things go and not dwell on them. In the case of dealing with unhappy clients, you can only do what your conscience guides you to do and give yourself a bit of grace for anything that isn’t quickly resolved.

I’m curious if anyone has ever had an unhappy editor, client or writer. How did you help fix the situation? I’d love to hear other perspectives on this topic.

Renee Roberson is an award-winning writer and magazine editor who also blogs at


Nicole Pyles said...

Ugh, I never like when this happens. I think you nailed it about how to approach it. Admitting you're wrong is a huge part and trying as much as you can to make it right. I also try to see if I can learn from it in some way. Like if I have disappointed someone, I ask myself if I have overextended myself in some way (thus, delivering lower quality work than I usually would provide), or if I can set expectations differently for the next person (if they are disappointed with results). It's never fun dealing with an unhappy client! And even when trying to make it right in some way I always fear their view of me has changed or something (although I know that's not necessarily the case).

Angela Mackintosh said...

Renee ~ I totally hear you! I'm in charge of handling unhappy customers here. Luckily, we don't have too many...maybe once a year, if that, which is nothing compared to other jobs I've worked. But still, I'm a people pleaser, too, and never want anyone to be unhappy. This is going to sound weird, but I actually enjoy working with unhappy customers because it provides an opportunity to turn their experience into a positive one. It's the ones who don't say anything I'm most worried about. What I've learned is that people want to be heard, like you mentioned. I listen, apologize, and try to be over-accommodating to their needs, because when you're doing everything you can for them, how can they be upset? Sometimes it's hard because it's never me personally who upset them, so I have to balance being fair to the staff member and the customer, which is tricky. But the bottom line is that the customer is always right. At least, that's the world I come from in my retail background.

I'm actually surprised the advertiser was upset with free publicity. And it sounds like you have a LOT on your plate. You handled those situations beautifully, btw. I've always found that the ones I can turn around, end up becoming a customer for life. But in other work, that's not always the case, and you can't dwell on it. And definitely don't think about it before you go to sleep. Be like a duck and let that water roll right off your back.

Sue Bradford Edwards said...

They are so lucky to complain to you and not me. I spent way too much time fielding insane complaints. "I don't like this class. The professor only wears green or brown." Um, yeah. I'll talk to him about that.

But you are 100% right. People really do want to be heard. If you can show them that you are listening, everyone involved is a winner.

Mary Horner said...

You are so right about people wanting to be heard. When I was managing editor for a medical journal, I received a complaint that began with "Did you read this month's journal? (like I hadn't read it before publishing it!) So I just replied that I had and listened to her comment.

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