When Things Go Wrong: Client Communication in a Crisis

Customer engagement is easy when things go well. And of course, it’s a key account manager’s job to help ensure things do go well. But it’s also their job to build long-term, strategic relationships with their clients—and the truth is, in any long-term relationship, things will will inevitably, occasionally go wrong.

We’re not talking bribery, corruption, theft, or some other inexcusable, fireable offense. We’re talking about everyday mistakes: Your team misses a deadline, miscommunicates to a client, goes over budget, or makes someone, somehow unhappy. When that happens, don’t panic—remember, one of the benefits of strong client engagement is that clients are more likely to continue the relationship when something goes wrong. So if you and your team are usually high-performing, there’s no reason you can’t work through whatever happened this time.

What matters now is how you communicate with your customers:

  • Use a yes, AND approach
  • Listen with the intent to serve
  • Take accountability (including financial) where appropriate
  • Walk away with documented action items and deadlines for all parties

We’ll take a closer look at all these elements below. So keep reading, even if all your clients are 100% satisfied right now. Because at the end of the day, account management is about relationships and people—and people aren’t perfect. It’s only a matter of time before you need to communicate through a mistake—and these tools can help you when that day comes.

Yes, AND

Remember the old rule, “The customer is always right?” Well, anyone who works in client service knows they’re certainly not ALWAYS right, but they do hold the purse strings. A certain amount of deference to that fact is necessary when managing a miscommunication or mistake. You usually need your customers more than they need you.

That said, you’ll set yourself up for long-term failure if you give in to every single complaint or demand without holding customers accountable for the ways in which they themselves may have contributed to an error.

For example, let’s say your team missed a deadline, and as a result, incurred rush fees from another vendor—not to mention a great deal of stress on the part of your client, who was anxiously waiting to hear everything would be done on time. Now, let’s also say part of the issue was that your client didn’t deliver timely or consolidated feedback along the way.

Now you have 2 jobs: You need to smooth things over in the short term. And you need to help educate your client around the importance of when and how they give feedback, so you can prevent this from happening in the future. How do you balance these 2 jobs? The simple answer is, “Yes, AND.” (A “yes, BUT” attitude will just sound defensive, because it is.)

First, use the “yes” to fully acknowledge your team’s role in the mistake. It’s your job to track timelines; it’s your job to follow up with clients when you need feedback, and remind them in writing of the ramifications if they don’t get back to you. It’s your job to build realistic timelines and not demand same-day feedback from busy clients. And it’s your job to meet deadlines, period. Acknowledge all that, and offer to pay the rush cost for the other vendor.

Then, once things are settled, use the “AND” in your “yes, AND” to communicate how important it is to receive timely, consolidated feedback in order to meet bigger deadlines. Ask your client if there’s anything you can do differently to help them give feedback. Would it be helpful to blocked time on their calendar for feedback? Do you need to bake in more turnaround time for feedback when you build your next timeline? Work together to develop a system that can make everyone more successful next time.

A “Yes, AND” approach is a balanced way to smooth things over without just giving into every client complaint. It can be easy to fall into the trap of throwing your team under the bus, taking all the blame, accepting all the cost, and reducing all your rates to keep clients. At the end of the day, this won’t make you profitable—and it won’t actually improve the client relationship. Mastering the delicate art of accepting accountability (“Yes, we messed up”) and educating clients on their role in your shared success (“AND we need your help to keep this from happening again) is part of the art of account management.

Listen and Serve

Defensiveness won’t get you anywhere with your clients. It’s important to shift your thinking from “what happened?” to “how can we move forward?”

First, listen. Don’t underestimate the importance of this step—sometimes just having a chance to fully express why they’re upset/angry/disappointed/dissatisfied will put your clients in a much better mood. So listen with your full attention and validate your client’s experience without any defense. That’s step one.

If you don’t feel like you can do this, consider sending someone else to have this conversation. For example, a supportive manager. The idea is not that the manager will throw you under the bus, agree it’s all your fault, and fire you to make the client happy. The idea is just that your manager isn’t as personally connected to the situation, and can listen empathetically without getting too defensive. Plus, sending someone high-ranking demonstrates your organization values the client relationship.

Step two is to serve. Focus on how you can solve the issue moving forward, and not only will you rectify the situation, but you’ll also shift their attention away from whatever mistake caused the issue and towards all the creative and resourceful ways you’ve just come up with to solve it. Suddenly, you’ve turned the conversation from the thing your team did wrong to the ingenious ideas you had to make it right.

Between the listening (step one) and the service (step two), you’ve effectively changed the entire tone of the conversation, and it’s very possible a client who walked in angry will walk out impressed.

Take [Financial] Accountability

We mentioned this briefly above, but it bears repeating: Sometimes, you have to literally pay for your mistakes. What you don’t want to do is fall into a trap of devaluing your services such that you’re constantly giving things away for free or reducing your rates just because a client complains; however, what you DO want to do is keep the big picture in mind. Some clients are so valuable that swallowing a few costs as a result of a mistake is more than worth it to keep the client happy.

Think back to the example above. Say your team misses a deadline, and it’s partly your client’s fault. In a gesture of goodwill, you pay the rush fees anyway to make sure everything works out in the end. Did you shrink your profit margin a bit? Sure. Did you keep an important client happy? Also, yes. And that’s worth much more in the end than falling on your sword over rush fees. Keep the big picture in mind, use your judgement, and don’t sweat the occasional sunk cost.

Action Items and Deadlines

At the end of all of this, both you and your client should walk away with clear next steps and deadlines. These can be both short term (here’s how we’re going to fix this right now) and long-term (here’s how we’re going to work to prevent this from happening again). Either way, a clear action plan accomplishes 2 things:

  1. Shifts everyone’s mindset from the negative incident, which is now in the past, to the positive things to come
  2. Creates a shared mechanism for accountability


Our hope for all key account managers out there is smooth sailing: Timely deliverables. Happy clients. Lots of money coming in. With the right process and purpose-built tools, such as Kapta, it’s easier to stay connected to your clients, and nip any potential problems in the bud.

At the same time, we’re realistic: We know you can’t, as they say, please all of the people all of the time. When it’s time to have a difficult conversation, Kapta can also help by providing a clear dashboard with easy access to account history, metrics, and more.

Anybody can communicate with a happy client; it takes skill and empathy to communicate with an unhappy client, and turn the conversation in a positive direction without dismissing their real concerns. It also takes skill to hold both parties accountable in a way that makes the client feel valued. We hope this post is helpful as you work to balance all the dynamics at play in difficult conversations—we’d love to hear more about any skills, tools, or approaches you use.

Meantime, to see how Kapta supports productive and informed client conversations, schedule a personal demo today.

Key Account Management Specialist at Kapta
Lesley is a Key Account Management Specialist at Kapta.