No reasonable client expects flawless service. But every client is entitled to expect a helpful response to a service breakdown. How you respond in such situations--what I call service recovery--is a critical moment of truth in your relationship with the client. Your recovery effort (or lack thereof) is more likely to leave a lasting impression than the problem that precipitated the need for it.
How you respond, obviously, depends on the circumstance. But the Golden Rule is generally a good standard to apply: What would you want done if the roles were reversed? Unfortunately, offending firms often start with a different premise: How do we best protect our interests? This is particularly true if there is even a hint of potential liability involved.
Yet one thing that almost 40 years in this business have taught me is that the best way to minimize your liability is to do the right thing for the client. In most cases, the right thing involves at least the following when the client is unhappy:
Seek to understand the client's perspective of the problem. Remember, perception is reality. This doesn't mean you have to passively accept the client's version of the problem. But you certainly want to understand it, because that's the problem you're trying to resolve--not what you think it is. What the client really wants at this point is your empathy, that you understand why the client is unhappy (even if you don't fully agree).
Take the lead in resolving the problem. Often the service provider's first inclination is to try to deflect blame. You may well need to defend your actions later on, but don't start there. Taking responsibility for the resolution is not the same as taking responsibility for the problem.
I remember a situation where I incurred a substantial additional cost in part because of my oversight. When I called the service provider, their first response was, "We'll take care of it." I was quite relieved. They easily could have blamed me. But retaining me as a customer was more important to them than assigning blame.
Define a mutually acceptable approach to resolution. A quick response may be appreciated, but don't jump to this step without first doing step number one--characterizing the problem from the client's point of view. There's a least two key reasons why this is important: (1) you can't define the proper solution if you don't really understand the problem (and in this case, the problem may be largely subjective), and (2) you often can change client perceptions in the course of having that conversation.
Don't overlook the fact that you're usually addressing what is at least in part a perceived problem. The client may have felt a slight or wanted something different. The effective resolution, then, must address both the tangible and intangible dimensions of the problem. That's not a natural response for many technical professionals. So it may be wise to engage others who are more attuned to the interpersonal and perceptual dynamics of serving clients.
Take steps to keep the problem from recurring. In my experience, most A/E firms do an admirable job in being responsive to their clients--most of the time. They rearrange schedules, put in long hours, and even eat costs when necessary to try to satisfy the client. That's what I call "situational responsiveness."
Where we're not as good is providing what might be called "systematic responsiveness." This involves making structural or process changes to improve service levels, especially when there's been a pattern of service breakdowns. Clients will typically tolerate an occasional screw-up, but they are justifiably offended when a problem recurs.
That's why I believe an important part of the recovery process is telling the client what you will be doing to prevent the problem from happening again. It would be a good idea to again seek the client's input, because the client is the ultimate authority on what constitutes great service. Of course, whatever course of action you determine, be sure to follow through. It now constitutes a promise you've made to the client.
By the way, if you're not having to resolve many service problems with your clients, beware: It may be that you're not getting the regular, honest feedback you need to uncover such problems before they become potentially unrecoverable!