How to respond to clients in crisis

Man looking down with hand on his forehead looking very distraught

Have you ever had a potential client or client contact you upset? Someone may have referred them, simply found you on the internet, or they are one of your long term clients. It really does not matter. What matters is that they are currently concerned about something, need help, and have reached out to you in the hope that you can help them. So, what skills do you need? You need to listen,  de-escalate the situation, network with the experts you know that could help, and help them through this crisis. Here are some thoughts to help you.

This could be something with the IRS, some deal that has gone terribly wrong, a strong difference of opinion between two parties, or something else. It may or may not be factually correct with what you are being told. The emotions are high. Something or someone could be threatening to a reputation, financial health, ongoing operations, of some future success that is deemed as a crisis to the person contacting you. It could be with a single party, a team, an attorney, a team of attorneys or others.


Emotions are key


We are 98% emotional and 2% rational. Let that sink in a second. When negative emotions have taken over it is quite possible that irrational thoughts have entered into the picture. By listening and showing them a calm, confident, competent persona you can listen with empathy and be a positive force to implement help. You can be a force for reason in a sea of conflict. You need to return to what you have learned regarding how to manage clients. Being there to listen, asking open ended questions, paraphrase, summarize, empathize, and suspend judgment. You are thee to help build trust and a relationship to help with the situation.

This is a dynamic situation. When an attorney contacted me and told me how he and his team intended to tell an IRS attorney how he was wrong and take the case to Appeals and he wondered how I could help on exam, I told him if that is what he wanted to do he did not need my help on exam. I could help with trying to resolve the case factually on exam, to settle the case at Appeals, or potentially with litigation, but I needed to understand the history, the current situation, the pertinent facts, the emotion around the issues, and the interests of the parties.

Spending time up front to clearly define the problems involved and to try and see the situation from both sides can help de-escalate the situation. Slowing the situation down, avoiding my own triggers, focusing on being tough on the problem and being gentle on the people goes a long way to promote understanding. This allowed the client to work with the IRS, apply The Collaboration Effect of building a connecting relationship, listening actively, and educating judiciously in order to build bridges and negotiate closure with the IRS. By not escalating the situation this benefited both parties and it was possible to reach a reasonable determination with the IRS. It was necessary to develop an overall strategy and then develop tactics that made sense for the individuals involved. Here are seven keys to help in this type of situation.


Be compassionate


Compassion means to be calm, confident, and competent. Be calm, slow yourself down. Be there to listen. Demonstrate that you understand. Be confident with your client that you have been there before and that together we will address the situation. You are a partner in this situation. You were contacted because the other party has heard of or is looking for your competency in this area. Do not sugar coat the situation. Let the client know what you can and will do to help and what the limitations are with what you can control related to the situation.


Demonstrate empathy


Put yourself in their shoes. Demonstrate that you are listening, that you care, and that you are there to help. The client is vulnerable at this time. Be there for them. They may not be thinking clearly. Their emotions may have taken over. Listen and let them potentially vent, but then help them move past this by focusing on the facts, the issues, the feelings behind those issues, and explore underling interests. These are interests both on their part and their perception of interests by the other party.


Be Responsible


Being timely with your responsiveness and being responsible are critical both for communication and for building trust. When someone is under extreme pressure, being there right now matters. Doing what you say you are going to do by under promising and overdelivering means a lot to everyone involved. The client needs to have confidence in you and what you bring as value added to the situation. This inspires confidence with your client and allows them to know that their needs are your priority too. Think creatively and be prepared for various responses by the other party. This shows that you are thinking ahead and anticipating potential problems.


Define roles


In order to manage the situation, explore what the client sees as your role, the roles of others, and their role. What are expectations of the various parties? How will you manage expectations given their concerns. You need to know when to bring on board appropriate expertise and when to delegate to others. Plan who will do what by when. What is the overall plan? Stay focused on the plan and change the plan, as necessary. Help the client see a path forward. Keep them focused on the plan and remaining calm. Seeing this as a collaborative process as a team is key.


Be assertive


In a situation like this do your homework. Typically, the client does not want two or three alternatives. Think creatively and develop what you see as the best alternative but have other alternatives ready to address the changing situation and changing client needs. Present what you see as the best alternative, but as additional facts unfold, be prepared to adapt, as necessary. Know who you are working with and use your emotional intelligence, listening intelligence, and conversational intelligence to work together to make the best decision possible.


Keep perspective


You are there to be a voice of reason during a time of crisis. Acknowledge the gravity of the situation on the one hand, but do not feed the fire or add to the crisis with your commentary. Your client may have serious fears and apprehensions, and rightfully so. You need to keep everything in perspective and be a voice of reason, focusing on the problem, what you can control and be there to help focus on what is needed. You can help your client not only take an appropriate action but counsel your client on not taking an inappropriate action too.


Promote collaboration


As the promoter of The Collaboration Effect, I would be remiss if I did not push for you to look for ways to collaborate with the other party. Try to connect with them. Listen to them. Understand where they are coming from and why. Uncover their hidden interests. Working with the best has helped make me be a much better collaborator. Partner with the best to make your outcome be the best it can be given the circumstances.

With over 30 years in management and having been involved with over 2,500 negotiations, facilitation, and mediations with issues up to $1 billion with fortune 100 companies, I have found the elements presented above to be extremely helpful. You need to be calm and a force for reason even when other parties are not and may be even blaming you. When you can focus and help others to focus on the problem before you, you truly are there to help your client through this difficult situation. This will help you manage stress, control the situation, and have the best possible outcome. Finally, mentor others and help them to apply these insights going forward. Share what you have learned too.


About the author

Mike Gregory is a professional speaker, an author, and a mediator. You may contact Mike directly at and at (651) 633-5311. Mike has written 12 books (and co-authored two others) including his latest book, The Collaboration Effect: Overcoming Your Conflicts, and The Servant Manager, Business Valuations and the IRS, and Peaceful Resolutions that you may find helpful. [Michael Gregory, ASA, CVA, MBA, Qualified Mediator with the Minnesota Supreme Court]