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William Shatner's character in Boston Legal, Denny Crane, puts his foot in his mouth all the time and doesn't apologize for it. But, in the real world, when we say something untoward about someone, we can't let it slide. Instead, we blush, we feel our hearts race, and we want to bite our tongues. Months later, we might be able to laugh it off.

Yet, when a situation involves a client or colleague, laughing it off isn't likely. Instead, we experience awkward moments when we run into the person or anyone who knows about the slip of the tongue. The fact that we feel embarrassed about the situation indicates we do care and want to show remorse.

Read on for sound advice on how to handle verbal blunders.

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Help me remove my foot from my mouth

My marketing team and I placed a conference call to one of our clients. We got his voicemail, so I left a message and hit the phone's "flash" button to end the call. My team and I continued to discuss the client and said some disparaging things. To our chagrin, we heard his voicemail finally disconnect. This meant that when he listened to his voicemail, he heard the uncomplimentary things we said.

I'm embarrassed. I tried to apologize to him but felt that what I said was "lame" and accepted rather coolly.

What would you do to repair the relationship?

—Embarrassed and Stupid (name withheld)

Salvaging the Unsalvageable

No matter the road you take, dealing with this type of situation is hard. The damage is done, and the relationship might never be the same. However, the situation may still be salvageable. Clients who may be difficult to work with still keep your company in business.

Let's hope this hard-learned lesson means the slip of the tongue won't happen again, once you've worked through it using any of the following actions:

  • Review the situation
  • Talk through it
  • Change the company culture
  • Apologize with gifts

Review the situation

The action you take depends on the situation. If you have something bad to say about a client, could it be that the client isn't worth keeping? Maybe it's time to let the client go.

"If the client isn't valuable from a business perspective, it may not be worth the effort necessary on your part to repair this boo-boo," says Anna Barcelos, director of marketing with OpenBOX Technologies.

Vredy Lytsman, VP/editor-in-chief, christies.com, assesses the situation based on the type of comment made:

If personal (e.g., you referred to a physical attribute, big mouth, flaring nostrils, lack of brain power, bad breath, body odor, etc.), then apologize and be humble, very humble. If business-related (e.g., you said something about his big plans and tiny budget, his lack of business acumen, etc.), send a brief apology and be self-mocking. Something like, "I put my foot in my mouth and stumbled. I honestly regret making those comments. Please forgive this faux-pas on my part." Maybe add a special feature to the campaign—at no charge. And of course, make sure in the future you are far enough from any source that could overhear you letting up steam.

Talk through it

Nothing is harder or more effective than a face-to-face conversation: No technology. Just people talking through the situation. Try to meet with the client in the name of company customer service, suggests Sheryl Inglat, president of Comfort Keepers in Albuquerque:

Make him feel like a valued customer. Give him a chance to vent about you/your team! But do it in the name of perfecting your customer service area. Once you've done this, demonstrate to him how his input truly impacted your business and thank him for being such a valuable client.

We like to think our clients learn from the guidance we provide as a service, but really we should be learning from them. After all, they hired you when they could have given their business to others.

What was the reason for the comment? Could it be a call for a meeting to discuss the cause of making the comment? Barcelos says:

Explain reasons (not excuses) for saying the disparaging things about him. Just be honest. Most importantly, emphasize the business benefits of continuing the relationship (e.g., "We really want to continue helping your company XYZ."). In the end, the goal is not to be best friends with this client but to maintain a healthy and prosperous professional relationship between your companies.

Allison Pearsall, principal with Strategis Marketing, has seen this happen to her team before. She shows how to look deeper into the cause of the comment and gives a good example of how to start the conversation:

After you panic—when you frantically try to remember what you said and if it was really as horrible as you think and try in vain to think of ways to have the message erased before he hears it—accept that you made a mistake, as we all do. Ask for forgiveness, and try to repair the relationship. Most likely, the things said, which you thought were private, are reflections of some problems or challenges with your client relationship, whether big or small.

After you say your mea culpa, since the cat is out of the bag anyway, why not take this opportunity to address what the client heard, explaining it honestly, openly and as diplomatically as possible, to address those issues and turn the train wreck into an opportunity to strengthen the relationship? Example: He might have heard you say, "That guy is never at his desk when he says he will be." Interpret that for the client, "You know, we really do realize the incredible demands you are under, so we should all be more patient. And we know it must be so frustrating for you at times when it is so difficult to get things done. We are committed to your success, and what you heard just reflects our frustration when we can't get the information we need to do our best for you. Perhaps there are some ways we could work together to address this?" (Offer some suggestions).

Change the company culture

Could the environment be influencing your behavior? According to Ric Dragon, CEO of Oxclove Workshop, an environment of employees disparaging clients might be a hint that a change needs to occur in the organization. Work on changing the company's attitude regarding difficult clients by launching a companywide campaign on how to work with such clients:

Then, maybe, just maybe... after really creating a new culture in your organization, you can return to the disparaged client, and let him or her know what you've done to change your firm.

Apologize with gifts

This sounds like bribery, but done right it's a sincere way to say "I'm sorry." Perhaps the client will continue to do business with your company, but not with you, on the project. The least you can do to help your company is be the bigger person and apologize... sincerely.

Steven Skyles-Mulligan, executive director with Evoke Strategies, says, "Send a gift the client will notice and appreciate. Include a handwritten note that each of you signs, indicating how sorry you are issues came out this way."

Skyles-Mulligan recommends taking the client to lunch and explaining the issues with the relationship. Use the opportunity to open the door and address those issues. It may change the relationship for the better.

Monique Tatum, director of sales and marketing with Integrity Partners, advises sending a gift basket with a handwritten note: "A business relationship is still a relationship. Explain in the note that you appreciate the client and though those thoughtless remarks could sour your relationship, you hope they do not."

Follow up with a call to make sure the client received the gift and apology. "Seal those broken pieces back together or the client will be looking for another marketing firm shortly," says Tatum.

Not that you would take a chance to do a "Denny Crane" again—but skip making such remarks ever again. Next time, use the phone's handset to turn off the speaker. Better yet, save the comments for when you get home and share them with a trusted family member. Get such thoughts out of your system with someone who isn't connected with the job.

Lynn Skelton wraps all this up nicely. She says the relationship was most likely damaged before calling the client, indicating a need to understand the client better, and find resolutions to the problems in the relationship and in how you perceive the client. Next time you have issues with a client, take action before anything like this happens. Write a note, offer a discount, treat him or her as you want to be treated, and send a gift card or tickets to a favorite place or event. Go the extra mile by sending prospects to your client on occasion. Skelton concludes:

This may or may not repair your relationship. But do this whether it does or not. Don't stop. It will show him that you are sincere about trying to make things up and re-establish a relationship with the company and that it is not all about you and your company. Then maybe, on down the road, things will heal between your two companies. Plus, these kinds of things, building a relationship with a client and helping the business grow, are things we should do with all our customers.

Next Marketing Challenge: Can You Help?

Do I pay commissions on gross sales or gross profit for services?

Our star salesman is the best closer I've ever seen. He sells products and services. He's paid a salary plus commission on gross sales. He does have some pricing latitude. I've noticed a fairly stable gross profit percentage on products, but it's much different on service sales. It looks like he's "giving away" services to get more product sales. Service costs are somewhat vague and hard to accurately measure, but I need to grow the service side of our business profitably. Should I switch his commission structure to a gross profit percentage on services?

—Julian B., Sales Director (company withheld)

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Hank Stroll (Hank@InternetVIZ.com) is publisher at InternetVIZ, a custom publisher of 24 B2B e-newsletters reaching 490,000 business executives.