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Dealing With Distressed Clients: Nine Ways To Stop Dreading Them: And Start Helping Them

If you’re like most businesspeople, you’d do almost anything to avoid a fearful, tearful, or angry client. Joseph Callaway, who has helped many people through the worst times of their lives, urges you to change the way you view these customers in distress. Not only might you change their lives, you might change yours.

When the economy tanked in 2008, the way we saw the world shifted. Fear took over. People worried they’d go to work one day and discover they no longer had a job. They worried that they might fail their families, that their retirement savings were gone forever, that they might never get back on their feet. For a great many people — maybe including some you do business with daily — that sense of insecurity still lingers. In some cases it has led to hectic, stress-filled workweeks that bring less pay, little thanks, and often a host of problems in their personal lives.

In a word, distress.

Joseph Callaway knows all about distress. He and his wife, JoAnn, own a real estate company — Those Callaways — that survived the bursting of the bubble and the accompanying economic spiral. They saw the very human fallout up close and personal. In the process they learned a lot about working with anguished clients — lessons anyone in any segment of the business world would do well to heed.

“Distressed clients and customers are everywhere,” notes Callaway, who along with JoAnn wrote the New York Times bestseller Clients First: The Two Word Miracle (Wiley, October 2012, ISBN: 978-1-1184127-7-0, $21.95). “Sometimes the reasons are money-related, sometimes personal, sometimes a mixture of both. Regardless, when you open your eyes and really notice the pain these people are in, you will have taken the first step toward helping them.”

Unfortunately, says Callaway, many people don’t want to deal with distressed clients and customers. That’s because they can be time-consuming. Indecisive. Needy. Maybe even angry and hostile. But rather than avoiding such difficult people, Callaway suggests you embrace them and do whatever you can to make their situation better.

Sincerely putting clients’ needs first — regardless of how hard to deal with they may be — is the bedrock on which Those Callaways built their company. They attribute their prosperity to this commitment and adamantly believe they would never have survived the bubble otherwise. (Many realtors did not.) To date they’ve sold over a billion dollars’ worth of homes and have a cadre of loyal clients who would never consider doing business elsewhere.

“Deciding to really put clients first, whether they were individuals or institutions, was a remarkable — and remarkably simple — discovery,” Callaway shares. “This strategy has the power to change your life, to transform your business, and to bring about financial security. Even when clients make your life a lot more difficult than it theoretically should be, your job — your professional reason for being — is to serve them. And that is never more important than when your clients are going through their toughest times.”

If you’d like to incorporate the Clients First method into the way you handle your distressed clients, read on for a few of Callaway’s tips to help you get started:

Make the Clients First commitment. According to Callaway, really putting clients first is a big commitment. And if you’re comfortable with your current way of doing business, level of success, and customer relationships, that commitment is not for you. However, if you find yourself wanting more — more fulfillment, more professional growth, more experience, and yes, even more money — you may want to give Clients First a chance.

“You need to put your own needs second, base all of your interactions on transparency and honesty, and make it your priority to always do what’s best for the client,” says Callaway. “It won’t always be easy: Consciously putting your own best interests in second place goes against the grain of human nature! But you will find that a lot of the tough decisions — like how to give your best to someone who makes you want to pull your hair out — will practically make themselves.”

Realize the benefits of sticking with customers in distress. When you truly succeed in helping a distressed client, you will have built an important relationship. Often, these are the people who go on to tell others how wonderful you are, and what lengths you went to on their behalf.

“Sticking with your distressed clients isn’t just the right thing to do, it makes good business sense,” explains Callaway. “Yes, the economy may be slowly pulling itself out of the dark, deep, and depressing hole known as The Great Recession, but business is still far from booming. To put it bluntly, you probably need all the clients you can get. And how you conduct business now, when the going is tough, can set you apart from the competition and give you a solid foundation in the future.

“When you make the choice to stand by all of your frazzled, frustrated clients, you will eventually reap financial and personal rewards,” he continues. “And you may even become known in your company or industry as the guy or gal who can handle the toughest clients — and receive referrals as a result!”

Learn to like people. Even if you already consider yourself a people person, chances are you still need to learn to like people more. Think about it: Do you hold yourself emotionally aloof from your clients and complain about their foibles to your coworkers and family, even though you were all smiles during your meeting? Or do you always make a genuine effort to put yourself in their shoes and to learn more about them as people, not just as billable hours or potential sources of income?

“To truly put your clients first, your number one goal should be to invite them within arm’s length and make each one less of a stranger,” suggests Callaway. “Sure it’s important to remain professional, but there’s no reason you can’t strive to make a deeper connection with your clients by asking about their kids, their pets, their hobbies, and their jobs or businesses. Now I’ll admit — sometimes it’s not easy to like people. They can be difficult or have bad attitudes, and they can be a source of pain, ridicule, and embarrassment. But if you get out there and engage, you’ll find that most of them are just like you: filled with worries, hopes, and dreams.

“And when you know that a client is throwing a fit because she’s going through a divorce or has to lay off an employee who’s been with her for years, you’ll be much more understanding of her outbursts,” he adds. “And, you’ll want to work that much harder on her behalf.”

Get comfortable with out-of-control emotions. We’re all human. And while it’s true that most of us try to leave our emotions at the door, it’s not always possible. Sometimes our fear, pain, and anger just spill over. If a customer loses his or her cool or bursts into tears, don’t get upset, advises Callaway. Look at the event as an opportunity to help in any way you can.

“Instead of dreading emotional outbursts, think of alleviating the customer’s worries, insecurities, and fears as part of your job description,” advises Callaway. “And remember, putting the customer first means not reflecting their turmoil back to them. Resist the urge to snipe back or to let yourself be caught up in a feeding frenzy of worry and anxiety. Instead, let animosity and frustration end when they reach you. You and the customer will be better off.”

Remember, honesty is always the best policy. When customers are distressed, they need the truth. Yet when things aren’t going well, our instinct is often to sugarcoat, to paint a picture that’s a little brighter than reality actually is. When you do that with a distressed customer, you might be able to placate them in the short-term, but if things go south, they’ll bottom out. Instead, look them in the eye and say, “This is the reality. And here’s what I’m going to do. Remember, I’ll be here every step of the way.”

“Kidding distressed customers, or sitting back and letting them kid themselves, can be devastatingly costly,” notes Callaway. “When the real estate market crashed, as the market slid and each sale hit a new low, we worried about what we had cost our clients. Then, as the market slid further, we would look back a few months later and be glad we had saved those clients when we did.

“Before Clients First, we weren’t above covering up a mistake now and then as long as it didn’t really matter,” he adds. “But when we decided nothing else mattered as long as we kept the client, we suddenly had a different standard by which to measure our success, and toying with the truth did not work anymore. When you are truthful with customers, you know you’re doing the right thing. You don’t feel as if something was left unsaid or undone.”

Stay competent. Often, it’s the best way to help your customers. As foreclosures mounted during the financial crisis, the government began a series of steps to stem the tide. The thinking in Washington was to take action before the banks ended up taking properties back. First came the foreclosure moratoriums. The next step was to address all those people in trouble by modifying their loans wherever possible. The government came up with the Home Affordable Modification Program (HAMP). Then the government came up with the Home Affordable Foreclosure Alternatives (HAFA).
Short sales, transactions in which the bank agrees to accept less than the balance owed so that a homeowner who cannot keep paying the mortgage may have a more respectable outcome than foreclosure, became the order of the day.

“During this time, people panicked,” says Callaway. “We observed negligence all around us. Up until that point, JoAnn and I had dealt with regular clients. The short sale created a whole new kind of client, the distressed seller, with all that the situation entailed. We knew we had to do the legwork to make sure we were serving them properly. We invested anew our time and energy to be the best, to be on the cutting edge as things changed.

“Real estate had become ever more affected by government and legal considerations,” he continues. “We had to redouble our efforts to remain competent. We justified our values with extensive market comparables so the banks could have confidence in what we told them. Every day, we improved our short sale package so that our client’s file would have the best chance. We took every class, attended every convention. We cared about and for our clients, and they in turn stayed with us.”

Always care, even (and especially!) when your clients don’t. Distress can bring with it despondence and ambivalence. If you have distressed clients, you know what that means. It’s calls that end with, “Do whatever you want. We’re screwed either way.” Or, “There’s just no hope. I guess I’ll have to let most of my employees go.”

“In our business, we found ourselves caring about clients who had stopped caring,” says Callaway. “They didn’t care whether the bank lost money. They didn’t care whether the buyer got a house in sound condition. They blamed the government, the financial institutions, their neighbors, and themselves. We had to deal with their grief, anger, and remorse. But we cared, and many times our caring saved clients from their despair. Clients First saved us, and it saved them.”

Consider your “karma bank.” According to Callaway, he and his wife have never bought into the philosophy that advises “cherry-picking” clients. Instead, a central tenet of their Clients First method means serving every client, regardless of the return on their investment of time, energy, emotions, and money. “We like to believe that there is a karma bank out there somewhere, and when times are particularly difficult or a client is a real pill, we remind ourselves that we’re making deposits in our karma bank,” shares Callaway. “And guess what? While we’ve learned not to have firm expectations when it comes to karma, our efforts and goodwill usually come back to us multiple times over.

“Here’s an example I like to share with real estate professionals, but the lesson applies to anyone,” he continues. “Let’s say you have a client named Frieda who demands a ton of your time and energy. She’s high-strung and weepy and can’t make up her mind, and the commission may not even cover expenses. Still, you stay patient and do your absolute best to help her. A few years later, you get a call from the president of a corporation that relocates a lot of high-level employees to your town and he wants you to be his realtor of record. Turns out Frieda is his aunt — and he is calling you because she told him how kind and helpful you were with her at a really tough time in her life. That’s karma. It’s real, and it can change your life.”

Help them look to the future. (It’s a bright one for them and for you.) Most of us need to be reminded from time to time that “this too shall pass.” Your customers are no exception. When they are up against the wall and feeling hopeless, you have to help them look to the future. Emphasize your willingness to help them through whatever crisis they’re currently facing and then let them know what the future will look like once the problem is resolved. There’s a good chance you will be part of that future.

Clients First has guided and inspired us through many ups and downs,” notes Callaway. “And we are constantly seeing the payoff of our approach. Every day, when we answer the phone, it is a past client bringing us new business. And yes, many of them were at low points in their lives when we worked with them. Clients First will take you wherever you want to go, and most importantly, will help you take your clients where they want to go.”

“You may be dealing with a client, or maybe even more than one, who is struggling to see the bright side,” says Callaway. “But simply letting them know that you’re committed to helping them in whatever way you can is a great first step in helping them feel better. Knowing that someone is on their side can ease their stress at a time when it feels like the world is conspiring against them. Take care of your clients during these dark days, and they’ll take care of you down the line. Trust me, everyone wins when you strive to serve.” To learn more, visit
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