“Why do you think the client said that?” 

Having empathy for clients can be challenging, especially in such a fast-paced culture. We frequently hear from our professional services clients, “I really like the work I do, if I just didn’t have to deal with the clients!” 

Doctors, lawyers, accountants, engineers, architects, contractors are all experts in their fields. They’ve invested time and energy to learn the nuances of their trade and, if they’re succeeding, they’re good at what they do.  

However, without clients, we’ll go hungry. And, without customer feedback, we don’t know how we are performing versus our clients’ expectations. 

For developing empathy for clients, we suggest a change in perspective. It's sort of like going from “I have to go to the grocery store” to “I’m grateful I can afford to go to the grocery store so I can feed my family.” 


Consider reframing negative feedback and complaints.  

When criticism comes in and you ask a member of your team, “What happened?” the natural instinct of that team member is to defend themselves. Of course, this is regardless of how nicely you have asked. Their defensive posture is always going to be from a place of "I’m right, they're wrong.”

When someone begins to defend their actions, they've dismissed the client’s perception and the feedback becomes less valid.  Furthermore, the last thing you want to do is create any more distance between your team member and the client.

With that said, instead of asking your team member, “What happened?,” replace it with, “Why do you think the client said that?” This immediately redirects the conversation onto the client's experience.  This allows the team member to consider the Client's motives which remove the option for a defensive response. Most importantly, it encourages empathy and understanding of the Client's needs. Now the team member can share the client’s story with you, and both of you get to FEEL the said the client’s perspective and what caused their pain. 


Practice this every day when faced with feedback – either positive or challenging. Phrase it this way: “Interesting! I wonder why s/he said that?”  Practice it now – say it to your neighbors or friends and make it part of your daily lexicon. Get away from the what, and down to the "why?"

It’s an inescapable question that forces empathy and draws out stories. Also, if you want to create a story-telling culture, start by asking great questions that draws out purpose and understanding. 

Another way for good practice is to talk with your clients. Try and figure out what’s going on in order to understand their pain by hearing their stories. Then sharing those stories among your team is the fastest way to create a client-focused culture that is positive, healthy, and engaging. Not to mention more profitable! 

So what stories matter to you? 

Can you tell a good story about a client?  Here's one of our favorite stories about McDonaldYork encouraged their employees to consider the "Why?" in feedback. Check it out here!

I challenge you to listen for a real story behind critical feedback from one of your clients.  Once told, you’ll have learned something true, something lasting, and something that will change you, and your company, for the better. 

Let us know if you’d like to learn more about developing organizational customer empathy mapping for your clients. 

Ryan Suydam

Ryan Suydam co-founded Client Savvy in 2004, to help firms create fierce client loyalty by designing, implementing, and measuring client experiences. He has coached nearly 700 organizations and over 30,000 professionals on the skills required to be “client savvy.”

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