Ready to turbocharge your career? Download your free copy of the “3 Steps of Self-Mastery” Toolkit

A cat giving the side-eye

What to Do When Your Client Hates You

The day after delivering a workshop to a corporate client, I received an email from my contact, “Let me know when you have time tomorrow to discuss yesterday’s presentation.”

Twelve words. No friendly greeting. No cordial closing.

I felt like I was being called to the principal’s office which was confusing for a few reasons:

  1. I thought I’d nailed it–an impression confirmed by a former client who attended the workshop.
  2. I’d never been called to the principal’s office before.

I opened my reply with, “I hope everything is okay,” before providing my availability. It was a bid for reassurance, and it went woefully unanswered.

Six words this time: “I will schedule time on Monday.”

My brain translated these messages as follows:

Jill, I’m sorry to break it to you, but your client hates you.

Is this a melodramatic interpretation? Of course, but let’s be honest: our brains are prone to melodrama.

I tried to practice what I preach to clients and resist imagining the worst, but I trust my intuition. It seemed ominous which left me feeling blindsided based on what took place in the weeks leading up to the workshop.

The Dopamine Rush of Positive Feedback

I begin corporate engagements with a discovery session. The client communicates their needs, and I share my recommendations on content. We align, and I send a proposal and workshop outline for approval. Then I show up and deliver what we agreed on.

This client was different.

After a few preliminary meetings with my main contacts, they wanted me to be vetted by the twelve members of the group sponsoring the event. They asked for the slide deck, so it could be approved by HR, and they requested a dry run of the workshop for a few key constituents.

While it sounds like a lot of extra work, it paid off for me. I was showered with praise during the meet and greet with the group. They said they loved my message and my energy. Following the dry run, I was asked to convert the workshop into a series and return the next month to deliver Part 2.

Like an ice-cream sundae, it was a dopamine hit to my brain, and it was delicious. As a result, I went into the first workshop with total confidence and emerged feeling I’d delivered on the client’s high expectations.

That’s why I was stunned to get the terse, twelve-word email the next day.

Hero to Zero

I help clients learn to manage difficult emotions and navigate hard conversations. I anticipated getting practice in both on Monday’s call, so I took time to get grounded.  

I reminded myself to stay open, to listen with curiosity, and to remember: Feedback is a gift. It’s an opportunity to learn how we’re perceived by others. It’s a tool to improve.

Yet despite my preparation, I was knocked off kilter almost immediately. It’s an understatement to say the feedback was surprising.

As an animated and expressive person and presenter, I was shocked to hear the perception that my energy had been low. That was a first.

I also felt defensive to be held accountable for low participation from attendees. My client said presenters usually keep the audience engaged by inviting them to chime in on CHAT, but we’d discussed this during the dry run. I’d shared, while in slideshow mode, I wouldn’t be able to see CHAT, so it couldn’t be used effectively.

More destabilizing than the content of the feedback was the delivery. I perceived my client’s tone as punishing.

Taming My Internal Monologue

How did we end up here after such a strong start? How could they describe me as low energy? Did EVERYONE feel this way?

Thoughts like these swirled in my head unfettered. I tried to tame them by asking myself:

What is making me feel so dysregulated? Why is this feedback having such an effect on me?

I realized I needed to get out of my head and tune into my body. It was on high alert: My throat and chest tight, my mouth dry, and my belly churning like a shaken snow globe.

When had I felt these feelings before?

No Laughing Matter

As a teenager, my father stood beside me at the cash register training me to wait on customers in his drugstore. Feeling self-conscious, I giggled nervously as I handed a man his change for a pack of Marlboros and a Hershey bar. My dad admonished me sharply for laughing.

I was humiliated.

My client’s tone delivered me to that moment 35 years earlier when I felt small and impotent next to my stern, disapproving father. The same set of sensations I experienced then gripped me now.

Armed with this awareness, I reminded myself I wasn’t dealing with my father. I didn’t need to hand this client the same power he’d had over me. I focused on my breathing to stay calm and present in the moment.

Was I cured? Nope. I could still feel my quickened heart rate, and my throat felt restricted, but the pace had slowed, and the tightness eased slightly.

Back in the conversation with my client, we discussed next steps:  

  1. I agreed to infuse more enthusiasm and energy into my presentation style for Part 2 of the workshop.
  2. Someone else would share the slides, so I’d be able to engage with attendees in CHAT.

Game Day

I didn’t have the same level of confidence when I showed up for Part 2. I felt self-conscious as I focused on being more animated than felt natural for me.

However, I was happy to have someone else “driving” the presentation. The person who volunteered was comfortable adding a few videos which helped to bring some of the concepts to life. I wondered why I hadn’t thought to ask for this support in the past, and I decided I would in the future.

I felt a rush of relief when I clicked on the red button at the end of the workshop.

I planned to meet friends at my favorite restaurant afterwards to decompress. We settled into our favorite spot at the corner of the bar and ordered a bottle of Pinot Noir. I wanted to stay present, but I wondered how I’d performed. I tried to push the thought away, but I couldn’t, so I gave in. I took a sip of wine and checked my email for feedback.

There it was in my inbox: “Awesome Job!! The feedback is Great!”

Six words including three exclamation points and two superlatives–one gratuitously capitalized.

Mic drop.

Brownies and Brussels Sprouts

Did part of me wish I’d received that feedback the first time? Sure, but even though the situation was challenging, it was valuable.

I got to practice what I ask of my clients every day. And I discovered a better way to deliver my workshops by relinquishing the technology, so I can be more present for attendees.

I also realized how captive I can still be held by past experiences that remind me of feeling small and powerless. Left unchecked and unresolved these feelings can get in the way.

Being told we’re great is wonderful. Like dessert, it gives us a short-term dopamine hit. Constructive feedback is more like vegetables. It doesn’t always taste good going down, but it’s what we need to be strong and healthy.

Getting a bit of both is what makes for a truly balanced meal, so do yourself a favor: Stop spitting those veggies out into your napkin and throwing it in the trash while no one is looking. The only person you hurt by doing that is yourself.

Recent Posts

Winning in the Shallow End

Winning in the Shallow End

Vince Lombardi famously said, “Winning isn’t everything; it’s the only thing.” I disagree. There are other things. Flooding Back A former colleague included me in the slate of candidates being considered to coach an employee in his organization. During the vetting...

Standing Up to the Bully in the Boardroom

Standing Up to the Bully in the Boardroom

It was 2002, not long after I’d lost my job following September 11th. It was a tough time to be out of work, so imagine my delight to get an offer about a month later. I was thrilled I wouldn’t need to spend the money from my severance package for living expenses....

The “Too Much” of Me

The “Too Much” of Me

When I was in my early thirties, I briefly dated a man I’d met while hunting for a spot in the long-term parking lot of Newark Airport. Not a place where romance is typically born, but one must keep their eyes open to possibilities wherever they can be found.A few...