Managing Client Anxiety

A workable relationship is marked by feelings of comfort, ease and safety. If one of the partners feels too much anxiety too much of the time, the opposite of those positive sensations, the relationship will be problematic. And if one of the parties exceeds his anxiety limit, the relationship is bound to fail.

Anxiety is evidence of an unworkable relationship. In a business situation, the responsibility of managing anxiety falls solely on the provider, who must prove to the client that they can be relied upon. If we allow a customer to feel anxious about our commitments to them, nothing can go right in that relationship.

Anxiety needs to be addressed all the time in order to have a successful relationship.

What Causes Anxiety?
Understanding the source of anxiety helps us manage it before the client even notices it’s there. Anxiety is caused by the fear of uncertainty. Fear comes from the amygdala, the little almond-shaped piece of the brain at the very center, sometimes called the “reptilian brain” because it’s the most primitive part of the mind. When we leave customers in a state of anxiety, that’s the area of the brain that is going to make their decisions. It’s not their frontal cortex. They’re not thinking rationally, and this can lead them to some really disruptive behaviors just because they’re feeling anxious.

That reptilian brain has one function, and that is to identify threats. When we sense a threat, that part of the brain thinks, “Do I eat it, or does it eat me?” This fight or flight reflex worked really well to keep primitive humans alive when we were faced with constant physical threats. The amygdala now more often assesses psychological threats. In business, it fears things like looking bad to peers or to a boss, being taken advantage of, losing money, not being in control, the projected consequences of failing and any number of scenarios that endanger what constitutes success for us. Our clients may then react with modern-day fight-or-flight retaliations like raising costs, firing providers or just making the relationship as difficult and uncomfortable as possible.

The goal of client anxiety management is to ensure that the intensity and frequency of it do not exceed what the client’s amygdala will tolerate. Once the level of anxiety surpasses the client’s threshold, his fight or flight reflex will kick in.

Taming the Beast
The first part of it is to understand what the client is feeling, then pinpoint the source(s) of the anxiety. The anxiety needs to be controlled before we can even begin to fix the problem. If someone calls in with an issue and we fail to let them know we get it and address it properly, their minimal anxiety is going to turn into a maelstrom of negativity. If we further fail to be apologetic, honest and sincere, there is real potential that the customer is going to spiral out of control and do something that could greatly affect the relationship. The extent of a client’s anxiety has to be quickly recognized and rectified before this is allowed to happen.

Many small certainty-producing acts can add up to great certainty for the client. Just a few small anxiety-producing acts can add up to great anxiety.

We can quell anxiety by sincerely being there for our clients when they reach out to us, answering their calls promptly, reassuring them that their projects are on track and rectifying any mistakes we make immediately with complete openness and accountability. We can also restructure our process to provide additional certainty. We might add some new resources, bring in a high-level coach to help the people who are working on the project or get people they trust to vouch for us, either in their organization or ours. The different things we can do depend upon the type of organization we operate, but regardless of the particular ingredients, the recipe won’t work unless we keep their anxiety in check.

Different people have different anxiety tolerances, so we need to be aware of when we’re getting close to their limit so we can figure out what will make them feel more comfortable. Some people are afraid of all uncertainty. Some only feel fear after a few instances of uncertainty have occurred to them. If we’re dealing with an individual who can’t tolerate much ambiguity at all, we have to manage their anxiety much more closely than we would normally. Unfortunately, many times we don’t know our clients’ tolerance, especially in a new relationship. So, for best results, we should minimize their anxiety at all times.

To be the most successful most of the time, strive to minimize clients’ anxiety all the time.

Often, simply communicating more often will do the trick, and that may change throughout the course of the relationship. They might not be feeling much anxiety at the beginning of a project and then something goes wrong that causes them more anxiety. Alternatively, a new client may start a project with a lot of anxiety because they’re working with us for the first time and then later on feel confident in our abilities and get more comfortable. We might satisfy an extreme need for certainty by providing a daily status report instead of a standard weekly or monthly update. Shortening the gap between communications and being crystal clear about the project’s status is just one way we can mitigate their stress. We can change how we’re managing their anxiety based on how our clients change in terms of the level of anxiety they’re experiencing.

As another example, I had a client who always feared losing his job because he was unemployed for a while before getting this job with a big company. He was always afraid that if he didn’t deliver he’d lose his job and his paycheck. He was all about employment security. In his case, more calls about the project weren’t going to manage his anxiety, because the project wasn’t his main concern. When I figured that out, I made sure I gave him the information he needed to give to his boss so that he felt secure in his job. It didn’t matter if the project was late or there was a problem, as long as he had a good excuse to give to his superiors that kept him from getting fired. It wasn’t that I had to fix the project as much as I had to give him something to tell his boss.

One thing I’ve found to be very helpful in my business when a client is anxious about the end-date of a project is to give them a steady diet of completed tasks. Instead of saying that we have 10 more things to accomplish before they can use our service, we manage their anxiety by getting one of those aspects finished, not by working on all 10 at once. In this way, we provide evidence that our time is being spent serving the client. That evidence needs to be tangible because their amygdala is in charge. They need to be able to see it, hear it, touch it, taste it or smell it. Giving clients proof of progress greatly eases their uncertainty.

We can use a variety of methods to manage each client’s specific anxieties because they all have unique needs and limitations. Whether we are proving ourselves to a new client or making reparations to an existing one, the responsibility rests squarely on our shoulders to be aware of their anxiety level at all times. Then we can take steps to eradicate those negative feelings and replace them with concrete evidence of our commitment.


© 2012 Ralph Dandrea. All rights reserved.

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