How to talk to detractor clients

If you have identified a client as a detractor you need to make sure that you make contact with them as soon as possible and learn more about what is driving their feelings toward your firm.

August 1, 2023

If you have identified a client as a detractor you need to make sure that you make contact with them as soon as possible and learn more about what is driving their feelings toward your firm.

What is a detractor?

A client who has given a score of 0 to 6 in response to the question – how likely are you to recommend us? After hearing a negative recommendation, potential clients need to hear a number of positive referrals before they are likely to consider your firm.

What does a detractor score mean?

  • The client is not an advocate for the firm.
  • They might be a retention risk.
  • They won’t contribute to the firm’s growth.
  • They are a likely source of brand-damaging word-of-mouth.

Why is detractor follow-up important?

It is vital the firm learns the reasons why the client is not very likely to recommend the firm. If it is because their own experience is below their expectations, then this needs to be explored in detail, so that changes can be made. Not following up sends a poor message and undermines the survey process itself. A client may well think – why should I participate if no one acknowledges me.

Your follow-up goal

A successful follow up with a detractor should enable us to introduce cost-effective, actionable change which, if followed, will over-time convert that detractor to a promoter.


By phone (or face-to-face if the account size is significant). The conversation needs to be interactive. Email is not appropriate.


  1. Be thankful for the feedback.
  2. Think of it as an opportunity to learn something you didn’t previously know; even, if it is just this client’s point of view.
  3. Stay open-minded.
  4. Consider that if the client has gone to the trouble of providing feedback they probably care about improving the relationship.


Remain calm and empathetic. Do not get defensive. Criticism can be uncomfortable to hear, but try not to take it personally.


  1. Begin with a thank you and explain the feedback process, e.g. Thank you for the feedback. It’s very important to us. I know also that you may have other concerns you might not have mentioned. I’d like to understand your concerns better so that we can explore the best way to resolve them and improve our service for you.
  2. If they gave feedback, start there, ask them to expand and clarify e.g. I know you mentioned that you weren’t happy with the price for some services, which services did you mean?.
  3. Try to understand the root cause of the client’s concern. Remember this may not be obvious at first. It may even be different to their survey feedback. To unearth the root cause ask a series of open-ended questions such as the five why’s, e.g. if they left no feedback – Could I ask, what was the reasoning behind your score? What was top of mind for you at that time? Why did you…? Why was that? Why do you say..?
  4. Clarify their involvement level, e.g. are they a senior person with a high level understanding of our service or are they a finance officer involved in the detail?
  5. Focus on examples not feelings. Whenever possible ask for details, examples and seek clarity. What was said that made you feel that? Who said it? How often? Was this lack of responsiveness occasional or constant? Describe the regularity?
  6. What do we change? Ask the client, what would you like to see change? How could we do better next time? Explore options, either generated by the client or suggest them yourself. What about if we did this, would that be preferable? Can I come back to you with some suggestions? If you think of anything else, please Schedule a meeting.
  7. Manage expectations carefully. Don’t promise changes that you aren’t serious about introducing. We’ll consider what changes we’ll make and I’ll come back to you, or, I think changing A in the short term is realistic. Changing B and C might take a bit longer.
  8. Thank the client. Follow-up if change are made. If a change is introduced as a result of the feedback get back in touch with the client and let them know.

The five why’s

The five whys technique – a tool for getting to the root of a problem – can be a useful way of approaching detractor follow up. The tool, developed by Sakichi Toyodo and popularised by Toyota in the 1970s, suggests that asking ‘why’ at least five times helps get to the heart of a problem where a suitable remedy or counter-measure can be developed to prevent the problem arising again.

Take the example of client feedback expressing unhappiness over staff turnover. After exploring the issue, the core problem may move from, the client was attached to the old staff member and doesn’t like change, to, they were unhappy there was a lack of communication, to, the new staff member is simply an unknown entity. The solution may then be – to not avoid staff turnover at all costs – but to focus on providing richer information on the background and experience of new staff and also, looking for more opportunities for client interaction.

After the follow up: what’s next?

Document the essence of the conversation and recommendations for service changes. Make sure this feedback is accessible to management and any specialist teams that may be exploring solutions to firm-wide service problems. That’s it. Hopefully you have learnt something important and gone some way to recovering and improving the relationship.

More insights