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How should you handle a rude email?

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You’re preparing an important Powerpoint in your office (or twirling your chair and throwing rolled up paper at the bin) when a new email pings onto your screen. You open it and have to read it twice before you can believe it. The writer, a client, has stormed past grumpy into outright nasty. You’re shocked. Upset. Angrily, you hit ‘reply’.

Don’t! Reply immediately, that is. Draft a first response if you must, but don’t send it. Take a deep breath, get a coffee, crack your knuckles. Then try again. Here’s how to proceed.

As a general rule of thumb, ignore the tone. There are two reasons for this. First, it’s not helpful to escalate the situation with more abuse. Secondly, if you keep the moral high ground., you’ll get to feel all smug and superior the next day,

So how to respond, if not to fire an equally rude email back?

After a period of calm reflection (or pacing and cursing, if that’s your preference), examine the email in an archaeological way. Dig out any actual content and note it down.

Here’s an example.

You useless pile of gannet guano. I was there in the rain at the 9am, as we agreed. In a move worthy of the bull’s-pizzle you are, you didn’t show. I waited for three long hours with no word from you. You and your company are beyond useless. You’re an infected pustule, a suppurating abscess on the backside of your profession.

Content: You didn’t show up to a meeting.

First, ask yourself honestly – is this true? Am I at fault?

Scenario 1:

If the answer is yes, then apologise sincerely and offer to fix the problem.  No need to go overboard – they were horrible, after all – but no matter how rude the client, the issue is yours.

Scenario 2:

Let’s suppose the client’s issue is a little bit true. For example, you were 15 minutes late. You texted, but they clearly didn’t receive it. However, they were gone by the time you got there, so they definitely didn’t wait for hours.

Here, your default should still be to apologise for your part of the problem – in this case, the fact that you were 15 minutes late. Be clear and direct in that apology. Do, politely, explain your circumstances – that you were there soon after you said you’d be. Then move on to offer a solution.

There’s no point responding to the abusive tone, unless you think it’s so bad you don’t want to deal with the client anymore. In which case, say so politely and clearly: “I feel that our relationship has broken down beyond repair. I’d like you to find another (insert business here).”

Scenario 3:

Well, they’re just wrong, as well as being hostile. They got the day wrong, after ignoring your reminder text, which you followed up with a phone call – and when they didn’t answer, a voice message. So you were there and they were too – 24 hours later.

Time to roll up your sleeves and have some fun. Here are some options, in ascending order of passive aggressiveness.

  1. Ignore the tone and deal with the content by offering a solution. Don’t apologise – you don’t need to. In this example, politely propose an alternative day, and explain that you’ll be sending a reminder text. You might remind them that it’s a good idea to confirm by replying to the text.
  2. Ask them what response they’re seeking. That is, turn the solution back around to them. “This has clearly been upsetting for you. What is it you would like us to do?” You can choose how subtle to be – it depends on any number of factors (like how important the client is, and whether you value your job).
  3. Use my favourite (and riskiest) technique for dealing with this kind of client: aggressive politeness. For example, you might offer a non-apology: “I’m so sorry you missed the appointment we agreed on,” or, “I’m so sorry we were both so inconvenienced.”
    Instead of simply offering a solution, you might couch it in pseudo-Victorian phrasing: “I do so hope you’ll be able to find the time to respond to the text and come to the meeting. I know it must be unutterably difficult to manage your busy schedule.”

If you’re feeling particularly vengeful, you might add ‘all by yourself,’ or ‘even with the wonderful PA you have’.
Be careful – as an old boss once said to me, this works best on people who are too arrogant, or too stupid, to realise you’re taking the piss. Don’t write anything that’s going to get you sacked!

I know the old adage says the customer is always right. I wonder if, ‘back in the day’ (an awful phrase, by the way. Back in which day??), customers tended to be more polite? Maybe we should amend it to: Polite customers are always right. And we’re always polite to customers.

Even when they don’t deserve it.

Well, nearly always.


Note: Take this advice seriously at your own risk!

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