09/01/2010 12:07 pm ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

The Best Bad Letter

Life is filled with learning moments. Sometimes the best ones are those that catch you by surprise, even causing you to scrutinize one's automatic response to situations and reconsider the reactions.

This just happened to me with a client. It was the father of a bride who had a very atypical experience with my company, researched who to contact, and sent me a detailed letter outlining his dissatisfaction.

Fast forward to the wedding this weekend - and what was potentially a difficult situation resulted an enriched experience for both parties. This is what I would like to write back:

Good morning Jim,

I hope you have recovered from the weekends' festivities. I must say, it was an amazing celebration. I have rarely seen a bride dance with such enjoyment. The love and support from the family was palpable. The friendships that were displayed made me envious. It was a celebration of all the ties that bind us.

Thank you for entrusting us with this special day, I know it wasn't so simple.

Several weeks ago I received a letter from you. In it you succinctly outlined your dissatisfaction with our customer service. There had been a series of changes in your sales manager status, leaving you feeling uncertain and insecure. And goodness knows, a wedding for 250 guests is a once in a lifetime experience (hopefully) for a father with just one daughter, major financial commitment aside.

Your letter struck me for several reasons. Although you were clearly frustrated, perhaps angry at the situation as well as inconvenience of having to communicate your disappointment, your tone was so measured. Hard as it was to hear, I knew you were justified. For an organization such as ours that prides itself on excellent customer service, the letter - with its firm stance and detailed nuances, hit hard.

What happened next is now history. We spoke on the phone and agreed to meet - no doubt a get together you would have been happy to skip. But sometimes fate has its own logic. An obligatory appointment took a surprising turn. Our sitting down for lunch together - Susan, Sally and you - along with Steve (your third event manager!) and me - turned into one of the most delightful client meetings I have ever had. After just a few minutes with your family, I knew why your letter was so powerful. There are people who get their way in the world through pushing and bullying others. There are those who succeed with honesty, openness and empathy. You embody those values. What began as our desire to reassure you morphed into a desire to please you not only because that is what we do, but also because we felt like now we became a part of your family.

Now I understand why Sally is such an amazing young woman - she learned it at home, from Susan and you. Your graciousness, your ability to share what is important, your kind and human touch are uncommon traits in this pressured world.

And above all else, the moments of truly personal contact that we might have missed if everything sailed along smoothly connected us in enriching ways. It was wonderful to talk about your family during our leisurely lunch - what a fascinating generational history. Exchanging adventures in parenting experiences was so funny and reassuring. In short, really getting to know more about all of you was an unanticipated pleasure. (Not to mention the tips I look forward to hearing about Bates College, from which Sally graduated and my daughter is a sophomore.)

By the way, from the waiters and captains, to the chef and cooks, to our sales and banquet staff, everyone was in agreement that yours was one of the nicest families (and guests) they have served. Not an insignificant compliment from a professional group of New Yorkers who have seen it all.

As an honorary member of your family, and a student of your life and business style, I thank you.

My best wishes,


The takeaway from this experience:
Rethink the automatic responses we have to events.
Sometimes the unexpected happens and leads to a good new experiences.
Embrace the bad news, the critical reports and the candid feedback. It is the best news you will ever get.
Always be honest, communicate expectations and disappointments.
Share your concerns explicitly and respectfully because what they say is true: you catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.