Every freelancer makes mistakes. You miss a phrase in the client’s specs that expressly says not to use any blue in the design, and your first mockup has blue all over it. You miss a deadline, and you don’t even have a good excuse–you just forgot the project was due on that date. You accidentally copy someone who most definitely should not have been copied on that email you sent, and it created an internal conflict on the client’s end.
Mistakes happen. No matter how good you are, you’re human and eventually you make not just a little mistake, but a doozy of one.
It’s not the mistakes that lose you the clients, though; it’s how you handle them. These three little tips won’t keep mistakes from happening, but in most cases they keep the client from showing you the door–or badmouthing you to every other company in town.
When you make a mistake, large or small, don’t justify yourself or make excuses. Your client isn’t in the mood to hear it, and your refusal to take responsibility for your error only makes them more irritated.
Think about it this way: If you heard an enormous crash from the other room right now, and you went in to see your partner standing over the shattered remains of your favorite thing in the world, would you want to hear, “I tripped on your shoes–why don’t you ever put them away? It’s not my fault it’s broken.”
Yeah, no. Even if that’s really what happened, even if the thing was broken because of your negligence, you don’t care. You’re angry. Your partner is standing over the pieces. And goddamn it, it is their fault and they’d better say so.
Your client is the same. It doesn’t matter if the mistake happened because of events beyond your control. It doesn’t matter if it could be construed as the client’s error in the first place.
What matter is that right now you are the one standing over the pieces, and the first thing out of your mouth–and the only thing that should come out for a while–needs to be, “I’m so sorry.”
Not “I’m sorry, but..” Just I’m sorry. As many times as possible. You can explain later when everyone’s calmed down. Right now, just apologize, and do it well.
If the problem is a tangible one, fix it. For example, if you screwed up the copy, rework it. If you missed a deadline, work as hard as you possibly can until you finish the project completely and send it immediately. If that means you have to stay up all night, stay up all night.
If the problem is harder to fix–for example, you inadvertently insulted someone’s boss–figure out a smart way to make amends. This is a little trickier: The people you affected personally may not be in the mood to tell you what needs to be done to fix the problem.
Stick with heartfelt apologies, and keep all your communication as sincere, inoffensive, and caring as possible. Don’t bristle if anyone in the company gets their hackles up with you. After all, they got screwed here. They’re allowed to be upset. If you get a terse email in response to your apologetic one, ignore the terseness and follow whatever instructions are given to the letter.
Very, very good words to use are, “You have every right to be upset.” Never start to get angry with a client because they’re angry with you. No good is down that path. Be the grown-up here. It’s your responsibility to keep the situation as calm as you can, and to work towards a resolution.
If your client is truly angry, or if you’ve managed to screw up in such a way that you’ve actually harmed his business in some way–let’s say they’re embarrassed that they missed their product launch because your work was supposed to be ready and it wasn’t–refund their money.
This isn’t in lieu of doing the work if the work still needs to be done or re-done. Do the work AND refund their money. After all, you violated contract, and you harmed a business. If this was done to you, a refund is the least you’d expect from any company who didn’t deliver on a promise.
Include a nice note that acknowledges that you were at fault. One that says, in effect, “I wouldn’t feel right accepting payment for a job that you are justifiably unhappy with. Please accept this full refund with my sincere apologies, and if there is anything else I can do to make up for the error, please feel free to let me know.”
I know it’s hard. Freelancers aren’t people who are so flush with cash that they can afford refunds, but if you have messed up badly and it’s your fault, there are far worse things that can happen beyond you not getting that payment.
For one thing, you could lose your reputation. And in business, that’s probably the worst thing that could happen.
Handle mistakes with compassion and grace, and you may find that even the most furious client is inclined to forgive and forget. After all, your actions clearly show you’re not a bad person–you’re a good person who made a mistake.
What About You?
Have you ever made a mistake when dealing with a client? How did you handle it?