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Three Ways to Respond to a Client When You Screw Up

When Your Company Makes a Mistake, You Get a Chance to Show the Client What You’re Really Made of

I went to dinner with my family last night and the service was horrible. It took forever to get a table, place our order and the food (when it arrived 45 later) was cold. Meanwhile, the waitress didn’t apologize for any of it. I sat there with my wife debating whether I should say anything or not. In the end, I chose not to. I chose to write this blog instead.

I realized I didn’t care as much about the late food as I did about the lack of acknowledgement. The restaurant failed to let us know they’d fallen short of the mark. As I took a step back from the experience, I realized the waitress’s ego (or simple lack of common sense) prevented her from apologizing. For her, apologizing would result in losing face or otherwise demeaning.

How many of us are guilty of the same behavior? We get self-defensive and pretend as if nothing’s wrong, hoping the other party (client, employee, or family member) plays along. How often does that work out? For me, the answer is NEVER. Over the past few years, I’ve tried to be better about acknowledging when things go wrong and apologizing (I’m convinced people who say “never apologize” are raging narcissists). Acknowledging a client’s feelings, letting them know how badly you feel about the way things have gone and offering up next steps serves to reset their frustration and helps to smooth the way forward.

If you screw up, apologize. How hard is that? Apparently, pretty hard for a good swath of the population. I’m galled by the lack of self-examination, empathy, and accountability that I observe on a daily basis. I’ve chosen to view this emotional intelligence shortage as a competitive advantage and barrier to entry for new market players.

We cater to high-end clientele who value time above all else. In addition, expectations in our industry are sky high and it’s up to us to meet or exceed them. When we screw up (every large job has screw ups), we get a chance to show the client what we’re made of. When we respond to the client, we should following steps:

1. Acknowledgement: “I’m so sorry your TV is on backorder and we need to reschedule.”

2. Remorse & Empathy: “I know you set aside time for us to be there tomorrow and now you’re going to have to carve out even more time. That’s a real pain and I wish we could have avoided this situation.”

3. Restitution: “We have the TV set to arrive next Tuesday (I have the tracking number right here) and would love to schedule the work then. As a token of apology, we’ll be sending you a gift card to use as you see fit.”

Did we have any control over the TV backorder? No. Does the client care? Heck no! All they know is their job isn’t going to happen tomorrow and we caused it.

When you’re apologizing, remember a simple concept: it’s not about you. The client doesn’t care about the traffic jam you ran into (leave earlier next time) or your last minute emergency. You inconvenienced them and the above three steps should address them and only them.

Great company cultures embrace the concept of practicing empathy. The Ritz Carlton’s fourth guiding principle is, “It’s Not About You.” We’re in the same business. It doesn’t matter whether it’s hotel rooms or high end home technology, our clients expect us to make it right when we screw up without a bunch of excuses.

How’s your emotional intelligence? Does your company embrace the concept of, “It’s Not About You”?

Stay frosty and see you in the field.