There’s no getting around it: Someone on your team screwed up. Maybe Nicole didn’t get a speaking submission in on time, or Rob double-booked interviews (making the client look bad), or Jessie didn’t get the sign-off needed to move a project forward.
Whatever happened, and whoever was at fault, you’re going to be late delivering a project or it’s not going to turn out as expected. Now you’ve got to break it to your client—and deal with their (totally justified!) frustration.
How can you make things right and still maintain a good relationship with your client? Here’s what you need to know.
Don’t Throw Your Team Members Under the Bus
It’s tempting in this moment to simply say, “But it wasn’t my fault! Jared was the one who forgot to send the report out!”
But pointing fingers or blaming another colleague for messing up isn’t going to save your client relationship. In fact, it can have the opposite effect. The client is going to assume there’s something broken on your team and lose trust. If you can’t manage internal relationships, it doesn’t bode well for your relationship with them. Have you ever been over to a friend’s house and the couple is bickering the whole time? It’s not a comfortable situation, and you likely aren’t going to accept the next dinner invite.
Instead, look as this as an opportunity to deepen your client’s trust in you by showing how you and your team work together to be successful, even in the face of adversity.
Also, don’t forget your team is watching how you handle this—presenting a united front lets your teammates know you have their backs no matter what, and they’ll have yours in return.
Directly Acknowledge the Problem or Mistake
At the end of the day the client wants to feel heard and understood. So listen to them and their frustrations and acknowledge and empathize with what they’re feeling. Communicate what happened—you should be transparent with them—but keep it vague. They only need to know how they’ll be affected, not all the details of what exactly went wrong internally. This just opens the door for your strategy or team to be questioned even more.
And, actually apologize the right way—which means you should say the words “I’m sorry” and really mean them.
Then, they’ll want to know how the issue is going to be fixed, so make sure you have a plan in place before addressing them (more on that below). The goal of direct communication is to quickly and efficiently get to the part where you explain how you’re going to do better and re-instill confidence.
Come Up With a Solution
You know what instantly makes a mistake better? A solution.
Take the time—before you get on the line with the client—to come up with a thoughtful solution that can actually be implemented. Resist the temptation to throw spaghetti at the wall or make promises you can’t keep.
In addition to fixing the specific project at hand, maybe you can offer a discount to the client or comp some project hours. Or, maybe you can use this bump in the road to re-strategize or turn the project in an even better direction. Enlist your team, manager, or anyone who can help you make the solution happen to ensure you have all of your ducks in a row when you talk to the client.
If a client keeps coming back to their frustration over the mistake, use this solution as a way to pivot back to a more productive discussion. For example:
Frustrated Client: “But, I just can’t believe this happened, this is unacceptable!”
You: “I completely understand your frustration because I don’t like that this happened either. It’s why I want to come up with a solution that makes you happy and I really believe that doing [solution] will get us to the finished product you need.”
Talk in Person (or on the Phone)
While it’s certainly easier to just craft an email and send it out to an angry client without having to confront them head-on, this is really something you should do over the phone or in someone’s office. Tone and empathy can get lost or skimmed over in an email. Doing it verbally is also a good way to answer any lingering concerns in real time. No, it won’t be an easy discussion, but you’ll be glad you didn’t hide behind a computer screen and actually showed your client the respect they deserve.
If they’re not immediately available, it’s OK to leave them a voicemail prefacing the conversation. Try something like:
Hi [Client’s Name], hope you’re doing well. Something has come up with [project] that I’d like to talk through. Please call me back as soon as you can. I will have my phone on me/I’m around from [time] to [time]. Talk to you soon.
Or, shoot them a quick email:
Hi [Client’s Name],
I would love to jump on a quick call to discuss [project]. Something has come up that needs to be addressed immediately that I think is best explained over the phone. I’m available today from [time] to [time]—please call me at your earliest convenience: [your phone number]. Or, let me know the best time to reach you today.
Can’t Chat? Send a Thoughtful Email
If speaking to your client live is just not possible at the moment, or you’re working under tight time constraints, it’s best to send a thorough and honest email to let them know what’s going on. It could look something like the following:
Hi [Client’s Name],
I left you a voicemail, and would love to connect on the phone on this, but in the interest of time I want to let you know that unfortunately, [our timeline to deliver X project has been delayed due to unforeseen circumstances/we weren’t able to complete X piece of the project in the timeframe we had originally projected/we had a miscommunication internally that led to X]. I completely understand the frustration that comes with a setback like this. This is definitely not how we like to do business, and I apologize for any inconvenience this may cause.
I want to assure you that [project] remains a huge priority for our team and come up with a solution to make sure it’s a success. We’d like to [your solution—what you’re doing and plan to do to make things right or get back on track as much as possible with the original timeline.]
I’m happy to jump on a call to discuss further (you can reach me at [number] and I’ll be around today from [time] to [time]) and will continue to keep you posted on our progress, but please let me know if you have any initial questions.
Again, my sincerest apologies.
Again, this doesn’t mean you’re in the clear to not talk in person or on the phone—expect that you’ll have to follow up and handle their reaction verbally. Speaking of which…
Now you need to deliver on what you promised, and also give your client some extra attention with good old-fashioned communication.
Make sure you’re following up with the client over the phone or via email throughout the transition to let them know where you stand and reaffirm that they’re a priority. Offer opportunities for them to ask questions or give input, and thank them for their patience.
You’ll want to follow up with your team, too. A dropped ball is a learning opportunity. How do you support your team members so this doesn’t happen again? How can your team work together more cohesively? Take the opportunity to create a dialogue around how to improve how your team works or deals with these situations.
In the end, mistakes happen. While they may not be fun to deal with, communicating directly, taking responsibility, and strategizing solutions can help you make amends without throwing anyone under the bus—or losing an important client.