So You Made a Mistake: 5 Steps to Save the Day and Your Business

Your business made a mistake that affected a client negatively. It happens to the best of us. The important question is, what are you going to do about it? Here’s how to help save your client relationship and your business in the face of a mistake.

an apology to client after business mistake

11 min. read

There’s a lot of “I’m OK, you’re OK, mistakes are OK” talk out there in both the business and self-help world. That you have to make mistakes to really learn, that mistakes are part of growing, or that mistakes can bring unexpected opportunities.

All of these are true for the most part, but when you’re in the middle of a crisis because your client’s website crashed during a very crucial online campaign, it’s hard to see the future lesson and feel gratitude in the moment.

You need to find a way to quickly deal with this situation to get things back on track, salvage your relationship with the client, and protect your business reputation.

I’m referring to business mistakes that were made accidentally, whether it was something your team did (or didn’t) do, or it was something under your agency’s responsibility. An oversight, a breakdown in communication, a technological glitch. Situations that weren’t intentionally illegal or negligent.

For the purposes of this article and to stay within the realm of my experience, I’m not going to deal with business mistakes that endanger lives, even if a 10,000-label misprint can feel that intense. Those kinds of situations require the advice of a real-life, qualified lawyer (and I don’t even play one on TV).

How to tell a client you made a mistake—and move past it

There are five key steps to a business mistake management plan:

  1. Admit that you made a mistake.
  2. Make a proper apology.
  3. Find a solution that works best for your client.
  4. Learn from your mistake.
  5. Move on.
people who made business mistake

I like to call this the “I f’ed up face”. Do they learn this face in business school?
Clockwise: Former US congressman, Anthony Weiner; GM CEO, Mary Barra; Spotify CEO, Daniel Ek; Toyota CEO, Akio Toyoda

1. Admit it already

And do it fast. Public relations professionals know this as a pillar of their crisis management plan. Don’t delay admitting there’s a problem or your role in it. Yes, it’s important you understand the situation but you need to get out in front of the issue quickly.

The longer you wait to address the mistake and your part in it, the more time your client, or your competition, has to create their own narrative around what happened and what might happen in the future.

Plus, complete radio silence makes people feel like you don’t care or that you’re not doing anything. The more time your client hears nothing from you, the more time they have to get angrier, more frustrated, and maybe even more litigious.

Obviously you shouldn’t take responsibility for something you didn’t do, but don’t try to deflect blame if it is indeed your fault, even if the issue wasn’t directly your fault but under your responsibility.

A year or so ago the company that hosted (notice the past tense) Proposify’s site was having a lot of issues. It resulted in our app going down for hours at a time on a few occasions. For our customers who were working on tight proposal deadlines (and aren’t they all?), this was a frustrating crisis of near-disastrous proportions.

The reality? It wasn’t directly our fault. We had no control over what was happening with this hosting company. But in our customers’ eyes, Proposify had gone down. WE had failed them. And even if the issue wasn’t our fault, choosing an unreliable host was.

So we didn’t say, “So sad, too bad, but not our fault!” We apologized to our customers for the service disruption, told them the issue was with the host but that we were working with them to find a solution, and that we would be evaluating whether or not we continued to do business with them. We also assured our clients that their data was still safe and secure.

We tried to do everything within our realm to calm the situation and make our customers feel like the problem was being addressed, even if maybe there wasn’t a clear solution right away.

So buck up and own up. Delays and playing the blame game are just going to worsen the situation.

2. Apologize PROPERLY and avoid using one crucial word

Before I say anything else, let me give you the most important piece of apology advice EVER:

Regardless of whether you’re apologizing personally, professionally, or politically, NEVER use the word ‘IF’.

As in, “I’m sorry IF you felt disrespected”.

That’s not an apology. That’s basically telling the other person they’re an idiot for feeling how they do, or for interpreting your actions that way.

Saying ‘IF” when people are expecting and needing an authentic, sincere apology is going to add fuel to an angry fire and worsen the situation. Don’t do it. Ever.

Also, don’t fall into that trap of thinking that if you say you’re sorry, it means you’re liable. This is why a lot of professionals and corporations avoid apologizing. They think it makes them look weak or that they were at fault.

Sometimes people want to hear “I’m sorry” as a way of acknowledging their pain or inconvenience, not necessarily to place blame. It’s respectful to apologize to someone who is in a difficult situation.

You can say, “I’m sorry this happened to you.” Or “I’m so sorry that this is the situation.”

In 2008, Michael McCain, CEO of Maple Leaf Foods issued a public and sincere apology when 22 Canadians died after consuming Maple Leaf Food products contaminated with bacteria. He ignored the advice of his lawyers who told him not to say, “I’m sorry.” The company survived this disaster, and McCain’s apology is held as an outstanding example of crisis management to this day.

A few days ago, I waited on hold for 55 minutes to speak to Bell Aliant, the company that handles my phone, internet, and cable TV services. Because I was cancelling some of those services (goodbye landline and TV, FINALLY), I had to actually speak with a human.

I waited for 55 minutes to speak to the first customer service representative who then put me on hold for another 20 minutes while they transferred me to another rep.

The first guy apologized. “Ugh, I’m really sorry you had to wait that long. That’s not what you want to be doing on a Sunday. Let’s try to get this taken care of quickly.”

It wasn’t his individual fault that Bell’s support queue was whack, and I knew that, but by apologizing and acknowledging how crappy the situation was, it softened my rage somewhat.

However, when I finally got to talk to the second guy, the one I waited an additional 20 minutes for on top of the previous 55, and I politely told him I was frustrated, he said, “Yeah, we’ve been really busy today.” Thank you, Captain Obvious.

I knew that he was no more responsible for my wait time than the first customer service rep but not even acknowledging my inconvenience ticked me off. I already had the perception that this company doesn't give a rat’s ass about their customers and this perception deepened and soured with every minute I waited on hold. And now here he was proving me right.

A simple, “I’m sorry you were on hold so long. I’ll mention it to my supervisor about the wait times. We were really busy today” would have gone a loooooong way in improving my mood. Especially when he tried to use a discount to deter me from cancelling. I wasn’t having it. AT ALL.

So say you’re sorry. Acknowledge their pain, inconvenience, and distress. DO NOT SAY ‘IF’. An apology can help create a situation where your client is more open to forgiveness and your solution.

Depending on the severity of the situation, you can write an apology letter to your client, call them on the phone, meet with them in person, or a combination.

My advice is to always call or meet with them in person, at a minimum. Only sending a letter feels like you’re getting off a little easy by hiding behind the screen but a letter is a nice follow-up to a verbal apology.

3. Find a solution

The most important thing after admitting there’s a problem and apologizing is telling your client how you’re going to fix it and make things right.

This is obviously more complicated and the details depend on the specific situation, but you need to come up with a meaningful solution that will make your wronged client feel like you’re taking this seriously and that you care.

Ideally, you have a solution already figured out when you acknowledge the problem and apologize, so you communicate it all together. But that’s not always possible depending on how complicated the situation is, whether or not third parties are involved, etc.

So rather than waiting to admit and apologize until you have a solution (because we’ve already learned in this post that communication delays are dangerous no-nos), tell your client that you are working on a solution and give them a reasonably soon deadline when you will get back to them with more information on next steps.

And make sure you do indeed get back to them by that deadline. Even if you still don’t have everything quite figured out yet (and there better be a good reason for this), at least touch base to report on your progress so they know you’re still on top of things.

When thinking about solutions, most people in business immediately jump to offering a refund, but according to digital agency consultant, Karl Sakas, a refund isn’t always the right approach or the best thing for the client.

Sakas suggests a few things unhappy clients might want instead:

  • A new contact at the agency.
  • A refund, either full or pro-rated.
  • Additional free “make good” work.
  • Re-do the work, ASAP.
  • Apologize to their boss.
  • Let them vent, with no further deliverables on your part.

Sakas goes on to explain:

“Don’t automatically jump to a refund. One, it costs money. Two, it may not be what they want.

For instance, when the delivery person fails to deliver my Sunday New York Times, I don’t want a $7 refund—I want the paper because I was looking forward to reading it. If they can re-deliver the paper within a couple hours, I don’t care about a credit on my account—I’m in the “re-do the work, ASAP” camp.”

After you’ve agreed on a solution that is acceptable to both you and your client, make sure your agency follows through and completes it as soon as possible. Once the solution has happened, follow up with your client to confirm they are satisfied with the result and to reaffirm that you value the relationship.

4. Learn from it

I don’t feel good when I screw up but I do try to keep things in perspective and remind myself that humans are not perfect and that mistakes are about growing and learning and blah blah Oprah blah. At least, that’s how I feel the FIRST time I make a mistake.

But when I make the same mistake twice (and I admit, it happens more often than I’d like), that’s when I am really hard on myself. That’s when I should know better. That’s when I ignored the signs, ignored the lessons, and was careless. That’s when I really feel like a full-fledged idiot.

Your agency, and the people in it, are going to make mistakes. Guaranteed. So once you’ve dealt with the immediacy of fixing things with the client, don’t just shrug your shoulders or wipe your brow and move on. You and your team need to review why it happened and how you’re going to drastically reduce the chances that this particular problem will ever happen again.

That may require changes to processes, personnel, technology, external partners, or a combination of all of these factors. Figure out what it takes and implement those changes across your business. It doesn’t hurt to share these plans with your client, it will further reinforce your commitment to providing excellent service, and the seriousness of your apology.

5. Move On

OK, so you admitted there was a problem, you apologized sincerely, you created a solution, and you implemented changes to prevent a recurrence. Now, it’s time to move forward and get back to business.

Don’t beat yourself up, don’t beat up your team, don’t blame the client, nor should you continue to apologize every time you see them. If you’ve followed these steps properly, then your slate, and conscience, should be clean.

And remember to keep mistakes, yours and those around you, in perspective. At least you weren't the person in charge of Heinz Ketchup's QR code campaign that accidentally linked to a German porn site.

So You Made a Mistake: 5 Steps to Save the Day and Your Business

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