How to Handle a Stuff Up So That Your Clients Won’t Want to Shoot You


How to Handle a Stuff Up So That Your Clients Won’t Want to Shoot You

The thing that gets most businesses into trouble when they make a mistake is not the mistake itself but how they handle it. We recently had a problem with a newspaper subscription being automatically renewed after we’d canceled it. Easy to fix, right? Nope – among other things, we were accused of trying to rip off the company to get free newspapers, were told ‘they don’t usually give refunds’, were questioned as to why we didn’t have the details of a subscription we’d cancelled, and were told it would take a number of weeks to ‘investigate’.

Seriously? That’s an F for customer service.

So how do you handle mistakes in a way that doesn’t damage your business? I’m going to share with you the lessons we learned from a mistake we made earlier this year. We managed to navigate this problem without a single complaint.

We provide monthly reports and payments to our authors for sales of their books via bookstores and online sales (both print and ebook). When reviewing some of our figures, in the reports we download from our printer we noticed a checkbox that should have been checked but wasn’t, which had resulted in some sales for some of our authors not being reported. About half of our authors were affected. For some, it was a small amount; about $100 or $150 over a 12-month period. Not great obviously, but nothing disastrous. But there were a couple who had missed out on more, and one author had missed out on almost $1000.

Here’s what I learned from this experience about how to handle stuff ups:

Step 1: Freak out!

I’d like to say I handled it with complete aplomb, but there was an undeniable moment of ‘our authors are gonna kill me’. We’re all human. Allow yourself this moment. But only a moment. Then get onto fixing it.

Step 2: Before you tell anybody what’s happened, make a plan.

We had a few weeks before the next sales reports, so there was no reason for haste. When we told our authors what had happened, we also wanted to give them our solution.

Step 3: Contact your clients and tell them you have a problem.

And most importantly, what you are doing about it. Be honest and upfront and take responsibility. I spoke to our accountant and the printer about how to set up the sales reports and could easily have shifted the blame, but it’s me who put the systems in place. My business. My responsibility. My mistake.

Step 4: Fix it as soon as you can.

We paid our authors the missed amounts with their next payments, which was about two weeks after finding the problem. If you need time to resolve an issue, tell your clients what you are doing and when it will be fixed.

Step 5: Compensate your clients.

We gave all affected authors a 50% discount on their distribution costs for the following 12 months. We paid the missed amounts so they weren’t out of pocket, but we had caused inconvenience for our authors and the discount was a way to acknowledge this.

Step 6: Don’t beat yourself up.

I’m a careful person. I’d put a lot of thought into how we prepared the sales reports. We tested it, and spoke to the experts. But still, in a process that involves compiling figures from a number of sources and downloading lots of data, I’d missed one check box. It happens. Take it on the chin, fix it and move on.

So, how many upset emails and phone calls did I get? None. Not one. In fact, I had dozens of replies saying thanks for being so honest and handling the issue the way we did. There was not one single complaint about the error.

A mistake is not a disaster, but your response can turn it into one. The trust of your clients is one of the most valuable assets your business has. Don’t burn it with obfuscation, blame shifting or the weasel-word shuffle.

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