No matter how careful you are, it can happen: You may anger an important client by missing a meeting or making a mistake on a project or sale. When you’re a small business owner, a big goof-up with a customer could cost you their business or tarnish your reputation.
However, making a mistake with a customer doesn’t need to be a deal-breaker. Slip-ups can actually be an opportunity to solidify a relationship with a client — as long as you resolve the situation with honesty and integrity, says Phyllis Campagna, Chartered Business Coach™ and owner of Excelsis Performance Strategies. “The problem is rarely the error itself — it’s how you handle it,” she says.
“The problem is rarely the error itself — it’s how you handle it.” — Phyllis Campagna Twitter Icon
Even if your client hasn’t noticed the mistake yet, communicate immediately. Campagna suggests talking to your customer in person, if possible. Otherwise, make a phone call. Never send an email about an error, she says. “Email feels impersonal, and it’s hard to convey the right apologetic tone in writing,” she says.
Don’t mince words. Admit that a mistake has been made, and you’re genuinely sorry, says Campagna. It calms customers down to hear that you’re taking responsibility, she says.
You don’t need to go into great detail about how the mistake occurred — unless the client asks, says Campagna. If the mistake was made by one of your employees, do your best not to talk negatively about him or her. “An easy way to redirect the conversation to something more constructive is to say, ‘I can certainly explain what happened if you like, but I’m sure you’re more interested in how we’re going to fix it for you now and what we’re doing to make sure this doesn’t happen again,’” suggests Campagna.
Campagna says it’s best to let the customer give you an idea of how to make restitution rather than offering a stock response like a 10 percent discount, says Campagna. One reason is that the customer may ask for a smaller discount than you were going to offer, so it could save you money. However, it may be that they’d prefer an additional service or product instead of a discount, she says. Once the customer names their price or a service they’d like in exchange, Campagna suggests offering just a bit more so your customer sees how much you value their business.
For instance, when a travel agent made a mistake booking a train connection, Campagna was satisfied with the company paying for a very expensive ($400) cab ride. However, the very apologetic tour operator also threw in a nice dinner — and Campagna and her traveling companions now refer other customers to that travel agency with enthusiasm. “We know they will treat clients well, no matter what happens,” she says.
“Unfortunately, integrity is in short demand in many businesses, right now,” says Campagna. However, that means that when you step forward and fix your mistakes honestly and fairly — rather than blaming someone else or trying to cover it up — you’ll shine among your competitors, she says.
Worried about the cost of fixing your mess-up? Don’t be, says Campagna. Even if you lose some money rectifying the mistake, you may earn that customer’s continued business (and possibly their glowing referrals) for many years to come. “Personal responsibility — including the courage to say ‘we goofed’ — is the foundation for small business success,” says Campagna.