It happens to the best of us. We make a mistake, let something fall through the cracks, or don’t pay attention, and it affects a client’s project or website.
There are things you can do to reduce the chances of messing up, but for the sake of argument I’m going to assume that if you’re reading this you’re only human and that even though you might not like to admit it, you know that at some point, you’ve made mistakes.
In this post I won’t dwell on how the mistake was made or what you should have done to prevent it (although I will look at how you can prevent it in future), but instead I’ll run through what you can do to rescue the situation and come out of it with the relationship with your client intact, if not improved.
The advice I’ll give here is based on my own experience and on that of other people (freelancers, agencies, and clients) I’ve talked to, and you might have some experiences and tips of your own, too. So please share your thoughts in the comments below. I’d love to know how you deal with mistakes, too.
Don’t Try to Cover Things Up
It’s tempting to keep what’s happened to yourself. After all, if your client knows the full extent of how you messed up, they’ll be even more annoyed, right?
Your client is likely to discover more problems, and if they get the information from you that’s a whole lot better than if they get it elsewhere. It’s no fun giving clients bad news, I know, but it’s easier to give them bad news than for you to hear it from them, along with an angry demand of why you didn’t tell them in the first place.
So as soon as you know what’s happening, tell your client. Even if they already know there’s a problem (they wouldn’t be angry otherwise), keep them informed.
UK-based freelancer Mark Wilkinson recently had to appease an angry client:
“I had a bad experience when some hosting failed and my client, through no fault of their own (or mine actually!) lost a site they had in development. They were not happy, which is understandable. The most important thing is to listen to them, but above all just be honest at all times and tell the truth. Don’t focus on the problem, focus your attention on helping the client resolve the issue.”
Take Responsibility and Apologize
Have you ever been involved in a car accident? Did you find that none of the drivers involved was willing to say the word “sorry,” for fear of being held liable for the accident and having their insurance company refuse to pay up? I’m not sure whether using that one little word would actually make you legally liable, but it’s something many of us have been told at some point, and it makes us reluctant to apologize, even if the apology is one of sympathy rather than guilt.
Don’t be tempted to do that when you’ve screwed up on a client job. Apologize for what’s happened and take responsibility for fixing it. Even if you can’t personally fix it, take ownership of making sure that someone else does.
So if your client’s website crashes, there’s a chance it’s not your fault at all. It could have been hacked, the hosting company may have done something stupid, or the client may have even messed with the code. Contractually, these may not be your fault and, therefore, shouldn’t be things you have to fix for free.
But you can still take responsibility, and apologize for the problem this is causing your client.
I have one client with a number of staff members who manage the company website and they tend to change staff quite frequently. Once every few months, I get an email from someone who can’t log in to their site. Either the link they’re using is wrong, they’ve forgotten their password, or there’s a problem with their local network (it’s not the best).
It’s very rarely my fault. But the truth is that the individual staff member has no idea what’s caused the problem or whose fault it is, and if I take responsibility, it will enhance my relationship with that person. So I tell them I’m sorry they’re having a problem and tell them how to solve it. I might send them the link to their site’s admin screens again, or I might give them instructions on resetting their password or suggest how they can test whether it’s the site that’s causing problems, or something local to their system. Invariably they follow my instructions, everything works ok, and they’re happy.
They don’t think I’m stupid because I took responsibility for the problem. They think I’m smart because I know how to fix it, and helpful because I didn’t expect them to. A client for whom you solve a problem can become the most loyal client of all.
Tell the Client What You’re Doing to Fix Things
Even if you haven’t been able to fix the client’s problem yet, it helps to reassure them that you’re still working on it.
Send them an email when you’ve identified the cause of a problem and know how you can fix it, or at the end of each day that you’re working on the problem, with a progress report. Yes, I know, at the end of a day you’ve spent trying to fix a problem the last thing you want to do is spend time typing up a summary of where you’ve got to. But believe me: it will take a lot less time than responding to an angry client who doesn’t know what’s going on.
If you’ve got a significant client base and the problem affects all of them, you might put out tweets or blog posts with updates.
For example if the server where you host your client websites goes down, put out some tweets letting clients know you’re working on it.
This may seem like a very public admission of failure, but it will enhance your reputation for honesty and for dealing with problems.
I do it, and my clients respond well.
Keep the Lines of Communication Open
Make sure your client knows how to contact you while you’re working on the problem, and that you know how to get hold of them. For each of my clients, I keep an email address on file that isn’t associated with a domain name I manage for them: if there’s a problem with the domain, I can still get in touch.
Your progress updates will be the best way of keeping in touch with your client while you’re working on the problem, but you may need more than that.
If your client doesn’t understand why things aren’t working or has very different expectations from yours, you may need to meet face to face. Set up a meeting at the earliest possible time and take the opportunity to investigate what they expect, what you can realistically and reasonably deliver, and find the best match between the two. If you need to, refer to your contract with the client, and afterward, make sure you follow up in writing with a summary of what you’ve agreed and what happens next.
When things go wrong I like to keep as much communication as possible in writing as I can keep track of the conversation between my client and me, which is why it helps to send an email after a meeting or phone call summing up what you agreed. It’s easy to forget what you discussed on the phone, or for two people to have different recollections.
Learn from Your Mistakes
Once you’ve solved the problem, don’t let it happen again. Here are some measures you might put into place to prevent the problem arising again, either with this client or another one:
Take some time to review what went wrong and why. Identify how you can make sure it doesn’t happen again.
Make sure your contract states clearly what you will do for a client and when, and what happens if things go wrong. In my experience, most angry clients felt that way because they expected more from me than I expected to deliver. If a client starts to add more deliverables to a project partway through, don’t ignore it: tell them it will either cost more or have to be moved into a follow-up project, which you can quote for separately.
3. Project briefs
A common cause of angry clients is when you don’t deliver what they expect. This normally stems from the two of you having different expectations, maybe with regard to timescales, deliverables or design. So before you start working on a client project. make sure you’ve got an agreed project brief.
The majority of times I’ve messed up has been because of client websites being hacked or going down. Keep regular, automated backups, using a plugin like our Snapshot Pro, to ensure you can quickly restore a site when things go pear-shaped.
When clients have their website hacked, they get angry and sometimes scared. Do your best to avoid it happening: install security plugins and follow our comprehensive guide to WordPress security.
Your hosting provider should be your ally when dealing with any problems affecting your client sites. If they’re making your job harder instead of easier, it might be time to move on to a new provider.
This has to be the single most important thing you can do to prevent future problems. If you anticipate problems in future, let your client know, and where relevant ask for their help. Communicate what’s going to happen during any project, and how you and the client will work together. Use language your client will understand, and avoid (or translate) technical jargon in contracts, briefs, emails and conversations. Check that you share an understanding of what’s expected. And take time to develop a healthy working relationship with your clients so you have that store of goodwill to draw on when problems occur.
Finally – If All Else Fails
Sometimes all your best efforts will come to naught. You’ll fix the problem, you’ll keep your client updated, and you’ll apologize. But the client still isn’t happy, and they’re making your life difficult.
In this scenario, you might decide it’s best to just walk away from the relationship. Make sure you fulfill any contractual obligations and politely but firmly tell the client that you don’t think either of you will benefit from working together in the future. Make sure you don’t blame the client here or give them anything they can use to alienate other existing or potential clients. Make the break in writing so you can be clear and dispassionate, and if you do speak face to face or over the phone, follow up with an email.
Hopefully, it won’t come to this, but if you’re a freelancer or run your own agency, you didn’t get into this to spend your life working with people who make you unhappy. So cut your losses, take a deep breath, and move on to the next client. You’ll have learned plenty from this experience that will make the next relationship much more successful.
Image credit: Jonas Karlsing