A while back I learned a valuable lesson that continues to shape the way I communicate with my clients to this day. In a nutshell, two of my vendors let me down at a time when I had little bandwidth for error. Following these experiences, I fired one vendor but have held onto the other to this day. What set these vendors apart was their ability to go beyond the widget. Typical client/vendor relationships are sterile – what stands out today is a client experience that builds trust. Ownership, humility, communication and follow through are the keys to coming back from a mistake and keeping a client for life.
For those of us who have kids, or ever were one, the concept of taking ownership shouldn’t be too much of a stretch. When you make a mistake, you should be quick to own it and take responsibility. Don’t go the easy way of blaming others or throwing co-workers under the bus. Contrary to what popular culture tells us, life is not a popularity contest. What makes a person or a firm stand out is their integrity. Clients don’t care who did or didn’t do something. What they care about is whether you take them seriously enough to put your pride aside to make things right.
Taking credit for a mistake is hard. It cuts at the core of who we are as adults, as professionals and as members of a group that depends on us. The most trustworthy accountants aren’t the ones who never make mistakes, they are the ones who are the most honest. Yes, precision is vital to the profession, but shady accountants don’t suffer from a lack of precision, they suffer from a lack of humility. Your reputation hinges on so much more than perfection. The truth always has a way of coming out. It is much easier to take responsibility than to do damage control. The former builds trust; the latter erodes it.
When something does go wrong, it’s important to stay ahead of the problem by communicating thoroughly and frequently. If you catch a mistake before the client does, don’t wait for them to find it. In the tale of two vendors, communication made all the difference in the world.
Vendor A realized that a mistake had been made right before our agreed-upon deadline. I got an email letting me know that they had run into a few technical problems. They assured me that they were working around the clock to fix the problem and were completely transparent about not being able to make the deadline. Over the next 3 days, my designer sent updates on the status of the project. While the delivery was late, I was a happy customer.
Vendor B, however, not only made technical mistakes but blamed the errors on me. In spite of having written instructions, the company missed the mark 2 times and failed to meet our deadline. To make matters worse, I was saddled with the responsibility of tracking down the progress on my order. I was never given an update – only a heap of frustration and chaos. In the end, they showed how little they cared for a repeat customer, and I determined never to recommend their services to anyone.
When you make a mistake, follow these cardinal rules:
- Admit the error promptly (If you have foreknowledge, don’t wait for them to bring the error to you; don’t wait to respond if they do bring it to your attention)
- Clearly explain how you’ll address the situation
- Commit to a timeframe of completion
- Update your client every day, or at their desired frequency
- Ask if there is anything else you can do (go above and beyond)
- Go out of your way to be overly apologetic (don’t be too sugary, express remorse in a way that is both authentic and humble)
The most critical element in making things right is ensuring the situation gets corrected. If you aren’t the person to solve the problem, make sure you get in touch with the right people. Once you’ve made contact with the appropriate parties, don’t disengage. Follow the resolution through to completion, even if it is just an email to make sure the client is satisfied with the result.
Mistakes happen. They don’t ruin relationships. In many cases, they can make them stronger.
You want to be known for your exceptional service and happy clients. Translated to your accounting practice, you can see how communication (or a lack thereof) significantly impacts the client experience. I know I’m talking to accountants, but even CPAs make mistakes and miss deadlines. While it’s important not to make a habit of this – after all, your clients come to you because they trust you – it’s also important to communicate (even overcommunicate) when you make a mistake or are going to miss a deadline. Assuming gets more people into trouble. Make sure you’re building transparency and ownership into your firm culture. Model it with your staff and practice it with your clients. After all, it only takes 1 negative experience to lose a client for life.