How to Screw Up Professionally

March 27, 2013

In the past couple months, I’ve had two experiences with two different business that screwed up. In both cases, these are business to which I have given a substantial amount of money. What was notable, though, is how professionally both of them screwed up. Which is not to say that they screwed up in a more advanced manner than the amateur could, but rather that in both instances the business responded professionally. So professionally, in fact, that not only would I willingly give them more of my business, I’d happily recommend those businesses to others. Even though neither of these businesses is remotely involved in technology, the pattern demonstrated by them is something that any business or consultant should take to heart. 

My Perspective

The reason why I think the approach I’m about to lay out is so effective is because of the perspective I have about, well, human nature:

People make mistakes.

Seems obvious, yes, and hopefully no one will disagree with that assertion. But if you follow the logic, business are made up of people; ergo, businesses are going to make mistakes. This should also be obvious, but I don’t think we’re very understanding, let alone forgiving, of businesses when they do make mistakes. My proof: think about the reactions you’ve seen when Facebook makes a privacy policy change, Twitter becomes more restrictive with its API, or Google stops developing a product it no longer feels is viable. These are random examples off the top of my head, and some are truly deliberate business decisions regardless of the reaction, but sometimes businesses just make mistakes. Maybe they don’t understand their customers. Maybe they didn’t think through the implications. Maybe, like Microsoft’s Windows for so many years, doing things well is really hard. But businesses make mistakes.

Accepting this premise makes it much easier to work with businesses and to roll with the punches when mistakes inevitably happen. I’m not saying that accepting this premise absolves companies; instead, accepting this premise leads to an important criteria to consider when choosing whom to do business with: how well they react when they do screw up. Moreover, how should you behave when you inevitably screw up? And here’s that magic formula (in my opinion):

  1. Admit you made a mistake.
  2. Apologize.
  3. Correct the mistake as quickly as possible and at your expense.

It’s that simple. If you take these steps when you screw up (and you will screw up), your customers will appreciate it. And if your customers are anything like me, they’ll think better of you for screwing up professionally, which can mean more business for you in the long run.

Step 1: Admit It

The first step is to admit that there’s a problem. To be clear, I’m talking about actual, definitive problems here, not just differences of opinions as to how something works. In one of my experiences, it was obvious to me (the customer) that there was a problem. In the other, the business brought it to my attention that they had messed up. I would have never known had they not said a word. But it does not matter who discovers the problem, it only matters that the problem is acknowledged.

Not to get all psycho-babble here, but a lot of human conflict stems from a lack of acknowledgement. The difference between a company admitting they made a mistake and a company continuing to be in denial is huge. Think about the situations you’ve seen where a company makes an obvious and public “mea culpa”: it’s so startling and uncommon that you’re literally surprised when it occurs. Be different, be better, and admit to your mistakes.

Step 2: Apologize

You might think that admitting to a mistake equates to apologizing for that mistake, but that’s not so. Admitting to a mistake is an acknowledgement that you did something wrong. Apologizing is an acknowledgement that your mistake may have adversely affected the client. And besides, no one apologizes enough. But it’s so easy:

  • It turns out there’s a bug in the code. I’m sorry.
  • This project has taken longer than I had planned. I apologize for the delay.
  • I believed I would be able to get this to work but I’m having a lot of difficulty. I really am very sorry.

There are some that would argue that you should never admit to a mistake, let alone apologize for it, as doing so could put you at a higher risk of legal liability. I have three responses to that argument. First, if you screwed up, you’re probably legally liable whether you admit it and apologize or not. Second, admitting to, and apologizing for, a mistake (and offering to fix it) will make your customers far less likely to sue. Third, if your main concern is legally covering your ass, you probably don’t actually care that much about doing right by your customers. Which is unfortunate, because doing right by your customers is doing right by your business.

Step 3: Correct the Mistake

Finally, fix the problem, as best as you can, as quickly as you can, and at your expense. Simple. If there’s a bug in the code, fix it. If you’re behind schedule, do what you can to get it done ASAP. Or do what you can to get something to the client ASAP. If you can’t deliver what you promised, give some or all of the client’s money back (this is the worst case scenario, as you’re probably losing that client entirely regardless at that point).

After acknowledging that the client has been wronged, or inconvenienced, do everything you can to resolve the issue no matter how inconvenient it is to you.

My Experiences

If you’re curious, here’s how my two cases played out, which made me think about this subject…

In my one case, a switch was improperly set on my new home heating system. The conditions necessary to make the problem apparent didn’t manifest themselves until over a year later. Within hours of emailing the HVAC company, the owner was at my house to identify the problem (and apologize). The next day, an employee was at my house to fix the problem. No delays, no excuses.

In my other situation, my corporate accountant (that does my company’s books) realized after the fact that one income type was mis-filed, which may have erroneously increased the amount of taxes I personally paid. The accountant brought this to my attention, apologized, and offered to file an amended personal tax return at no expense. He then confirmed when it’d be convenient for me for him to do that, and apologized again.

In both situations, someone I give (or gave) quite a bit of money to screwed up, inconveniencing me, and even costing me some money. And yet, in both situations I think more highly of the business involved because of how well they handled it.

As a business in your own right, or when working for one, you’re going to make mistakes. When you do, be certain to screw up professionally: acknowledge the problem, apologize for the inconvenience, and fix the problem ASAP and at no added expense. Trust me: your customers, and the long-term health of your business, will appreciate it!