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How to Communicate Mistakes to Clients, From Missed Deadlines to Copy Errors

How to Communicate Mistakes to Clients, From Missed Deadlines to Copy Errors

In one of my previous careers, I was a staff assistant with the American Medical Association’s Department of Practice Management. Part of my job involved distributing that content to AMA members, with help from the United States Postal Service.

I’m dating myself here, but bear with me. On one direct mail campaign, I accidentally authorized a first-class permit, rather than the less-expensive third-class indicia we typically used. When I received the bill for that mailing and realized my mistake, my heart sank and my head started thumping. The cost was three times what was typically charged, meaning a hit on our budget. So, what to do? I was clearly to blame, and I feared for my job.

My first inclination was to say nothing. My boss wouldn’t find out for a while. And once she did, maybe she wouldn’t tie it to me. But that wasn’t productive thinking. Of course she’d know who was at fault; that was my job, after all.

So taking a deep breath, I walked into my boss’ office, explained the situation to her, acknowledged my fault, then waited for the fallout. She sat thinking for a moment, and I could sense her anger. Then she said in a quiet tone of voice: “That’s not going to happen again, is it?”

Nope, I said. It would not. Then I beat a hasty retreat and heaved a sigh of relief. I still had my job. And my boss was right. It never happened again.

How to professionally admit mistakes and missteps to clients

Decades later, that situation still stands out, because it taught me a valuable lesson, one that I observe as an independent content producer. Namely, always communicate with clients especially if a problem crops up, you make an error or miss a deadline. Doing so builds a client’s trust and confidence in you.

Don't stay silent

Don’t stay silent

My late husband was an outstanding newspaper editor. Early in our marriage, he launched an editorial job search among New England newspapers by topping his cover letters with the words “I made a mistake …” The letter explained that he wasn’t perfect, but the articles he edited were as close to error-free as possible.

This caught the eyes of many publishers and managing editors, who liked the humor. They appreciated an editor with the nerve to admit he wasn’t above making the occasional mistake but had methods in place to ensure mostly clean copy.

While admitting something like this is a great opening for a job-seeking cover letter, it can be more difficult for those of us who create content for a living as independent contractors.

Nod if any of this seems familiar. We hesitate when requesting deadline extensions. We go back and forth about asking for clarification. We shouldn’t need to do any of this. We’re professionals. We ALWAYS meet deadlines. And we ALWAYS understand every single assignment that ends up in our laps. And we always turn in error-free copy.

Until we don’t. And that’s when cognitive dissonance rears its head.

Cognitive dissonance occurs when a held belief conflicts with hardcore reality. Like this:

  • The belief: I am a professional, competent content producer.
  • The reality/realities: I don’t understand the assignment. There’s more to the project than what I thought, so I need more time. I’m confused.

Because we want to feel better about ourselves, we do everything we can to hang onto proof of our proficiency. So we don’t say anything to clients. Staying silent means we don’t come across as inept by acknowledging our weaknesses. We continue to delude ourselves into thinking that everything is great, and that we’re great, too.

But in the real world, misunderstanding project parameters can result in something that has nothing to do with the client’s vision. Or missing a submission date might throw someone else’s editorial calendar into disarray. Basically, staying quiet for fear of being viewed as incompetent could convert that fear into reality. And it means the client won’t trust you and might not hire you again.

If it isn’t clear up to this point, I’ll repeat it. Always, ALWAYS communicate with the client, even if you have to acknowledge a mistake, report a missed deadline or adjust expectations.

Be direct

Be direct

When sharing a problem, you don’t have to get down on your knees and beg for forgiveness.

Here’s what to do:

  • Be professional, direct, and honestExplain the issue, the cause, and how you’ll rectify it. If you need a deadline extension, outline the circumstances, and offer a new deadline. If you inadvertently made a mistake or error, own up to it and explain how you’ll avoid similar situations in the future.
  • Eliminate misunderstandings through repetition. Before signing off any project, repeat the parameters back to the client. For instance, saying “here’s how I understand this. You want me to …” lets the client know you’re listening, and also gives them license to clarify.
  • Query, query, query. If confusion crops up while you’re writing a blog, white paper or brochure, ask for explanations. Don’t assume. Question any inconsistencies and explain potential struggles you’re experiencing. Keep asking until you are clear on what’s needed.
  • Report problems immediately. While it’s great when projects move forward without a hitch, this doesn’t always happen. Information might not be available, or a specific content format just might not work. Share this with the client early on, so changes can be easily made and implemented.
  • Recognize that clients have empathy. Yes, clients are human, too. They know that bad stuff happens. For the most part, they appreciate it when you acknowledge a problem, and discuss steps to rectify it.

Let go of secretiveness

Let go of secretiveness

Staying quiet when something goes wrong or extensions are required might seem really, really appealing. But keeping your mouth shut will have long-term ramifications when it comes to your client relationships.

Getting issues out into the open is always better. So tamp down your panic, straighten your shoulders, and explain the situation. Doing so tells clients that you’re not just a terrific writer who produces stellar content. But you’re a trustworthy, honest one, as well.

Running into an assignment problem? Need a deadline extension? Confused about what you need to write or design? Don’t keep it to yourself! ALWAYS communicate with a client. #freelancing #writing Click To Tweet

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About the author

Amy Sorter

Amy Sorter is an award-winning journalist, copywriter, and principal of The WordSorters. Her work has been published in regional and national business and consumer publications. Amy's focus is on creating customized, highly engageable content in a variety of formats for non-profit organizations, small businesses, and Fortune 500 companies.