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Big Time Screw Up? Follow the Three A’s to Make Things Right

Everybody makes mistakes, but when it comes to working with clients that mistake can hit your future cash flow hard. Follow QuickBooks queen Stacy Kildal's three A's to turn the situation around.

The 3 As for saving a screw up with a client

We’ve all done it. And I’m pretty sure we all hate it. It’s a fact of life that not everyone is perfect, and handling mistakes when it comes to our clients and customers is something every business owner – heck, everyone that has a job – needs to learn how to do.

Growing up, my dad owned a residential building company, and one thing I remember him telling me when I started my business was: “Stacy, yes, you’re selling bookkeeping services, but your greatest commodity is your  reputation, integrity, and trustworthiness. Never forget that.”.

This is exactly the foundation on which I’ve built Kildal Services LLC – as a company that provides bookkeeping, payroll and related consulting, our clients have to trust us. I’ve found, over the last 10 years of running my business, that how mistakes are handled is a great way to solidify that trust, and there are two incidents that specifically come to mind.

The first was shortly after I had started Kildal Services LLC, and with my first client, and it was horrifying to me. I would go out to his offices every 2 weeks, and in between, he would fax me sales reports along with a list of checks he’d written and deposits he’d made. He accidently printed a duplicate report, and when I didn’t catch it and entered the sales in again, his bank account balance was overstated.

I didn’t realize what had happened until I saw three checks hit account… and bounced. He incurred $75 in fees. It was a knee-jerk reaction on my part: I immediately dropped a payment in the mail to cover the fees, found out WHY that had happened, and called him to let him know the situation. I fully expected him to fire me.

He didn’t fire me, and I still have him as a client today. In fact, he was completely understanding, thanked me for letting him know and for reimbursing him the fees, and said he was sorry for sending the duplicate report. I let him know that I absolutely should have caught that, and explained my plan to change our process so that we could avoid the problem again.

I didn’t realize it then, or even until I asked my twitter buddy Tory Johnson, author, Good Morning America contributor and founder of WomenForHire.com, her thoughts on this subject:

“The degree of bad is determined more by the client — and what matters to them — than by me. For example, Women For Hire had to change the date of a big career expo we were hosting, which meant two of the 47 Fortune 500 companies that were registered could no longer attend because of scheduling conflicts.

“To 45 of those clients, this wasn’t a mistake.  But to two of them it was hugely disappointing — a ‘disaster,’ as one called it. One vowed never to work with us again; the other made us jump through hoops to compensate for the inconvenience.

“We learned that we may not be able to please everyone all of the time — and that’s ok, especially if it’s for the greater good of the company — but we owe it to every client (and ourselves) to make sure they’re heard. We’re caring, concerned and committed, but never cavalier about complaints.

“When someone berates us for our decisions (or what they consider a mistake), we respectfully ask, ‘What matters more to you: venting or working towards a solution?’ That can diffuse the frustration and let’s them know you want to figure it out.

“At the end of the day that’s the best you can do: be honest, be available, be accommodating. And then move on.”

It’s taken me the better part of ten years to understand this – what might be freaking me out, may not even be an issue for the client, which is the exact thing that happened in the more recent screw up we had.

We have a QuickReview™ process for our clients: we analyze their QuickBooks setup, then give them a detailed report on what needs to be corrected in order for them to have accurate financials. When we do the review, if the client is using a QuickBooks desktop edition, the year version really doesn’t matter, since we’re not making any changes to the data. However, when we give them their QuickReview™ report, we include an estimate for clean up – and then it does matter. We don’t want to open a client file in QuickBooks 2014 if they’re using 2013 or older, because when we send the file back, they won’t be able to open it.

And I’m sure you can guess – that’s exactly what happened. We sent a file back and the client couldn’t access it, and once I figured out what the problem was, I bought her the upgrade and immediately explained what had happened. We have since included checking year version as one of the items on the QuickReview™ checklist, so that we can avoid this situation in the future.

In each case, there are three things that happen when we mess something  up with a client. (For the record, they all just happen to start with A. I did not plan that, but it works out well, don’t you think?) It’s three simple things, and we stick to this regardless of whom discovered our mistake – us or the client.

  • Acknowledgment – We take ownership of it and never make excuses for why it happened. Instead, we very honestly explain  the circumstances led up to the situation.
  • Apology – We express our apologies for the incident, and describe what our company is doing to ensure it doesn’t happen again – or at least minimize the possibility.
  • Amends – Before we contact the client, we either determine what we’ll do to rectify the situation and offer options to the client, ask if there is something the specific the client would like us to do, or we have already done was is needed (as in the case of the upgrade).

What we’ve learned is that by doing these three things consistently and sincerely demonstrates to our clients that we value them. It shows our commitment to maintaining a high level of professionalism and integrity and that we strive to be proactive, rather than reactive. As Jon Farrara says: our word is our reputation; our clients understand this and ultimately we strengthen our working relationship and their trust.

I was fortunate enough to get Bill Rancic, entrepreneur, best-selling author and television personality, to weigh in on making mistakes. Bill also happens to be one of the speakers that I am very anxiously awaiting to see at Intuit’s upcoming, one of a kind, event this October: QuickBooks Connect. I think his comment is a perfect way to end this article:

“If there is one thing I’ve learned as an entrepreneur it’s that mistakes make you stronger. I turn every setback into positive learning experiences by analyzing the situation and talking through how things could have turned out differently. My best piece of advice for small business owners handling a client mistake is to learn from it and make sure it doesn’t happen a second time.”

Yep. What he said…

Had your own big screw-up recently and not too embarrassed to share it?  Tell your story in the comments below.

  • Ok – here’s my screw up. Working for a large consulting company we had a major project in the implementation and customization of a SAP system for the Barcelona, Spain government. I was Project Lead and team member of the migrations team. Migrating large amounts of data from multiple systems and scrubbing the data so that it goes in as clean as possible. After weeks and weeks of development it was now time to go live. We went live. Everything was great – champaign popping and congratulations everywhere. Then I had to go to a screen and hit execute instead of delete and my little script wiped out everything. We went live the next day instead. The experience taught me that being honest about a mistake instead of making excuses is hard – but much more rewarding. I’ve received a promotion and raise for a screw up because I was honest about it, owned it and made things right. Integrity goes along way!

    • Stacy Kildal

      Love that you got a promotion because of how you dealt with a mistake 🙂

      • They said it was refreshing not to hear excuses. And I made it right so fast that they said it was impressive. 🙂

  • Jonathan Hickman

    I have had a similar circumstance happen in the past, but instead of overdrafting a single customer, I double billed about thirty or so. Huge mistake! Fortunately, we immediately called all of them and made them aware before they made us aware. We only received about two phone calls from individuals that recognized the issue before we could contact them, but all of them were understanding. It was years ago, but we fortunately did not have an issue with anyone being overdrafted if I recall correctly. Nonetheless, it is one of those mistakes that makes your heart skip a beat, and being at the forefront of the issue is the best way to handle it.

    • Stacy Kildal

      My worst nightmare! Glad to hear you had such grace under pressure!

  • David McGarry

    Biggest screw ups? Hmmm. The irony, sometimes of working in
    the IT industry is that often people expect your software to go wrong! It’s so
    common to see someone shrug or roll their eyes and say “Ah computers!”.. in a disdainful way that, as a developer you often have your get-out clause!

    However I’ve made some pretty bad screw ups in my time. We had an SMS service at the council I worked for and I know that I was not the only developer who sent unfortunately worded ‘test’ phone messages to every resident… that system has generated a few (real) tears from at least 2 of the devs I know..

    Having said that, yes we all make mistakes – it’s how you bounce back and respond to the repercussions that is really important.

    I worked with one guy who was due to retire – he would often say
    “I knew a bloke once that never made a mistake… he never did anything!”

    • Stacy Kildal

      That’s hilarious, I think I’ve worked that same person before – not only did he never do anything, he knew EVERYTHING 🙂

  • David Jones

    I wouldn’t call it a huge mistake but its a funny story and since we are sharing…Many lives ago, two years into my career, I was developing an e-commerce solution for a client and had used my own credit card for all the the test transactions versus a test cc number. Well later when the client went to capture sales, I forgot to tell them not to process my test changes and they billed 800 bucks to my personal card two days before christmas. Money was tight that christmas until I could get the client to refund my transactions.

    • Stacy Kildal

      I’ve used my personal cards to test things for clients as well. Solved this mistake by getting a Google Wallet card, and keeping very low funds on the account – that way transactions will be declined.

  • Thomas Lawler

    I had more of a personal finance screw up when I was in college… I was paying off my monthly bills and accidentally sent $1000 to DirecTV rather than my credit card company. I had to incur the late payment fee on my credit card, and it took several weeks to recover the money from DirecTV.

    Long of the story, I try to make sure to double / triple check everything before hitting submit. Even from that date I’ve made similar mistakes, just the battle I have with paying attention to the details.

    I really agree on owning up to the mistakes we make as professionals. It commands respect when you are willing to admit something went wrong.. the key is making sure it gets fixed.

    • Stacy Kildal

      Amen! Another mistake we’ve made is cutting a check to a vendor for a client – the bill was $70, the check was $700. We didn’t catch it and neither did the client when he signed it. Luckily we were able to get a refund!

  • A good mistake a made recently was in working with an inventory load file for a retailer that we were converting from another platform. We were about 8 hours (we’ve since crafted some good formulas and scripts to cut that time down) into massaging the CSV into a working order that could be used. I had some scrap data on another worksheet and had that open. I was wrapped up for the day, went to close the CSV file and by habit just clicked ok on the warning dialog. As soon as I did it my stomach dropped and I realized I had just dumped that worksheet that had ALL the data on it. I was crushed! It ended up pushing the the timeline on the project back 1 day while I fixed it but we were sure to let the client know and apologize. Never again will I do that!

    • Stacy Kildal

      This reminds me of my first draft of this article! I was on vacation, and had a window of a few hours and wrote the entire thing. I was SO EXCITED to have one less thing on my To Do list when I got back to the office. I normally write in Google Docs, but was using Word on Mac because we had no wifi. I hit save, verified the location on my hard drive, closed the doc, turned on my ipad tethering. When I went to attach to the email to send it? GONE. Nothing. Nada. Nowhere. I did every trick in the book to try to recover it, then finally decided: “I’m heading to the beach with a cocktail. I’ll rewrite it next week.” I know that feeling of having the bottom drop out. Thankfully, it was just a screw up that I had to come to terms with on my own! 🙂

  • Vacation time seems to be when mistakes happen. Too much in a hurry to clear the desk! Or things happen when you are away and you have to do damage control ASAP.

    Many years ago, I gathered payable checks in stacks with notes as to which day to mail them over a two week period. All stamped and ready to go. My first day gone, a temp gathered them all up and mailed them. She even brought the stickies back and laid them on my desk. That nightmare still makes me nauseous. I was a young company and the bounced check fees about killed me. Plus I wired personal funds as loans into client accounts to cover checks. I guess in hind site, I really garnered some loyal clients. They know that no matter what, I am there for them.

  • Jason Royals

    Wow! I’ve truly enjoyed everyone’s stories. I think mistakes are a part of life. I believe your character is defined in trying moments. Whether it’s being susceptible to feedback or finding a humble humility. My support group story goes as follows. I spent three days installing a network hub and connecting a Elan Home Automation system in a 1.2 million dollar house on Lake Travis in Austin Texas. This house belonged to none other than “the” Sandra Bullock. I was very busy with several projects and missed the fact that I had cross wired the swimming pool automation motor which left the pumps on pumping excessive water in to the pool. I came back the third day to find the yard quite flooded. I did of course apologize and corrected the issue. I then provided security system programming at no charge to the contractor. It made for a huge loss of time and money. To this day I I’ve gained a lot more business with that contractor. Responsibility, honesty, and integrity is always my approach, and that came from growing up on a farm where s#*t happens. We are all human and it’s going to happen, but it’s how you respond with genuine honesty and a plan to correct the situation as best as possible.

  • Great article – and I have just sat here thinking what screw-ups I have had and really scarily I cant think of anything that has seriously gone wrong with a client. Before anyone thinks it – I know we are not perfect, we fly by the seat of our pants too often and I guess so far have just been lucky. For instance the night before delivering a training course I realised that one of my colleagues had used the wrong powerpoint file to create the handouts. so that resulted in a very early morning in the office re-printing them.
    I am sure it will happen one day – that is why I need Work[etc] to ensure we are more organised and reduce the risk! However, on the basis that no-one is perfect then as your article demonstrates our clients aren’t either and very often, if we are heading towards a missed deadline a proactive phone call to them finds that they are behind in their stuff too so it doesn’t matter if we don’t meet the date we said we would.

  • Tracey

    I made a mistake just yesterday. I was using Worketc and was modifying a past project that didn’t work out with a particular client. I was removing the client with whom things didn’t work out and adding a new potential client – who is also a competitor of the 1st (unsuccessful) client. There were tasks assigned to the previous client as well. Well, unfortunately, I didn’t remove the 1st client from one of the tasks even though I added the new client. I didn’t realize because we have calendar syncing that google calendar would automatically send a meeting request to the clients when the task was placed on the calendar (at least I think that’s what happened). So the 1st client and the new client both got a meeting request for a task for the project – when the project isn’t even confirmed yet for the 2nd client! I know it’s a little confusing but I had to call my boss right away to let him know what happened. I’m sure both clients were confused and we contacted them right away to let them know we are learning a new system and apologized for the confusion. Oh well… guess that’s how we learn best – sometimes through mistakes. I did immediately go back and remove EVERYONE from all tasks for that project until it is confirmed. 🙂

  • I worked for several years in the telecommunications industry that is known for mistakes. When my company received authorization to provide long distance service in our state, I convinced a customer to transfer to us and assured them we would not hurt their inbound 800 service.

    Despite our best efforts, we took them down during the transition and no inbound sales calls could be received for a couple of hours. Meeting with the company’s management team later that week was like facing a firing squad. One guy’s face was so red he had smoke coming out of his ears. What can you do in such a situation but fall on your sword and ask what you can do to make the situation right. We took really good care of them.

    During the inevitable mistakes that would occur during a service cut over, one of my colleagues used to say, “at least we’re not killing people.” When we mistakenly took down communications at a hospital emergency room she looked at the team and said, “we’re killing people!!” We got them up fast and had a good laugh at the end of the day.

  • We had a a similar circumstance happen in the past, but instead of overdrafting a single customer, we double billed about twenty or so. Fortunately, we immediately called all of them and made them aware before they made us aware. We only received about two phone calls from individuals that recognized the issue before we could contact them, but all of them were understanding.

  • We were releasing new code-line to 100+ clients. This task is pretty tedious and takes up the time of a few developers after hours. 10 to go….5 more left… sigh all done! Proceed to check release…come to find out I used the incorrect set of dll’s. My heart sank and it was all my fault. Luckily for me this was after hours so the clients were not directly affected and we could patch the issue fairly quickly but to 100+ clients….again :-(. I felt really bad for wasting the time of my co-workers. I’ve learned to check my work and then check it again especially if other individuals time is invested in the release. Credit to my co-workers they were very forgiving and willing to do whatever necessary. So I also learned mistakes do happen and if its not me who made the mistake, be understanding and do what it takes to get things back on track. These are very hard lessons to learn. Things happen, it’s human nature! Take ownership, create procedures to prevent future occurrences, and be honest.

  • Donna Grindle

    I just had to stop by and let you know that I just added the three A’s to our Work[etc] dashboard this week. Another problem came up when I was in a meeting and panic set in when they should have worked through the three A’s. It is there to remind them every day now! Thanks!

  • My biggest screw up was a photo permissions issue gone wrong. Being that i work ith Social media I was posting a picture of the area that my client lived in and had a link to where people could purchase the prints. Unfortunately the link got switched and I sent it to the wrong place. The problem was it happened on a weekend and it want caught till Monday. The photographer blew up the page with very mean comments because he though i was stealing his work. I called my boss and she talked me though what i needed to do to fix it and I talked to the photographer and apologized profusely for the mistake. He was understanding and took down all the comments and my client was in the clear! and we get it all worked out. Needless to say i triple check my posts now!

  • Louise Roberts

    A very interesting article giving a positive view on how making mistakes can essentially grow your business as you learn from your previous errors. I can think of a number of mistakes that have made us look at the lack of process behind them and address this by putting in better processes to ensure that the same thing doesn’t happen again. Being honest with the client is key when a mistake is made. They will respect you more for holding your hands up and admitting the error, rather than trying to make excuses.

  • Who hasn’t made screw ups with clients. I have had clients give me a design brief that was so against what was ” normal ” for the marketing industry. I have tried to dissuade the client pushed too hard and almost lost the client in the process.

    I learnt quickly that what the client wants is what they get even if it means that their project goes from looking great and matched to their image to resembling a 2 bedroom house with 43 room extensions.

  • Megan Hill Vangelist

    I’ve made plenty of mistakes with clients, but I always acknowledge them as soon as I am aware of the mistakes and do everything I can to fix it.
    One big mistake I made one time was I accidentally undid the wrong check when helping a client fix an issue.
    I apologized repeatedly but they were understanding and we quickly recreated the check.
    I’ve found that being honest with them is the first step to having a great client relationship.

  • Tabitha Mills

    I have made many small screwups but I once over scheduled a time slot for in house appointments had two competing clients arrive at the same time. I apologised profusely and I ended up coming both clients a bit of discounted service in exchange for peace. Both clients are still with me and still happy.

  • Branden

    Thanks for sharing your story Stacy, all your points were exactly how I manage my mistakes!

    My work mistakes tend to work on my faulty assumptions. The client will say they’re having a problem saving and I’ll check the code around that, not find an issue and go ‘weird that I can’t reproduce that…only to find out later that they were dealing with the other workflow path, not the one that I tested! What did I do? Apologise, realise it was my fault, and work harder to ask the right questions!

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