You Made a Mistake. Is This How You React?

June 8, 2009 · 42 comments

sorryI made a mistake last week. It was an honest one, but a mistake nonetheless – a misunderstanding that led to an oversight. And a client was pretty upset about it.

How do you respond when a client or colleague confronts you about a mistake that’s been made? Our natural reaction is to quickly search our minds for reasons why it happened or point partial blame back on the person across from us.

What did I do?

I apologized and owned the mistake, explained where the misunderstanding happened and shared ideas for two new processes we could implement to ensure it doesn’t happen again moving forward.

What was my client’s response?

“Thanks for your candor. I have a great deal of respect for you.”

We’re so terrified of being wrong that it causes us to do crazy things sometimes – make excuses, lie, shift blame. The truth is that most of the time people know when a mistake has been made and often they know who made it. Accepting responsibility for your part has a strange way of showing your maturity and integrity and can actually build trust instead of tear it down.

Have you noticed this, too? Do you think owning a mistake is smart for business or does the admission of guilt bring more harm than good?

{ 2 trackbacks }

Unethical Client: Does that Mean an Unethical You? «
June 12, 2009 at 8:05 am
My Corporate Summer: Monotony, 10 files at a time | TalentEgg Career Incubator
June 23, 2009 at 12:43 pm

{ 40 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Stuart Foster June 9, 2009 at 8:17 am

Owning a mistake is vital to your sanity and your client’s. The resulting spin-out from excuses isn’t worth it. Look, if you screw up you screw up. It happens. Just own it immediately and publicly. Apologies are best when they don’t sugar coat. Anything else is just disingenuous. Maybe politicians can get away with this…but as marketing/pr professionals we certainly can’t.

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2 David June 9, 2009 at 9:02 am

Agreed. It annoys me to know end when someone “apologizes” and then says “…, but…” Stop making excuses. That’s not a real apology. Own it, fix it and make sure it doesn’t happen again.

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3 Lauren Fernandez June 9, 2009 at 8:33 am

All in all, a client will respect you more if you are up front about it – we are all human and all make mistakes. If they find out about the mistake later on, they will probably think you are trying to cover it up and wonder what else you are hiding – even if that isn’t the case. A client might also start withholding information if they don’t trust you.

I think you always have to own up to the mistake – and have a solution so that it won’t happen again.

Great post, D.

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4 David June 9, 2009 at 9:03 am

The client’s response was a great reminder for me that you can actually gain trust and respect by admitting your mistake and creating solutions. That’s one of the reasons I wanted to share the post.

Thanks, Lauren.

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5 Brenda Drake June 9, 2009 at 8:46 am

Applause, applause. Owning your mistake, no matter how minor or how major, is critically important for trust with your client. I also think it’s just as important to provide a solution – that solution could be a way of fixing the mistake or a method to prevent the same mistake from happening again.

I agree with Stuart’s post above that apologies can’t disingenuous or sugar-coated. They don’t have to be 20 minute diatribes either – “I’m sorry, it won’t happen again and here’s the solution that I propose.” is enough to maintain your client’s trust.

Something that hasn’t been mentioned is what do you do when your company doesn’t support this type of up-front apology? I have worked in organizations where owning a mistake isn’t acceptable, but finger-pointing is. How do you deal with the unspoken company policy while still maintaining the relationship with your client?

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6 David June 9, 2009 at 9:05 am

If it’s a big enough problem, I think you start looking for a new job. That’s not a healthy work environment and either you’ll have to start playing the blame game or you’ll get thrown under the bus so much for stuff you didn’t do that you’ll seem a sub-par team member any ways.

That’s just my take. Of course, my opinion and a five cents will get you a nickel’s worth of bubble gum… :)

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7 Tiffany L Ryan June 9, 2009 at 8:52 am

Great post on a serious topic. However, just to inject a little bit of humor I LOVE the fact that the image is game pieces from the game “Sorry”. Very nice.

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8 David June 9, 2009 at 9:05 am

Glad you picked up on that and liked it! I thought that would be funny.

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9 David Teicher (@Aerocles) June 9, 2009 at 9:34 am

I think the ideal, as everyone has already said, is to own the mistake. But not every client is satisfied with honesty as the best policy. In some cases, an admission of guilt may very well do more harm than the initial mistake. Again, I’m not advocating lying to any client. Ever. But as PR professionals we tend to have a way with words. A Brief, Terse Apology might seem insincere, and a long drawn out diatribe (as brenda points out) is unnecessary and can often lead the client to believe that things are worse than they actually are. I think the key, if you recognize the error, whether one of practice or judgement, early enough – is to remedy the mistake as soon as possible. Call on your coworkers & teammates, even higher-ups if need be. Make things right. Then – you can explain to the client what happened…”But don’t worry, it’s all been taken care of already.”

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10 Amybeth Hale June 9, 2009 at 9:39 am

Time and again David you remind me of why I love reading your blog. This approach should be applied in every life situation too – not just with client relationships. No one is perfect – and by trying to pretend you are by never owning up to making mistakes, you make people resent you. I love that you got to prove right there that trust is earned through being human, not being flawless. Great job – you must have an even closer and more fantastic bond with your client now than ever before.

Amybeth

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11 Dana Coffey June 9, 2009 at 9:45 am

I would much rather employ an HONEST yet flawed individual than a dishonest nearly perfect one.

It’s about trust. I know that people make mistakes. I make mistakes. Nothing can be recovered by denial, yet owning it and learning from it turns it from a mistake into an opportunity – both for change and for increased good will.

Our society needs more people who take responsibility for their choices and actions.

Kudos.

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12 Brent Rinehart June 9, 2009 at 9:47 am

David,
Thanks for this post. A great reminder for all of us, both personally and professionally. If we are quick to accept praise, we should be just as willing to own our mistakes. As you emphasize, the key is identifying solutions for the problem or ideas for ensuring it won’t happen again.

Now, let’s convince politicians in Washington to do the same. That would be refreshing.

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13 David June 9, 2009 at 11:38 pm

Thanks, Brent. If you figure out a way to convince politicians to do that, let me know. I’ll head to D.C. with you!

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14 Amanda Forbes June 9, 2009 at 10:44 am

I completely agree. If you make a mistake, own it…no excuses. This is something we’ve all been taught from a young age, but often are too afraid to accept the consequences. As you mentioned, no client wants to hear the blame game, just like you’re mom/dad didn’t want to hear excuses when you screwed up as an adolescent. We’re all human so mistakes are bound to occur. But I also agree with the next steps David Teicher (@Aerocles) pointed out in resolving the mishap by pulling in others within your organization to remedy the situation quickly, if appropriate. As you did, the client is much more respectful of you as a representative of the organization if you own up to said mistake and present a solution to ensure it doesn’t happen again. This reflects not only the integrity of you as a professional, but also the values of the agency you work for.

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15 Lisa Fischer June 9, 2009 at 10:58 am

In this day and age of expected transparency in corporations, marketers need to adopt this philosophy as well! Kudos to you for having the integrity, truthfulness and guts to own up to your oversight. You probably differentiated your company from the pack by your actions. And your choice of graphics was not lost on us right-brained readers!

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16 Keith Trivitt June 9, 2009 at 11:03 am

David –

Thank you for your candor and humility for writing about something that on the outset, is not always easy for people to admit or write about.

My perspective has always been that for me personally, it’s almost like the band-aid effect. In almost all situations, I find it best to own up to my mistakes, admit my wrongdoings, offer ways to better the situation and help it not happen again, and then move on and learn from the situation. Is it hard to do and does it hurt sometimes? Yes. But is it worth it in the long run? I think so.

As for your question about admitting guilt doing more harm than good in business practices, I think many people would agree that NOT admitting guilt and not being honest with others, whether personally or professionally, has played a part in the current economic mess we all find ourselves in now. A little more corporate honesty and guilt admittance, and a little less “saving ass” in business would probably do us all a world of good. That may be simplifying the situation a bit, but in my opinion, it would help a great deal.

Keith (@KeithTrivitt)

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17 David June 9, 2009 at 11:41 pm

Good point. I think that mentality has certainly played a part in the direction corporate America has taken. Thanks for weighing in.

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18 Danny Brown June 9, 2009 at 11:13 am

It’s right up there with the “I don’t know the answer to this question but I’ll bluff my way through it” approach. Instead of being honest and working on a solution together, it comes off as false and, ultimately, damaging.

Nice to see that there are still individuals willing to take the heat and ensure that they learn from the mistake and move forward. Shouldn’t be surprised, really, considering the candidate.

By the way, nice new image – you look very respectable and sage with your shades, fella. Not that you didn’t before! :)

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19 David June 9, 2009 at 11:43 pm

Thanks for the kind words, Danny. Both the ones about “considering the candidate” and the new image. My friend probably had to put in some long hours on Photoshop to make it look presentable. :)

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20 Leah Hannum June 9, 2009 at 11:34 am

When I interviewed for my current position my boss asked me to tell her about a mistake I had made and what actions I took after. Just two weeks before I’d made a simple mistake that rippled like falling dominos throughout the company. I explained what had happened and how I had worked to resolve the problem. Since my interview was for a new position in the same company, she already knew details. But she did tell me later that my candor about it during my job interview was a big reason why she hired me.

I make mistakes all the time, some big, some little. Everyone does. I always feel better once I’ve admitted it. And if those around you, clients, superiors, co-workers, aren’t willing to accept that people make mistakes it makes me wonder if the working relationship is worth it.

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21 Jen Wilbur June 9, 2009 at 11:48 am

Amen, David! And Stuart’s right. It’s not just the right thing to do for your client and colleagues, but you need to fess up for yourself. Not only to alleviate the burden of guilt or worrying about “being caught,” but also so you’ll learn. If you don’t admit you made a mistake, how do you prevent yourself from doing it again?

@rockstarjen

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22 Tim Jahn June 9, 2009 at 11:52 am

I think admitting a mistake does more good than bad. If you lie and try to cover it up, you’ll eventually get caught in your lie. We always do.

But if you own up immediately and show that you’re professional and still human, the client will have more respect for you, as you mentioned.

People understand that you’re a person too. That doesn’t give you an excuse to do everything wrong but if you slip up every once in awhile, it’s ok. Just be honest and upfront.

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23 Tamsen McMahon June 9, 2009 at 11:54 am

Owning a mistake usually makes it go away faster–and for that reason alone I’d say it’s a better strategy in the long run.

Why? People want to be right (which is why it’s so hard for us to admit when we’re wrong…). So when you say, “The truth is that most of the time people know when a mistake has been made and often they know who made it,” that’s the key.

Owning a mistake says, in essence, “Yes, you’re right.” Apologizing for it says, “I understand why you’re upset.” Finding solutions to avoid future mistakes says, “I’m backing up what I just said with action, so you know this isn’t an empty apology.”

In other words, it says, “I’m human, and so are you.” And isn’t that the basis of trust?

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24 David June 9, 2009 at 11:47 pm

Excellent breakdown. Thanks for sharing that with the rest of us.

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25 Adrienne Bailey June 9, 2009 at 12:10 pm

You are exactly correct Dave, honesty is the best policy. If you made a mistake, then you made a mistake but if you feel you have to lie about something to cover it up, you’re wrong. Own up to it and learn from it. Instead of dwelling on it, offer up a solution- everyone needs a problem solver. As PR professionals striving to develop mutually beneficial relationships, dishonesty is one huge way to jeopardize relationships whether it is with clients, journalists or colleges.

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26 Nikki June 9, 2009 at 12:14 pm

You aren’t human if you don’t make mistakes every so often. What makes you a more respectable human is if you own up to those mistakes and find a logical way to prevent them from occuring again in the future. You did everything right, so kudos to you! I definitely think owning up to a mistake is smart for business because lies always seem to come out at some point, and they will eventually hurt the relationship with your client. Clients should respect the fact that mistakes will be made. As long as an attempt is made to reverse the mistake and/or action is taken to prevent a similar mistake in the future, then the client should forgive you.

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27 Mihaela (Dr. V) June 9, 2009 at 1:45 pm

… well done. And crisis communication research & theory shows that the same strategy works best for organizations who made a mistake, not only individuals.

Now, if only more clients would implement the same strategy themselves when dealing with their publics!

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28 David June 9, 2009 at 11:49 pm

I’ve got to get my hands on that research… :)

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29 Anna Barcelos June 9, 2009 at 1:49 pm

Making mistakes is how we become better people; although it doesn’t feel like it at the time. Maturity and humility is required to own up to mistakes. It’s better to nip it and apologize. People generally are forgiving if you’re up front. Kudos to you David. You earned even more respect from the client…and me :-)

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30 Arik Hanson June 9, 2009 at 1:55 pm

For me, it’s really an ethical issue. Owning up to my mistakes is something I believe in to my core–and I’m guessing you, David, and many of your readers feel the same way. So, there’s never really a decision for me. Does it blow up in my face sometimes? Absolutely. But, if you look at the big picture and the longer view, it makes sense. Your reputation and credibiliy is at stake here. That’s far more valuable than any one client relationship–no matter what your management team says. Might seem simplistic, but hey, I’m a simple guy ;)

@arikhanson

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31 Don Bartholomew June 9, 2009 at 2:00 pm

Nice post, David. It is interesting this type of response also works for brands in customer service. How brands respond to a mistake or putting a customer in a bad situation is crucial. A great ‘above and beyond’ response can actually turn the situation into a positive brand experience, and conversely, a lack of response or responsiveness and/or unsatisfactory resolution can be a multiplying (when they tell their friends) brand ding. You often learn the most about people, and brands, when things aren’t going well.

-Don B @donbart

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32 David June 9, 2009 at 11:57 pm

How much better would life be if more brands managed customer service well?! Based on personal experiences, I’m not even sure some companies can call what they offer “customer service.” For too many, there’s nothing even remotely service oriented about what they offer.

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33 Heather Whaling June 9, 2009 at 3:24 pm

David,

I think the “take away” from this post is how you took steps to prevent this mistake from happening again. Most clients are actually reasonable people who understand that sometimes mistakes happen. But, there’s nothing worse than making the same mistake twice — especially if it can be prevented. I bet that one of the reasons your client reacted so sanely is because he/she respected the fact that you not only owned up for what had happened, but that you put thought into making sure it wouldn’t be repeated. As I client, I’d want to hire a PR person like that — one who’s always thinking two-steps ahead.

Heather (@prtini)

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34 Salena Mikos June 9, 2009 at 3:27 pm

Great post, David.

Owning your mistakes is definitely the way to go.

While it may be uncomfortable at the time, it’s the right thing to do and usually earns you the respect of your clients, peers, superiors and friends.

Most importantly, it ensures self-respect. The ability to look at things you’ve done correctly or incorrectly and improve on them helps you to become more effective in the future.

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35 Jamie Favreau June 9, 2009 at 3:46 pm

If we don’t make mistakes we don’t learn. We have to learn from what does not work and find ways to improve. This is a great lesson we could all learn from!

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36 Sheema June 9, 2009 at 3:51 pm

I completely agree with you, being 100% honest is the way to go. Like you said, we are all human and make mistakes. By being up front & honest with your client, they will end up respecting you more.

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37 slocricchio June 10, 2009 at 10:07 am

Great post. A dear mentor once told me, you will make mistakes. It happens. But don’t ever come to me (or a client) with a problem/mistake without at least two solutions to fix it.

I will never forget that conversation and have used the advice upon more than one occasion.

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38 Lauren Vargas June 11, 2009 at 11:06 am

Brilliant post! We are human and sometimes we let our Egos get the best of us…especially in our career field. Integrity is not taught, but learned.

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39 Danielle Stewart June 11, 2009 at 3:26 pm

Great article! I think it’s human nature to want to blame someone else in an effort to make yourself look better. However, I’m a believer in complete honesty both personally and professionally. As your example demonstrated, people respect honesty and owning up to mistakes.

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40 @hotlotto June 15, 2009 at 6:19 pm

Everyone makes mistakes. It’s what you do about it that matters.

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