by Peter Economy
Occasional Free Lunch
Up Is Hard to Do
of Peter's columns
No one likes to give their clients bad news, but sometimes even
the best, brightest, and most talented IPs
are left with no choice. Whether it's a roll of film from a key photo
shoot that gets botched by your lab, or a computer that decides to munch
a hard drive (along with that logo you've dedicated the last week of
your life to fine tuning), there's going to be a day when you've got
a big problem on an important project -- and you'll have to tell your
client about it.
I know. Occasionally things get so screwed up that my perfectly good
projects are transformed into utter crap. And this is bad news -- in
some cases, very bad news -- for my clients. The kind of news
that makes you want to run and hide somewhere very far away -- somewhere
like Outer Mongolia or Timbuktu sounds about right.
I remember one time when a project absolutely, positively, had to meet
my client in Aspen, Colo., the next day. I gave it to the company that
claims that it will get your stuff where it's supposed to go when it
absolutely, positively has to be there overnight.
The project didn't make it.
In fact, it wasn't even close. Maybe Federal Express had a good reason
not to put my urgent client package on the connecting flight from Denver
to Aspen at 4:30 a.m. Perhaps they didn't like the way I wrapped my
pride and joy, or maybe I didn't put an "x" in the right box on the
shipping form (out of several hundred tiny boxes to chose from). Maybe
I should have taped a twenty-dollar bill to the package to help ease
its way to the proper destination. Whatever the reason, instead of being
in my client's briefcase the next day, the project was treated to an
all-expenses-paid tour of downtown Denver, inside the back of its very
own red, white, and blue panel van.
Being the obsessive-compulsive type that I am, I was regularly tracking
the progress of my package across the country using FedEx's handy Web
site. Once I figured out that the package wasn't going to make it
-- and phoned FedEx to confirm that fact (speaking with a very polite,
but ultimately powerless customer service representative) -- I had a
choice: call my client to give him the bad news, or feign ignorance
and pretend that everything was A-OK, all systems go.
I decided on the former option.
Why? Because, just as producing first-rate projects is a part of my
job, so too is keeping my clients informed and up to date on the progress
of their projects -- even if informing them means giving them bad news.
As I look back over the cold, dark days when I was a 9-to-5 wage slave,
I can recall being extremely fearful of having to give my boss bad news.
I was afraid that I would be perceived as incompetent or worse, and
that I would be adding another page to my already weighty personnel
file -- a file that might someday be used to justify my termination.
And, back in my pre-IP days, the thought of losing my job -- and the
"security" that I mistakenly thought came along with it -- seemed a
fate worse than death.
Now that I'm an IP, all that has changed. I realize that you just can't
run and hide from bad news -- not if you want to make a successful living.
You've got to embrace problems, and then come up with solutions for
your clients. While you may be an independent professional, you're also
an important part of your client's team; keeping your clients informed
is part of your job, and sometimes that means giving them the bad news
along with the good.
So, is there a right way and a wrong way to present bad news? You bet
there is. Here are some tips for getting your ill tidings across in
the right way:
- Make sure you've really got a problem. You definitely don't
want to get your clients all riled up if there really isn't a problem
they should be concerned about. Tell your client that the sky is falling
too many times, and he or she is going to decide that you're more
trouble than you're worth. Before passing bad news on to your client,
be absolutely certain that the problem is of such magnitude that you
can't solve it, avoid it, or make it go away.
- Don't delay. Once you've determined that you really do have
a problem -- and that there's nothing you can do to make it go away
-- inform your client immediately. At this point, delaying communication
about the problem isn't going to help you or your client --
in fact, any further delays may create even more problems.
The sooner you inform your client of the trouble, the sooner he or
she can get to work on developing work-arounds.
The best way to break the bad news is usually over the phone (unless
you have an incredibly close relationship to the client, and are within
visiting distance, in which case you might want to deliver the bad
news face to face). If your client isn't in -- or isn't answering
-- leave a message on voicemail asking the client to phone back ASAP.
- Arm yourself with solutions. There's nothing worse to a client
than getting bad news with no recommendations on how to solve the
problem that led to the bad news in the first place. It's kind of
like tossing a lead life preserver to someone who's drowning. Instead
of being a part of the problem (and being labeled as such by your
clients), be a part of the solution by giving your client options
for solving it.
- Act now. Once you and your client agree on a plan of attack,
put the plan into action -- right now! Depending on the nature
of the problem, you may be able to turn it around almost immediately;
other problems may require some time to sort out and resolve. Remember:
your client really needs your help now -- keep solving the problem
at the top of your priority list. Even if it means dropping that lunch
trip to McDonald's down a notch or two.
The world is an imperfect place -- you're always going to have problems
related to your projects. The real measure of your effectiveness as
an IP is how you deal with problems when they occur. Hiding your head
in the sand is not the appropriate response (unless you're an ostrich).
The way to make bad news go away is to (1) face up to it, (2) inform
your clients about it, and (3) put your all into implementing solutions.
That way, you'll earn the respect of your clients -- and their