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Columns by Peter Economy

When Hackers Attack

The Occasional Free Lunch


Making Up Is Hard to Do

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Sometimes you screw up. A project goes bad, you drop everything to fix it, and everybody's happy. Like slapping a Band-Aid on a scratch, right? Not quite, Florence Nightingale. It's easy enough to redo a drawing, revise a report, or re-shoot a scene, but for many IPs, reassembling a cracked client relationship is the most difficult project of all.

What do I mean by a "cracked client relationship"? Cindy Kazan, the IP owner of Communi-K, Inc., a PR firm in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, defines the phrase well: "If you make a typo in a press release, then it may not be a big deal for your client. But if you release something to the public that hasn't been approved by your client -- you've got a problem."

You really do want to keep your clients happy. Seriously. According to business consultants Bain and Company, a 5-percent increase in customer retention will result in an increase in profit of 25 to 100 percent, depending on the industry.

If you have trouble making nice to angry clients, then you've come to the right column. I just happen to have a basic three-step process for fixing fractured business relationships. Scroll down and read up:

Step 1: Apologize. Begin by letting the client know that you screwed up, and that you feel awful about it. And keep in mind the following while you're saying "sorry":

  • Sending a card is a nice personal touch, but you don't want to wait for the U.S. Postal Service to deliver it. You need to apologize ASAP. (Fax machines and emails are fast, but they won't do in this case.) If you're within a reasonable distance, go to your client's office and express your regrets in person. Otherwise, get on the phone -- you can send a card afterwards, if you think it will help.

  • You may want to write out your apology first, and then say it aloud to yourself or a friend. But if you find that this only makes your apology sound false -- and you'll pick up on this quickly if it does -- bag the rehearsal.

  • Explain the problem, be sincere, and take full responsibility. Don't sit around waiting for your client to say, "That's OK; don't worry about it." The whole point of apologizing is to tell your client that you messed up.

Step 2: Atone. Atonement means giving your client something of value to make up for your mistake. While burnt offerings and animal sacrifices might have made a favorable impression on clients a couple thousand years ago, these forms of atonement just don't have the impact they used to. Try these approaches instead:

  • Select an item that your client values. If, for example, you decide to give your client a complimentary address book, and she thinks such tchotchkes are cheap and tacky, then you'll just make the problem worse. Think hard about your client -- how she decorates her office, what she does in her off-hours, what she gets really enthusiastic about -- and then use your knowledge to pick an appropriate gift.

    There's no limit to what you can give. Whether it's a discount on your next job or lunch at one of the city's best spots, if your client likes it, then you've picked the right item.

  • Clearly link the gift to your apology. Don't make your client guess why she just received a case of champagne in the mail -- let her know that you're sending the case of champagne in hopes that it will help make up for the problem you caused when you crashed her computer network for a week.

Step 3: Wait. Once you have apologized to your client and atoned for the problem, rebuild the trust that has been lost in your relationship. It may take time to do this, especially if the problem is serious and the damage to your relationship is extensive. A single "I'm sorry" or special gift might not repair all the damage you've done to your client's opinion of you. If you have to wait, you have to wait. Don't be impatient. Remember: You're the one who is at fault.

Above all, be honest and open with your client, and make it clear that your problem will not occur again. If you've been doing your job, the client may eventually come around. If not, and at some point you may have to accept this fact, then it's time for you to go find another client.

We'd love to hear your feedback about this column, or put you in touch with Peter Economy if you like. You may also like to see his biography.

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