In a refreshing turn our CSD Jessica Williams shares some honest insight in an important but rarely discussed skill – the importance of saying sorry to clients!
A lot of what we do as an agency is about winning – whether it’s nailing the pitch, delivering epic creative, or smashing the results. But sometimes winning is as much about winning respect from our client – or even as simple as a ‘well done’. We as a bunch of people (God have mercy on us) are most likely to be people pleasers – it’s why we do what we do.
But with the ability to win, will always come the possibility of losing – and it will happen. And it will happen more than once. It might be just once a month, or if you’re lucky once a year, but let’s be honest the fast and complex nature of what we do means inevitably we will need to apologise to a client at some point.
And we’re talking about the “Oh f**k” moments here. You know, the ones where the email comes in and there is a high importance flag on it, and the subject line has exclamation marks longer than the words, and the whole world seems to be cc’d in (and you know there are some sneaky ‘bcc’ too), and the whole body of the email seems to be written in red with underline in which they state that they are “concerned” and “confused” or worst of all… just “disappointed”.
I am talking about the client flag where your stomach instantly drops and you realise despite your best efforts you have made a mistake.
We have all been there and it can be scary. Scarier even more so because we care.
Here at BBD we have a plan for when it goes wrong, as much as a plan for when it goes right, so we thought we would share our experience and tips on saying sorry and give you a peek into our world.
Firstly – step away from the PC
Take 5 minutes to do whatever you need to do – cry in the toilets, punch puppies (stuffed ones), smoke your first cigarette in a year, or grab your desk buddy. Just spend a moment to realise it sucks and you/we/they messed up.
And do not hide from it. It never, ever works, trust me.
Just because someone didn’t say something it doesn’t mean they didn’t notice. If you are going to be late sending something say so – because every time you have to do ‘minor apology’ it weakens the strength of your ‘important apologies’ and slowly chips away at belief in your promises to deliver.
And if you find yourself constantly changing the goal posts then it’s time to assess if we are over-promising or if a new approach is needed.
Next – the apology…
It sounds so simple and obvious, and yet human nature will work against you on this one. Because we don’t like to admit fault; mostly because it hurts our pride and it makes us look less than perfect.
Apologise in a way that suits the crime. Whilst it can sometimes seem like the end of the world it is always best to sanity check your punishment with someone else. Natural instinct for some might be gushing self flagellation and setting yourself on fire, for others it might be more of a comic brush over in a 90’s Hugh Grant style (… do you remember that?), and for some it might be a reluctant pay the blame forward approach.
Whatever your inclination it’s important that your apologies are honest and authentic to you – the style of them should also reflect the subject matter and the person on the receiving end.
Use the checklist:
Have you done 3 things (1) said sorry (2) admitted fault (3) proposed how to rectify?
- Does the tone of the email match the tone you would usually use?
- Does the level of sorry reflect the error and its consequences?
- Have we just offered excuses? Are they ones that don’t concern our client? Are they in there just to make us feel better? … Then remove them
- Have we just offered someone else up as the cause? It is fair? Is it useful?
Proposing how to rectify
- Sometimes mistakes cannot be undone and all you can do is detail everything you will do in the future to ensure it does not happen again.
- Be very wary of offering solutions you know in your heart you will not stick to. In my experience people always remember ‘if you promised it would not happen again’ and then it is very difficult to re-build trust a second time.
So when you finally (and don’t take too long – time is of the essence) have this well crafted apology response…
..ask yourself why aren’t you calling them or going to see them.
Yes, saying sorry face-to-face is ten times more awkward.
Yes, you don’t have time for it you just need to get on.
Yes, you are worried if you don’t write it first you might mess it up.
And yes, they would probably be happy with just an email.
But you know what…
Calling someone or seeing them face to face lends itself to genuine empathy. People usually soften because they can see or hear you are genuine and they will have compassion or at least an understanding for you. Everyone knows it takes balls to apologise outside of the digital world – and if you fucked up, wouldn’t you at least like to be known for having the balls to deal with it like that.
And sometimes we won’t say sorry. And that is okay.
Sometimes you won’t believe we are at fault. If we find ourselves formulating apologies that we don’t mean then we ask… ‘Are we actually sorry?’ If the answer is “no” then we don’t apologise because it will be insincere and build a negative relationship which is dominated by the client. Just sanity check your decision with the team and then discuss how to respond in a constructive manner.
I also always think, however, it is worth remembering that:
Apologising doesn’t always mean you were wrong and the other person was right. Sometimes it is about valuing the relationship more than your ego.
For me, I only fight the battles where the worth of winning is so much more than the risk of losing.
And I guess my final point in all this to anyone is:
Don’t worry about making mistakes and having to apologise…
Just never apologise for the same thing twice; always make new mistakes
Because failing doesn’t mean you aren’t progressing – in fact failing at new things means you are trying and tomorrow you will be better for it!No-Show