How to Handle It When You Mess Up on the Project (and You Will)

Everyone blows it. How you handle your failure says a lot more about you than whether you blew it in the first place.

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By Ron Sellers

I’m not sure why it’s commonly said that the only certainties in life are death and taxes. There’s one more iron-clad, guaranteed sure thing in life: screw-ups.

Your screw-ups.

Well, to be fair, mine too. And your vendors’. And your clients’.

Everyone in the consumer insights business (or any business) is going to mess up royally at some point. Over the years, I’ve seen some beauties:

  • The moderator who showed up right on time in New York when the groups were in Los Angeles that night
  • The analyst who completely forgot to weight the quantitative data when heavy quotas had been used and wrote the whole report with unweighted data
  • The vendor who mistakenly sent one client’s data to another client
  • The client who provided a completely wrong customer list for the recruiting (which the moderator discovered only upon sitting down with the first group and finding out his entire discussion guide was irrelevant to those recruits)
  • The client who remembered to tell the moderator that she changed the group time from 6:00 p.m. to 3:00 p.m. – at 2:00 that same afternoon

Yeah, the last two happened to me.

You’ve likely already been on the receiving end of some gems in your career, and you’ve probably blown it big time more than once. And guess what? It’s going to happen to you again in the future.

Since everyone screws up at one point or another, what tends to differentiate people and companies is how they deal with their mistakes.

Consider two recent experiences I had with companies messing up. The first is with U.S. Airways. I’ve been an elite customer of this company for 15 consecutive years, usually at Gold level (which is at least 50,000 miles in a year). I even use their credit card, making me another source of significant profit. Recently, trying to book a trip to Grand Rapids through their website, I was repeatedly denied the booking due to an error message. I tried to call them but gave up and went to lunch after 20 minutes waiting to talk to an agent.

After lunch, I tried again online, only to get the same error message. I called the Gold line again, and was on hold for 45 minutes. I finally gave up and booked through Expedia, which cost $275 more than on the U.S. Airways website, and robbed me of a bunch of bonus miles I would have gotten booking directly with the airline.

After the trip, I wrote a lengthy letter to the CEO, complete with full documentation, requesting a refund for the difference and my extra mileage. What I received back was a form e-mail from customer relations stating that they apologized for the inconvenience – nothing more. I replied to the e-mail stating that I was unhappy to be treated in this manner as a supposedly elite customer. Soon after, I received a call from one of their customer service agents, apologizing insincerely for the fact that I was still dissatisfied. I asked for the refund. He refused and repeated the same apology (in the same words). I asked for the bonus miles. He said they “don’t do that” and again repeated the same apology. I told him it was obvious that the company does not value my business. He again repeated the same apology word-for-word. It became obvious I would have received the same bored apology if they had accidentally landed a 767 on my house.

Now, fast forward a couple of weeks to my flight to Lisbon. I stopped by Peet’s Coffee in the Phoenix airport and ordered a hot tea. People who had been in line behind me were receiving their orders while I continued to wait, so I approached someone (who turned out to be the manager) and asked about my order. He checked the order board, took care of me promptly, apologized for the delay, and offered me a free pastry as a further apology. While I declined, I was impressed with the fact that even for an order of less than three dollars, the manager sincerely apologized and offered me a small gift as a further apology.

Two companies screwed up. One sent me a boilerplate e-mail and a bored, insincere apology with no offer to do anything to make things right, even though I’ve given them tens of thousands of dollars of business over nearly twenty years (not to mention over half a million dollars charged on their co-branded credit card). Even if they had been unwilling to give me the cash refund, it would have cost them next to nothing to offer me 10,000 miles as an apology.

The other company offered a sincere apology and attempted to make things right, even though I was one of hundreds of faces they would see that day and I just provided three dollars of business with no guarantee I would ever return. I have a highly negative view of U.S. Airways as a result of how they handled their mistake, and a highly positive view of Peet’s. And, through this blog, thousands of people now get to share in my experiences with both companies.

So how do you handle things when you, your company, or your department messes up:

  • Do you notify the internal or external client, or hope they won’t discover it as well?
  • Do you communicate with the client immediately, or wait until there’s really nothing that can be done to solve the problem?
  • Do you accept responsibility for the problem, or try to find someone else to blame?
  • Are you transparent, or defensive?
  • Do you offer proactive solutions to your client, or just tell them what the problem is?

If you weren’t the individual who messed up but you are in charge of that person (i.e. when your vendor or employee caused the problem):

  • Do you just blame them or do you take responsibility for the problem because you’re ultimately the one in charge?
  • Does someone in leadership personally handle the issue, or is it sloughed off to an underling so the boss doesn’t have to face the unpleasant music?
  • Do you make your client feel you actually care about the problem and about making things right, or just mouth some platitudes and hope they’ll stop bothering you?
  • Do you commit the time and the expense to make it right even if it costs you money, or do you expect the client to help pay for your error?
  • Do you investigate how the problem occurred in the first place and make changes to ensure there’s no repeat incident, or just shrug and figure that sometimes bad things happen?

The starting point for all of this is whether you admit to yourself that you messed up or whether you immediately start looking for excuses or for others to blame. “Yes, that’s a mistake, but the client should have given me the time to do it right.” “The client overcomplicated things.” “The vendor didn’t explain that clearly.”

Since I’m human, when I blow it my natural tendency is to look for an excuse, a scapegoat, and/or a way out – but I make a determined effort to put all that aside, accept responsibility, and make things right. If you’re honest with yourself, it’s ultimately not that difficult to be honest with your boss or your client.

I’ve had vendors mess up royally. The ones I refuse to work with again are the ones who don’t take responsibility for the problem and don’t do everything within their power to make it right – even if they take a financial hit on the project.

I always told my staff that if they come to me with a problem, they have a partner in trying to solve that problem. If I discover the problem myself rather than hearing about it from them, they no longer have a partner – they have a judge. I treat my vendors the same way, and I expect to be treated that way by my clients. How someone reacts when they blow it tells me more about that person than whether or not they messed up in the first place (assuming they don’t make a habit of incompetence).

So when you blow it – and you will – how are you going to handle it? Are you going to be U.S. Airways or Peet’s Coffee? If you’re working with me when you mess up, that decision is largely going to determine whether my respect for you grows…or disappears.

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2 Responses to “How to Handle It When You Mess Up on the Project (and You Will)”

  1. Michael Louca says:

    September 28th, 2014 at 8:24 am

    Great post. Equally important, how do you handle it when someone else screws up? How do you handle it when client screws up and blames you? How do you handle it when you do the right thing and get screwed. I am a glass half empty kinda guy.Important to remain composed in all

  2. Ron Sellers says:

    November 10th, 2014 at 11:03 am

    As a follow up, I sent a copy of the blog post to the CEO of US Airways. The e-mailed response:

    “Dear Mr. Sellers:
    Thank you for your letter dated September 26, 2014. I tried to get in touch with you today at 8:10am and again at 9:15am Arizona time but was unsuccessful in reaching you. As you may know all correspondence sent to Doug Parker are forwarded to Customer Relations for handling.

    As we are always interested in the opinions of our passengers, your comments and concerns regarding your blog and concerns about US Airways have been documented and will be shared in a written report to our executive management team. This report is a detailed record of all passengers’ concerns regarding our policies and procedures. I am confident your comments will receive thoughtful evaluation.

    Thank you again for contacting us.”

    So in other words, the company continues its fine customer service with, essentially, “Someone will read your comments and we will continue to do nothing whatsoever about them.” Sad.

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