I spent a long time in a fairly high-pressure corporate environment, dealing with some high-profile clients doing database, analysis and production work that was complex and fraught with opportunities for mistakes.

I made a lot of mistakes– especially in the first year or two as I was gaining experience. Are you familiar with the “ohnosecond”? It’s that brief fraction of a second when you suddenly realize you’ve made a BIG mistake. Your heart drops into your stomach and you pound your head on your desk hoping you’ll get a concussion and have to go to the hospital rather than deal with the consequences of your oversight. I’ve been there.

At first, my approach was to try and minimize, hide, and made excuses for mistakes that were made, but the further along in my career and experience I got, I realized through the guidance of those wiser than me that there was a better way to handle it.

Recently, over at Performancing, Sean posted about the pMetrics server move and the 48 hour delay in getting stats service restored. I was struck with his honesty about the role he played in the delay by “screwing up” the database move twice. He could have easily just said “the database move took longer than expected because of the distance between the servers”, for example, and never mentioned the mistakes he made. Does being honest about his mistake help or hurt his credibility?

I suggest that honesty and transparency about mistakes actually increases your credibility and builds trust with clients. Everyone makes mistakes. It’s just a fact of life. It’s how you handle the mistakes that makes all the difference. The best formula for discussing an error with a client (or anyone really) is as follows:

  • Here’s what happened. Honestly, succinctly, but hopefully put in a way that does not make you look too stupid. Don’t say “I’m such an idiot. I forgot to double check that the file was in CMYK format before I sent it.” Rather, say, “In my effort to meet your deadline, I failed to double check the file format.”
  • Apologize. Sincerely.
  • Here’s how I’m going to fix it. Provide compensation (as Sean did), a refund, a solution that will meet the client’s needs as well as possible, etc.
  • Here’s how I’m going to make sure it never happens again.

Of course, no matter how honest and transparent you are, continually making mistakes will cause you to lose the client. It’s no good if a client finds you perfectly credible if they doubt your ability. A good client will not expect everything to always go perfect, and they also know that even the best designers and service providers will make mistakes. They also know that the best designers and service providers know how to make it right when the mistakes happen.