Design Domination Podcast Episode #169: What to Do When You Screw Up a Client Project

A screw-up is bound to happen at some point in your creative career. The circumstances around the mistake and how you handle the situation affect your credibility, reputation and bottom line. Find out what to do when you screw up a client project.

A screw-up is bound to happen at some point with a project in your career. Some screw-ups are a quick and easy fix, like fixing a typo that you might have made on a website or in a digital document. Others, though, can prove costly to the client and to you, like missing a deadline for something that was time sensitive or having to pay to reprint a brochure.

The circumstances and how you handle a screw-up affect your credibility, reputation and bottom line.

I’ve had a few oops in my career. They are pretty embarrassing. Luckily, they were a very long time ago but mortifying and stressful nonetheless!

One involved a prospect I was working on a website design estimate for. The client had given me access to the back end of the site with my email address, so we could look at the back end and see how some things were set up.

I had just started working with a particular subcontractor (a web developer) to help me out with some of the heavier functionality that was beyond my coding experience.

I needed him to look at the back end, but I didn’t want to add his email address too. I thought that might appear unusual to them. He’s on my team. But they might wonder why he didn’t have a certain email address, and I couldn’t give him access to my email address.

Because we were new to working together at that time (the web developer and me), we hadn’t built up trust yet. What if he logged into the site and accidentally moved or deleted something?

Well, I should have just asked the prospect to add his email address.

What I did instead was copy the site over to a development server on my end, so he could take a look at it and give me an estimate for his work. I was then going to delete the site copy immediately, of course.

Shortly after that, though, I got an email from the prospect that made my stomach completely drop. Someone there had come across the site because of their analytics, and they were furious that I had copied the site, even just to review it.

Who could blame them? I was new to them, and what I did broke their trust right off the bat. It didn’t matter that for many years I’d had a good reputation with my clients and a very strong work ethic.

It was really dumb of me to do that without their permission, and needless to say, they were no longer interested in me giving them an estimate.

Here I thought I was taking precautions to prevent anything from potentially happening to their site while we looked around…

I remember how stupid I felt, and I just burst into tears.

Another time, I had taking on some web development work from a colleague who had designed a site and needed help coding it. I did all that I was able to do within my expertise and then I needed help from a full-on web developer to help with a small portion that included some custom functionality.

I talked with someone I trusted and explained that the only part that he needed to work on was this one particular custom functionality. Everything else was done. He went on to talk about wanting to put my CSS into Sass and that he wanted to copy the site to his own server and work on it there.

I specifically asked him not to do that, because of my experience in the past with developers who had worked on their own servers. I didn’t have access to that site, and then they disappeared.

So what happened? He got sick and couldn’t work on the site. He had gone ahead and copied over the site, which I only found out about after the fact. I kept looking at my copy of it and noticing nothing was done. What’s going on here?

After I think almost a week (maybe more) of no response, from what I recall, I was sweating bullets. I was on fire actually. I was sick in the stomach. I wasn’t sleeping.

The client was asking me about it, and I didn’t know what to say. I had no control over the project at this point. I was furious for being put into that situation in the first place, especially the exact situation I had tried to avoid!

So I’ve been on both sides of the situation: screwing up and having someone do it to me, which was still my responsibility too.

Now that I’ve gotten those horror stories off my chest…

Identify the Problem

If and when you discover a problem, don’t wait and hope the client doesn’t notice.

If you do nothing and hope the client doesn’t find out—and then they do—it will be far worse. It will make it look like you didn’t care or that you didn’t due your due diligence in checking your work.

They may no longer trust you. They may not want to work with you anymore. They definitely won’t be referring others to you either.

You’ll get more respect by acknowledging a mistake and dealing with it head on.

Assess the Situation

Then you want to assess the situation. Even though it might be difficult and your emotions are on fire, try to calm down and assess things. Don’t just react and contact the client right away.

I mean, you want to contact them ASAP but get things together. Calm down and take a few minutes to figure things out before you do that.

The severity of the situation and how you handle it are extremely important.

Was the mistake your fault? Was it someone else’s?

How did it happen? Could it have been avoided?

Did the client’s actions contribute to it at all, like did they set an unrealistic schedule that you agreed to?

Some circumstances may have been out of your hands. Some not.

Take Responsibility and Apologize

Contact the client to schedule a video call or in-person meeting, so that you can explain what happened and how (if you know how) or why it happened.

Was it an honest mistake on your part? Was it a hole in your process? Did you have a death in the family or have an emergency?

Whatever the reason, take responsibility and apologize sincerely.

Resolve It

Then make sure to present some ideas for how you plan to fix it. Never go to them with the problem without explaining how you plan to fix it. This can help the client maintain trust with you.

Resolve the issue as best you can. How you do this depends on the circumstances.

If you had an emergency and missed a print deadline, for example, you could offer to pay a rush fee to the printer to get it done on time.

If you made a mistake while laying out a document, explain that you will perform better checks or hire someone to check the work in the future to prevent that from happening again.

You may also offer to take them to lunch or send them a gift.

If the situation wasn’t terrible and you were able to resolve it easily, maybe you send them a gift card for something they would enjoy along with something to make them laugh, like headache medicine with a card that says something like, “Sorry for all the headache I caused.”

But you have to tread carefully with bringing it up again, especially if it could never be considered a laughing matter or if it killed the relationship.

You could also offer a discount. If you do go that route, list the full price on the invoice and then the discounted amount. If they’ve already paid you, you could simply offer a discount off the next invoice, if you are going to continue working together. Otherwise, you could give a partial refund.

Speaking of that… I once had a client I was doing layout and editing for. In the beginning, she asked me about guaranteeing my work. This is a rare request, by the way.

What she meant was, if she found a mistake at any given time, would I give the organization a partial refund. Seriously!

She would literally go back and look at the printed piece every month after it was done. She was on the lookout for mistakes to pick apart and try to get a refund.

I refused that request, because it’s unreasonable. Even though I was doing the layout and editing, others played a part in approving the work. The authors of the manuscripts did. The organization did.

If they all reviewed it and accepted it as accurate and done, it wasn’t reasonable to expect me to give money back if they found something later.

It wasn’t like they approved it and a mistake was made after the fact. They were looking at everything and that stuff was always fine. What they approved is what printed.

Prevent Future Mistakes

Having good processes and policies in place can help you prevent problems in the first place but also in the future.

If you’re a solo designer, have a trusted designer to back you up in case of an emergency on your end or if you won’t be available and something comes up.

If you aren’t good at managing project yourself and you miss deadlines, use a project management system or a calendar to schedule key project dates to remind you of what’s coming due so you stay on track.

Because it’s inevitable that you will eventually have a computer issue, make sure to back up your computer every night to an external hard drive (that’s what I use, at least) or cloud storage.

If a miscommunication somewhere in the process was the cause, are there additional questions you could ask before you start a new project?

Did you hire someone to help you with work and they dropped the ball? Did someone you hire to help not do a good job? Don’t work with them again. Hire someone else and ask for references and ask about their reliability.

Did you take on too much work at one time? Did the client have an unrealistic schedule? Be sure to speak up next time about that, or be the one in charge of scheduling the projects and allow more time than you expect.

Learn From Your Mistake

It’s also important after all that’s done to not live in your mistake and dwell in your feelings around it for too long. But, hey, I get it. I often beat myself up about things like that.

But you don’t want it to affect your productivity, your confidence and quality of work on other projects. You don’t want your other work to suffer.

It may take some time for the client to get over it, if they decide to continue working with you.

They may not want to work with you anymore, like in my situation with the prospect and their website.

But if you do continue working together, you want to commit to making any necessary changes to prevent what happened from happening again.

Do great work and maintain a good relationship with the client, so they have more positive interactions with you.

Consider getting E&O insurance, which stands for errors and omissions. It’s also known as professional liability insurance.

This can help you cover the cost of an expensive mistake, such as a reprint of a brochure, for example. It doesn’t cover everything, but it’s good to have just in case.

I have mine through Hiscox through Freelancers Union, which is a tenth of the cost for the same policy through an insurance broker.

Find out more about that in episode 56, Protect Your Freelance Business From Catastrophe.

Also check out the episode on how to keep clients coming back.

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