No matter how good you are, you’ll occasionally make mistakes. And you’ll lose customers—often the customers you worked hardest to acquire—because of mistakes. It’s inevitable. How you behave immediately after a misstep will determine whether the client is gone forever or whether you can win him or her back.
Face the music.
Hiding is one of the two worst things you can do when you’ve made a mistake that causes a customer to leave. Doing so indicates you want to avoid dealing with the issue. Even if you are horrified and embarrassed by your performance lapse, disappearing is a sign that you can’t be trusted—that your client can’t count on you to help with the complicated, sticky, challenging issues.
The sooner you address the issue with your client, the greater the likelihood that you’ll have an opportunity to redeem yourself.
Mistakes happen every day in business. Your mistake, no matter how huge or how embarrassing, is not the worst one ever made. And it’s very likely your client has made similar mistakes and lost clients. If the problem you encountered in serving your client is one that occurs periodically in your industry, your competitors have messed up, too.
The best way to prove you aren’t hiding is to see your client face to face. Professionals show up and deal with mistakes. Pretenders disappear and hide. As quickly as you can, ask for a meeting in which you explain how you want to work together again and how you’ll live up to expectations in the future.
Apologize and take responsibility.
If you didn’t deliver what you were supposed to when you were supposed to, the misstep probably caused your client to fail his customers. You are part of your client’s value chain. You provide whatever you sell so that your client can serve his customers with what he sells. As a business partner to your client, you have to be accountable for results—and any failures—in order to be worth having as a partner.
That accountability starts with an apology and taking responsibility—preferably in person. Begin by saying, “I am sorry we let you down.” This apology tells your client that you know you caused problems for him. Then say something that sounds like, “We made a mistake here, and we own it.”
A big reason so many people struggle to regain lost accounts is because they don’t take ownership of their mistakes. Making excuses is the only other action that’s as bad as hiding from the problem. It demonstrates your unwillingness to be accountable for results. Your mea culpa is a huge first step on the road to redemption.
Explain the changes you made.
The next big step: proving that you learned from the screw-up. A good partner isn’t one who never makes a mistake; instead, he enacts changes to prevent repeating it. Your lost client won’t give you another opportunity unless you’ve taken corrective actions.
And that client will never know you’ve made changes unless you tell him—walk him through the processes you’ve put in place so nothing can slip through the cracks to cause future failures. If you can immediately implement the fixes, then go over the changes during your first meeting after your failure, the one in which you apologize and take responsibility. If you need more time, then schedule a second meeting, face to face, to explain your revisions.
Every business is different, but actions such as initiating a quality-assurance procedure, keeping extra supplies in storage, hiring additional help or providing a single person to manage and communicate with your client are all ways to build the confidence necessary to get another shot at partnering with him. The client will also want to know how you’ll alert him to a problem so it can be mitigated from his end.
Persist in your efforts.
More salespeople and business owners would win back lost clients if they persevered. You may have to make your case more than once.
Even after you’ve apologized, owned up to your mistake and explained the changes you’ve made, your lost client might still withhold forgiveness—and another chance to work with him or her. You can’t give up, go away and expect to win them back. You have to keep trying.
Ask for a small opportunity to prove that you’ve made meaningful changes. Appeal to their better nature by reminding their—gently—that should they ever make a mistake or fail their client, she would hope to be forgiven and offered a chance to redeem herself. Promise to personally oversee every aspect of the client’s account until she decides it is no longer necessary.
If you stop trying, your lost client is unlikely to ask you to come back. You have to show you’re serious about resurrecting the relationship, and you do that with persistence.
From time to time, you will lose clients. How you behave in the aftermath will determine whether you get a second bite at the apple.
This article was published in April 2014 and has been updated. Photo by @alinabuzunova/Twenty20