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Client relationships and mistakes: What to do when things go wrong

The latest What Clients Think report from Up To The Light has an interesting statistic. It seems that 29% – almost a third – of the 500 clients interviewed referred to a mistake that had been made by a design firm more than a year ago. The report says: ‘Clients have a long memory for mistakes and shorter memories for great creative work’ and that ‘most mistakes concern client service and production issues’.

We don’t know the details, of course, but it’s probable that they weren’t exactly see-you-in-court mistakes being made, so it’s worth looking at the context of the responses a bit more deeply (on p31 if you happen to have the report handy). Unsurprisingly, 89% of those clients who thought they had a weak relationship with their agency said that issues with client service was the main reason. But here’s the interesting thing. The clients often viewed the current situation as ‘a deterioration from an earlier point in the relationship when agency keenness and commitment were deemed to be higher’.

Everyone’s human. Relationships can be tricky and mistakes never help, whether they are caused by you, the client or someone else. They are even more likely, of course, when deadlines are tight and pressure is high. But there’s also a ‘forgiveness tipping point’ when it comes to relationships. When they are managed well and are on a strong footing, the occasional wobble will be overlooked and forgiven. If, however, a relationship has weakened over time for any reason, the smallest and least important error can trigger an overreaction and the weaker the relationship, the more sensitive the trigger. These are the mistakes that remain unforgotten and unforgiven.

shwetangi-gupta-474521-unsplash-copyAssuming that you’re managing your relationships with your clients impeccably, what should you do if (when) mistakes are made? Here’s a 10-step guide for action.

1. Acknowledge the mistake: ‘this thing is happening/has happened’. Never ignore it.

2. Find out whose fault it was. If yours, or one of your suppliers, it’s yours. If it is your client’s or one of their appointed suppliers, it’s theirs. If it was caused by an unrelated external influence outside of your control, it’s neither’s.

3. Work out quickly what needs to be done and assess the likely impact of both the mistake and the remedy. If you can fix it with no additional cost and no impact on time or quality, just get on and do it – whoever’s fault it was.

4. Next, decide who needs to know about it. If you’ve fixed the problem, there might be no need for anyone to know unless it’s a good learning point for the future. If, on the other hand, there are going to be implications, the relevant people both in your firm and on your client’s team need to know.  

5. If budget, time, quality or other areas are going to be compromised make sure your client is told, preferably by phone followed up with an email. If the mistake was yours, apologise and outline the proposed remedy. If the mistake was theirs, outline the proposed remedy, but do not apologise. 

olloweb-solutions-520953-unsplash-copy6. Unless you are the boss, make sure you keep your boss in the picture.

7. Fix the problem and then let the relevant people know when it has been done.

8. If the mistake was yours, you’ll need to carry any costs involved. If it was your client’s or one of their supplier’s, confirm the additional costs in writing and charge them. If the amount is small and you decide to absorb the cost as a gesture of goodwill, make sure the client is aware of it; do remember, though, that you’ve now set a potentially troublesome precedent.

9. If the mistake was yours, find a way of compensating your client in some way. Depending on the nature of the mistake, it might be as big and complex as a full refund of fees or as small and simple as a bunch of flowers or box of chocolates; for an unhappy client the problem is often not so much one of budget, but of personal hassle and inconvenience.  

10. Finally, try to make sure that everyone learns from the experience so that it doesn’t happen again. If it does, somebody wasn’t listening. Don’t let that be you. 

The 2018 What Clients Think report is published by Up To The Light in association with the DBA. If you don’t have a copy, download it here.

About: Shan Preddy, Partner, Preddy&Co

Shan Preddy, Partner at Preddy&Co, is a trainer, mentor and business adviser. In addition to her work with design firms and in-house teams, she delivers several masterclasses and workshops every year for the DBA.

Shan frequently chairs and speaks at design conferences around the world and her books, ‘How to Market Design Consultancy Services’ and ‘How to Run a Successful Design Business’ are international design-sector bestsellers.

She is a founder member of the DBA Experts Register as well as a full member of D&AD, a Fellow of the RSA and a Business Leader at The Marketing Society.


Image credits: 

Photo by Kim Gorga | Unsplash 

Photo by Alice Achterhof | Unsplash 

Photo by Shwetangi Gupta | Unsplash

Photo by Olloweb Solutions | Unsplash


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