That sinking feeling in your stomach when you realize you’ve made a mistake is never pleasant. Many people go straight to panic mode.
But what if — instead of beating yourself up and bracing to lose business over your sales mistake — you could end up with a solidified relationship and customers who like you even more than they did before? Sounds counter-intuitive, right?
Here’s how to make it happen.
Exceed Their Expectations
The most important thing to do when you make a mistake is to address it right away. Assess the severity: Were you five minutes late to a scheduled call or did you miss delivery for an important customer launch? Those two scenarios warrant very different reactions. The key to is to own the mistake right away, and look at it as an opportunity to show your customer that you will go the extra mile for them. You do this by going beyond what the person affected expects from you.
That doesn’t mean taking a big financial hit by sending elaborate gifts for every small mistake. Ideally, you’ll go above and beyond without costing your business an arm and a leg by providing something that has high value to the customer but low cost to you.
A real-life example from my life in advertising sales happened when an advertiser requested a specific position in the magazine but had their ad placed elsewhere. (That’s a big no-no for savvy ad buyers!) They likely expected their ad to be heavily discounted or even comped as a result of the error, but I did even more.
I comped the ad — which even with the incorrect placement still had good value — and offered to do an email blast for them at no additional cost. Notice that I didn’t give away another high-value page. I did, however, give them something that had high value to them and little cost for us. (Side bar: The eblast did well and they purchased a few more. This unexpected buy more than compensated for the lost profit on the comped ad.)
They felt good because they still reached their target prospects with the printed piece and didn’t pay for it. Plus, they got something they weren't expecting. They felt like we had given them something of value beyond what they thought the mistake was worth. They know that we made good on the mistake, so we can keep going.
As long as you aren’t making frequent mistakes, there’s no need to panic. After all, no matter who you're dealing with, you aren’t talking to someone who’s never made a mistake of their own. Be real, be calm and look at how you can make it up to them.
Go One Step Beyond
Apologies don't always have to involve a grand gesture. When you’re five minutes late for a call, the person probably expects — and deserves — a verbal apology. If you follow that up with an email that says, “Thanks once again for accepting my apology. I really do feel bad about the delay. I’ll be more punctual on the next call,” you have probably gone above and beyond their expectations. Now, don't be late on the next call. That’s not enough to leave them thinking, “Holy cow, I’ll never support anyone but him! He said he was sorry and then he wrote it too!” But it likely left them feeling positive about the experience and allows you to move forward.
Now, imagine you missed an online meeting with a client who you learn has been sick that week. What if you could get on the phone and have a same-day florist show up with a bouquet of flowers, a bowl of chicken soup and a note that says, “Sorry you’re not feeling well. I apologize for missing the meeting. Can we reschedule for Thursday at 11:00 a.m. or 2 p.m.?”?
That sort of reaction would likely take the client from annoyance to “Wow! What a nice guy. He’s blown away my expectation.”
The bottom line is that when you exceed someone’s expectation, you can solidify the relationship. You build a greater bond and that’s how you get from “I made a mistake” to “the relationship is better.”
You may even be able to grow or extend the relationship because they now know that you don’t mess up often but when you do, you take care of it. They’re no longer fearing your mistake in the same way.
Remember: If you don’t take care of your mistake bigger, better and faster than they would’ve expected, they’ll find someone who will. Use the opportunity to impress them.
An Important Caveat
Here is what is vital about the technique of exceeding expectations after a mistake: It only works a couple of times. You cannot repeatedly mistreat someone over and over — whether it be a client, spouse or coworker — and expect to make it better by apologizing in extravagant ways. At some point, they say, “I don’t care about the make-good or the gifts. You keep messing up. I don’t want to be in this relationship.”
You can make a positive out of a mistake but don’t drop your guard and just make mistake after mistake, thinking that the relationship will always be fine. It won’t.
Sure, you sent pizza over to a client’s whole staff and didn’t charge them for a product, but if the same thing keeps happening over and over, they’re eventually going to tell you to keep your free pizza.
Avoid Duplicating Mistakes
Instead of repeatedly sending food, flowers, gifts and comping services for making the same mistake twice, take the time to analyze your own processes after any mistake. Why did the mistake happen? What can you do to prevent it from happening again?
Although you need to answer it for your own purposes, your customer probably doesn’t care about the answer to the first question.
Unless they ask you, leave that alone. They’re upset that it happened and don’t want to hear reasons, which could easily come across as excuses or justifications.
They do, however, probably care about the answer to the second question. The silver lining around the error or problem is that it gives you an opportunity to look at your processes, evaluate them and make appropriate changes.
Communicating the safeguards you have put in place to prevent the error from happening again will put their mind at ease and increase trust.
Rather than simply saying, “I’m sorry we only shipped three boxes of the magazine instead of five,” apologize and communicate exactly what your new process will be: “We have instilled a new system as a result of our error and from now on, we will have a second person signing off on the count. That will be communicated to you before the shipment arrives at your facility.”
We all mess up in so many ways. Those of us who are succeeding — or trying to succeed — are not trying to be perfect. We’re trying to learn from our mistakes and not duplicate them.
Do we want to make a mistake? Heck no. Do we want it at a customer’s expense? Absolutely not!
But it happens, and if we can learn from that, impress the client and change our processes, we become better as a company and strengthen our relationships.