Article: Shit Happens ~ How to Apologise to a Client

8th March 2016 | By Frances Pratt

How to apologise to a client

We’ve all had things go wrong.  It is how we choose to deal with it when it does that is the important part.  But how do you do that?  The first advice I have is wherever possible do this face to face.  It is important from a relationship perspective that you take the time, but more importantly people are less angry and irrational when you meet them face to face.  It also gives you a chance to read body language and understand more than just what their words are saying.

The best way to do this is to tell a story, tell them what happened from your perspective.  Too often we wrongly assume that the other party is aware of details or facts.  This is often the cause of the issue in the first place.

Before you go in have an intention of being honest and transparent.  Also have a clear understanding of what you want to happen during the conversation.  Sometimes this is the time when we know that this client isn't right for us.  That's ok - but end it nicely.

Start at the Very Beginning … a very good place to start

By the beginning I mean the first time you had met the client.  Why did they come to you and what did they want to achieve from doing that.  Particularly if you have had a long history with the client, it helps to reaffirm the good that you have done.

Engaging the client in this will also help to remind them why they came to you and what good things you have done together.

Where did it go Wrong?

This is where you detail what you think the circumstances were around the problem, why it happened and take responsibility.  The important point here is to make sure you know and show that you have really investigated the root cause of the issue, and are happy to share what you know.

Be clear about what you did wrong and the implications of that.  You are taking responsibility and being transparent about what you know so make sure the client understands this. The best way to do this is to go on to explain what you have learned and what you will do differently next time.

Rarely are these things one sided, so if there are responsibilities on the clients’ side, now is the time to gently ask about those.  Here are some phrases that might help:

“It’s really important to me to understand what happened from your side. 
From what I have been able to find out ….     

Can you tell me a little about that?"

The purpose of this part of the story is to start a conversation with the client and open up your understanding and it isn’t to blame or to have the client feeling that you are not taking responsibility for your parts.

Moving on

We all need to move on and not have this hanging over our heads.  Take the lead and summarise the conversation.  Start at the beginning again so that it’s not just about the issue but about your relationship.  This is a perfect time to summarise what has been achieved and the good points of your relationship.

Summarise the problem, what you shared and what you have learned from the conversation today. Explain what you have done so far to remedy the problem.

Ask what the client wants to do now.

                “Given our discussion, what would you like to do now?”
                “What do you think is a fair way for us to move forward?”

This is a discussion and the outcome should be acceptable to both parties.  If the conversation is not moving that way, then agree on the points you do agree on and list the points of disagreement.  Make a summary of what each party is going to do next.

Reset the relationship

Agree on how you are going to move forward from here.  Typically there are three outcomes to this meeting.

Are they leaving … make it as easy as possible for them and work to help them leave gracefully.

Are they staying on … but there are still issues to solve.  Work through a clear timetable and tasks and responsibilities.  Follow this up in writing.

Are they staying on … and the issue is resolved.  This is a great time to create and agree on new standards or rules for how you are going to work together.


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