screw up

Often catastrophes are not only salvageable but they can lead to some of the most valuable client relationships you’ll have

By Colin Kingsbury

There’s a saying among pilots about certain types of human error: “There are those who have, and those who will.” Starting and building a business is much the same — no matter how good you are, how hard you try or even how much you care, sooner or later you’re going to get it completely and horrifyingly wrong.

The good news is that, at least some of the time, and more often than you might think, these catastrophes are not only salvageable but can lead to some of the most valuable client relationships you’ll have.

I am the co-founder of a talent management software company that has grown by nearly 300 percent over the past several years. A while back, I was asked to join one of my account managers and her manager on a client call. This was a common enough occurrence when the company was based out of my apartment, but now, closing in on 100 employees and 2,100 companies using our products, such a request meant only one thing: bad news. As I sat down in a high-rise conference room with a commanding view of Boston, I expected the worst.

And I got it. The client described returning from a vacation to a project that had spiraled wildly out of control, with users at different offices all but declaring war on her team, processes that had worked in the test environment failing constantly and worst, a feeling of being professionally humiliated by being associated with such a complete and utter mess. It sounded like a field report from the trenches after the second day of the Somme.

When she finished, it was my turn to respond. First, I apologized. Solving the problem, or even proposing a solution, is often less important initially than acknowledging and validating the customer’s pain and anger in that moment. I’ve never seen a situation made worse by saying “I’m sorry.” (Plus, one of the superpowers that founders have is the ability to humanize their company to a customer.)

Next, I told them we’d come back in a day with a plan to resolve the issues they identified, but I also offered them the option to terminate our relationship at their discretion, if that’s what they wanted. Doing this is painful because sometimes the client will actually leave, but it’s ethically the right thing to do, and it can spare you the cost of litigation and reputational damage if they just want out.

The client was guarded and noncommittal but said they’d at least look at our plan, so we made sure it was our best work. After a series of increasingly detailed discussions, they elected to give us one more chance. We set up for a partial relaunch in three months based on simplified requirements we knew we could nail, and when that succeeded, the relationship began to pivot back toward normalcy.

But here’s the thing: Our relationship actually went well beyond normal. After all was said and done, after months of diligent work, the clouds broke and our relationship actually improved. Today that client is one of our most engaged.

Why? Because when you’ve gone through a near-death experience like this, you’ve demonstrated that your commitment to customer success is more than a slogan. And while clawing your way out of a deep, smoking hole is almost certainly the most stressful way to create a happy, long-term reference account, the odds of success are much better than you think.