Old man with a "whoops" face to illustrate mistakes with freelance clients

How to Recover from Embarrassing Mistakes with Freelance Clients

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Don’t want to read 1000’s of words on how to recover from mistakes with freelance clients? I got you. Listen to the podcast below OR watch the youtube video.

Making mistakes with freelance clients is inevitable.

You’ll do your best to keep it from happening, but one day, when you least expect it…WHAM!

Out of nowhere something will happen and it will be completely your fault. And, unfortunately there isn’t an easy way out of this situation.

So, what are you supposed to do? Well, you’ve got a few options.

You could:

A) Run for the hills, hide your face and never freelance again.

Probably not the solution you’re looking for since you’re here trying to figure out how to be a successful freelancer.

B) Blame someone else and/or try to help the client see that it’s not ACTUALLY your fault.

Again, not a great solution as word will likely get around that you don’t take responsibility for something that was clearly your fault and aren’t competent enough to keep stuff like this from happening. Trust me, other clients will find out.

C) Own up to the mistake and figure out a solution that works best for the client even if it’s not a great option for you.

Here we go! That’s the answer we’re looking for.

BUT, it’s not always as simple as that.

After all, you’re dealing with the client’s emotions and more than likely a pretty complex scenario with a lot of moving parts.

There could be lawsuits involved and other people working on the same project that might have affected what you’re doing OR EVEN unclear communication from the client at the start of the project.

“The right thing to do,” might not always be clear.

My Experience Making Mistakes with Freelance Clients

I’m no stranger to making mistakes with freelance clients. Some of them have been small and fairly non-consequential. Others have been big and embarrassing. You know, the kind where it was apparent I had absolutely no idea what I was doing and should have been fired?

Yeah, those kind.

And, listen. Those kinds of mistakes are not fun. BUT, they’re a really valuable learning lesson.

Okay story time…

With one client I had taken the project all the way to the finish line. I’d built them a brand-spanking-new membership site that blew their old site out of the water.

I was proud and the site was ready to launch.

So, I told the client and he gave me the details to login to their domain account and point their url to the new site.

The problem was that I had no clue what I was doing with domain settings at the time.

This was only the 3rd website I had ever built. AND, I didn’t have to touch the domain settings for the other two websites.

So, this was THE FIRST TIME I had ever even looked at a DNS record.

“What’s there to lose?” I thought. “I’m sure I can google my way out of this.”

The other side of the story was that they owned multiple domains. One of them was connected to an APP they built and had 1000’s of paying customers using on a daily basis.

So, armed with my lack of knowledge, I logged into their domain registrar, changed some things around and called it good.

I was so confident, I actually laid down to take a nap 🤣 It had been a late night making final changes on the site for the client.

The nap didn’t last very long. I woke up to the sound of my phone buzzing of the hook.

I had accidentally disconnected ALL of the clients domains thereby crippling all of their sites including the app that had 1000’s of active users.

It was more than a little mistake.

The bigger problem: I didn’t know how to fix it. So, the client actually had to figure out how to undo what I had mistakenly done.

You would think the client would be so incredibly mad with me that he’d smear my name all over the internet warning people to stay away from me.

But, no.

In fact, a year later he actually wanted to hire me again!

That was in large part due to the way I handled my own mistakes.

Don’t get me wrong, I never want to make mistakes like that again BUT I’m thankful for the lessons I learned as a result.

So, what are the major take-aways from all the mistakes I’ve made with freelance clients?

Sympathize with the Client’s Emotions and Manage Yours

When you make mistakes with freelance clients those clients are very likely to be upset with you. The degree of the client’s “upsetness” will in most cases vary according to the degree of how royally you messed up.

In other words, the bigger the mess up the more frustration the client will feel.

That’s pretty normal and, honestly, you shouldn’t blame the client for being frustrated with your mistakes.

Think about how you’d feel if the tables were turned.

Has a waiter ever gotten your order wrong despite the fact that you repeated it 4 times? Even the best of us get a little ticked when things like that happen.

So, it’s likely if you were in the client’s shoes, you’d be frustrated as well.

It’s your job to deescalate the client’s emotions and one way to do that is to sympathize with them and apologize.

I had a client who I could tell was growing more and more frustrated with me. I didn’t really know why BUT I knew I had to address it.

So, on our next call I simply said, “I can sense that you might be getting frustrated and I’m sorry for the that. What can I do to make this process smoother?”

The client immediately apologized and the project went much more smoothly from that point on.

They didn’t even really address what they were frustrated with. The very fact that I sympathized with what they were feeling was enough to deescalate the situation and make the rest of the project much more smooth.

Hear me correctly on this, apologizing to someone for their frustration is not admitting that you are wrong. There might be cases where it’s not wise for you to admit wrongdoing like if there are potential legal implications.

BUT, you can always and definitely should apologize if a client is feeling frustrated with something whether or not it’s your fault.

The worst thing that you can do in this scenario is respond with frustration. That will only escalate the situation and frustrate the client even more.

You have to manage your emotions and approach the scenario like a true professional.

Is it okay to be frustrated with yourself or the situation? Absolutely.

You will likely go through a few rounds of denial that turns to grief and blame that then swings back around to you kicking yourself wishing you could have avoided this scenario all together.

BUT, you can’t process all of your emotions with your client, and you can’t look to the client to help you feel better. It’s not their job.

So, find a friend who can empathize and ask them to be a soundboard for your frustration. Let it all out without unloading on your client because if you do it’s like adding gasoline to a fire.

Your job is to sympathize with your client and manage your own emotions.

Evaluate the Fallout

Okay, you’ve managed your emotions and sympathized with your client NOW it’s time to evaluate what went wrong and what the implications are for everyone involved.

Robert Kioysaki, of Rich Dad, Poor Dad, says, “Don’t waste a good mistake. Learn from it.”

If you let your mistakes with freelance clients come and go without evaluating them you won’t ever learn from them and you are bound to let them happen again.

So take a second and do some forensic research.

  • What went wrong?
  • How?
  • What are some things you could have done to avoid it?
  • Are you 100% responsible?

In the past, I’ve tried to journal a little bit about each project I’ve finished. Doing that has helped me to really solidify the things I learned along the way AND helps me to think a little bit more critically about what actually happened.

Own Up to the Mistake

Now that you’ve evaluated the mistake it’s time to own up to it.

As tough as it is, you can’t avoid an outright apology. Avoiding it can be detrimental to the current project you’re working on AND future work that might have occurred from working with this client.

It’s almost always a good idea to take responsibility for something that has gone wrong even if there were outside circumstances that you had no control over.

Most clients realize that you’re only human. Heck, they’re human too. They mistakes in their work as well.

Unless they’re a nightmare client they’ll likely be understanding.

There’s a few things to keep in mind when apologizes for mistakes with freelance clients.

  1. Don’t add a “but” to the apology.

You know what. I mean right?

That’s where you say, “I’m sorry for this mistake BUT…” then you add an excuse to the end that validates the reason why you made the mistake and totally erases the actual apology.

Leave the “buts” out of it.

Say, you’re sorry and move on. The client isn’t looking for an explanation or blame-shifting. They want to know that you are strong enough to shoulder the responsibility.

2. Don’t grovel

This isn’t your chance to debase yourself to the client by over communicating how sorry you are and how horrible of a freelancer you are. That won’t help the client’s level of confidence in you and only communicates that you’re looking for validation from them.

Keep it short, sweet and keep the emotion out of it.

3. Present a solution

After you’ve apologized it’s time to present a game plan for moving forward. You never want to stay in apology mode for too long. You want to move as quickly to solutions mode as you can.

The whole goal of taking ownership is not to become a whipping-boy or girl. It’s to restore the client’s confidence in you as the freelancer.

The best way to do that is by having a solution in hand to fix the problem and some guard rails in place to keep the problem from happening again.

So, apologize and then propose a plan to move forward.

They’ll be thankful for the apology and even more thankful you’ve done the work to figure out a fix.

ONE BIG CAVEAT…it’s wise to think about any legal ramifications that might result from your mistake.

It’s probably not super likely BUT it is possible that you could make a mistake that ends up costing your client some serious money. If that happens you might be held liable.

DON’T FREAK OUT!

I’ve never known a freelancer to actually be sued by client. I’ve only ever seen it happen to bigger companies.

But, for this reason, it’s never a bad idea to set up an LLC and to make sure you cover yourself as much as possible in your contracts.

And, for this reason, it’s important to be wise with what you say and don’t say. My encouragement is to be cautious AND when in doubt, ask a lawyer.

As a caveat, there is more and more evidence coming out that would suggest being completely open and apologetic will actually help you avoid legal consequences.

A study on malpractice lawsuits in hospitals found that there were legal benefits for being transparent and apologizing to patients and patient families for mistakes.

So, really it’s up to you.

I personally tend to lean toward the side of transparency and honesty.

Consider How You Can Make it Up

It’s never enough to apologize in word alone. You’ve got to SHOW the client your apology.

You can do that in a number of ways.

First and foremost you’ve got to do everything you can to fix the problem. No matter how much extra money it costs you to fix the problem or how much you might lose as a result.

This is about integrity and your reputation as a business.

There’s not really a dollar amount that you could put on losing a good name. Without a good name, you won’t last long as a web designer.

So, it’s important to do everything you can to fix the problem you created.

After that, think of a way to knock their socks off.

Whether that’s doing the next project for a reduced price OR taking a percentage off the total of the price you were going to charge them for the current project your working on.

Do what you can to make it up to them.

I don’t know why restaurant illustrations work so well as examples, BUT think about a restaurant experience you’ve had.

When something goes wrong but the manager comes out, apologizes and takes a charge off of my final bill, I’m grateful. So much so, that the mistake won’t deter me from coming back again.

The same is true of mistakes with freelance clients.

Go a little above and beyond and you might just have a customer for life despite the mistake you made.

Make Future Plans

The truth is most mistakes with freelance clients can best be avoided by what you do or don’t do at the very beginning of each project, in some cases before the project even starts!

So, after you crawl out of this mistake it’s time to start thinking about how you’re going to begin your next project.

The first thing to do is realize it’s never a bad idea to take the beginning stage of each project slowly.

I know this is tough because most freelance clients want their projects done a month ago. But, you are the one that determines a pace you’re comfortable with.

If a client is pressuring you to get started quickly it might be a sign that they’re a bad client.

I always try to communicate that I take my time at the front end of things and a lot of times I’ll ask the same questions a few times to make sure I understand the situation.

When I reassure them that I’m doing my best to be as diligent at the beginning so we don’t have any mistakes along the way the clients are typically thankful for my thoroughness.

So take it slowly and ask a lot of questions. I typically have every client fill out an in-depth questionnaire.

And, even after that I jump on a call and ask more questions. You have to master the art of asking good questions.

So, be inquisitive. Consider yourself a student of your client and their business.

Don’t assume you have all the answers they need. You have to approach each project humbly and with an open mind.

It’s the only way to avoid mistakes with freelance clients.

You also need to manage a clients expectations before you get started with a project.

For instance, with my first big mistake with a client, I should have told them from the get go that I had no clue what I was doing with domains.

It would have saved me a lot of trouble and them a lot of money if I would have just stated that at the very beginning.

If there’s an area you don’t feel confident in, make sure you communicate it. Don’t be afraid that the client won’t hire you as a result.

Everyone has their strengths, weaknesses and limitations. So, make sure your client knows yours.

Finally, BACK EVERYTHING UP BEFORE YOU GET STARTED!

You noticed the all-caps right? This is important!

You’ve probably heard it before BUT “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”

In other words, even if it slows the project down, make sure you save everything before you get started and as you go along.

Even if the client swears it’s an easy job and you’ll be able to come in quickly and get it squared away.

It’s a trap

a star wars gif "It's a trap" talking about how clients can trick you into making mistakes with freelance clients

I have gone into a project thinking it would be easy only to find out things were a mess. AND, if I hadn’t of backed things up before I started I would have been up a creek.

So, it’s worth saying again, back everything up before you get started.

Don’t Let Mistakes with Freelance Clients Cripple

Finally, while it’s important to learn from your mistakes with freelance clients, you can’t let those mistakes keep you from moving forward.

Mistakes happen to the best of freelancers.

Just this last week I made a mistake with the company I work for full-time, Showit. That mistake ended up affecting nearly 500 users 🤦🏼‍♂️

It wasn’t fun BUT I learned from it and I’m better from.

The point is, this stuff happens to everyone no matter what season you’re in as a web designer or freelancer.

The best thing you can do is dust yourself off and keep going. BUT, no matter what don’t let it take you out completely.

Curse a little bit, cry a little bit, maybe, then keep going.

You’ve got this!

2

Comments

  1. I never get bored of Chris’s podcast. He always has amazing web design knowledge to share and he is a very great communicator. Definitely check him out if you are just getting started with web design. Thanks for sharing your expertise with your community! 🙂

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