How Great Freelancers Deal with Making Mistakes for Clients

How Great Freelancers Deal with Making Mistakes for Clients

Hopefully, you’re here reading this to arm yourself for possible future client errors you make. If not, then you’re probably here because you’ve just frantically Googled ‘I’ve messed up with a client – what should I do?’

Either way – you’re in good company. I’ve made the errors. I’ve tried to work out what to do when my heart’s beating at 180bpm. I’ve eaten a lot of humble pie.

I have messed up for a number of clients – and while that’s probably not a line I’d want to use as my profile header on LinkedIn; it has given me some solid experience that’s armed me with a range of very important strategies that have made me a better freelancer.

We all mess up now and again; here’s how to deal with it like a pro. Cover Photo by Christian Erfurt

1. Try to calm down

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Unless you’ve got nerves of steel, messing up with a client is going to trigger some kind of anxiety. In fact, that fight-or-flight anxiety response is hard-wired into us. If you feel like your head is spinning a bit, don’t worry – that’s normal.

Your body’s just dumped a load of adrenaline and cortisol into your system. 10,000 years ago, this response was designed to give you the edge if you needed to run away from a sabre-tooth tiger – now, it generally happens when you’re frightened or nervous about something.

You tend not to make great decisions when you’re in this heightened state, so, step away from your desk, and try to take some deep breaths. Spend 10 minutes listening to your favorite playlist. Call a friend. Use your mindfulness app. Get your head back in the game.

2. Get a full handle on the situation

Now you’re a little calmer, you’re going to need to make a full assessment of the situation so you can work out your next steps.

Digging into any potential mess will feel like the last thing you want to do – but, in this instance, your role’s just changed to ‘problem solver’ – and you really need to do a good job of this if you want to get paid and keep your relationship alive with this client.

Get a pen and paper. Jot some quick notes:

  • What’s happened?

  • When did it happen?

  • What’s the impact?

  • Why has it happened?

  • What does it mean for the client?

You’re probably going to have to do some explaining soon, so you definitely want to have all the information to hand.

Remember, at this stage, you’re gathering info – not trying to apportion blame. This might not feel like your fault, it might not be your fault – but that’s just the fine detail for your client. For now, just work on what’s happening.

3. Work out your timeline

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Let’s be totally honest here. A mistake is only a mistake if you don’t have the time or opportunity to fix it. If you’ve messed up but you’ve got an hour/a day/a week to put it right before anyone notices (and you can do it in that timescale) – then there’s no need confess – you’ll probably just need to cancel your plans and make a big pot of coffee.

However, if your client’s going to be impacted, you’ll need to work out when that’s going to happen. It’s important that you move quickly in all cases – but if you’ve got 15 minutes or more, you’ve got time to think about some potential solutions to the problem.

If your client is likely to have realized there’s a problem already, or they’re going to work it out imminently, skip the next step and move straight to point number 5.

4. Think about some solutions

It’s time to put on your empathy hat for a little while now. For those not familiar with the term; empathy is the art of figuratively putting yourself in another person’s shoes – considering what things are like from their perspective.

Try to get into your client’s headspace. How does this error impact them? Now isn’t a time for limiting the amount of hard work you’re going to need to do over the coming days; it’s a chance to consider what a perfect solution looks like for the person or company you’re working for.

“How can I make this right?”

Solutions might involve a few late nights. They might involve outsourcing some work or calling in a favor from someone you know to help you fix things. If there’s more than one solution, note them all down.

In some cases, there’s likely to be a quick-fix and a comprehensive-fix; with the quick-fix sorting things in the short-term and the comprehensive-fix putting the situation right overall. Again, if you can identify a couple of approaches, it’s worth making a note of them.

Even if your client has a solution that’s nothing like yours – showing that you’ve tried to put the issue right is a big feather in your cap.

5. Take full responsibility

Photo by Sarah Kilian

Now, we’re all adults, so we hopefully understand the importance of picking up the phone and taking responsibility for our actions.

The thing is, acknowledging some responsibility and apologizing isn’t enough here. While it’s important to say you’re sorry if you’ve made life hard for someone, the best freelancers will go well-beyond sorry; taking full responsibility for what’s happened.

Let me give you some examples:

You’ve noted the wrong deadline in your diary? Your fault.

The client was late getting some info back to you and now you’ve missed the deadline? Your fault.

You’ve used the information the client’s given you and they’re not happy with it? Your fault.

You’ve followed your instructions to the letter – but the client’s not happy? Your fault.

Seem a little unfair?

Perhaps it is, perhaps it isn’t – but now isn’t the time for passing the buck – there are plenty of people likely to be doing that already, and guess what; freelancers are prime candidates for being the fall guy or girl.

If you want to come out of this looking like the MVP you are, you’re going to need to suck this one up. So, you’ve used bad info? You should have checked. Agreed to a deadline that someone else could derail? You should have set some conditions. Submitted perfect work and the client’s not happy? You should have checked sooner.

Don’t misunderstand; it hurts to take full responsibility, but, when you do, you set yourself apart from 99% of other freelancers out there. You’re not an excuse maker. You’re not trying to lay the blame at the door of someone who’s an established member of the client’s team. You’re big enough and tough enough to shoulder it squarely. Where others crumble, hide, or point the finger; you stand tall.

Clients genuinely appreciate this kind honesty – in fact, many of them will tell you that it’s not your fault at all. The thing is, 10-years of battle-hardened freelancing tell me that there usually is something you could have done differently to protect yourself – so, if you want to avoid this kind of situation again, you’re going to need to work out what you could have done differently, and make sure you do it next time.

6. Learn from your mistakes

Learn from ‘your mistakes’? If it still twangs your stomach a bit to hear that you’ve made a mistake, you need to go back and fully absorb point 5 again.

As a freelancer, you’re going solo in the world. For some of us, paying our rent or eating next week depends on getting stuff done and not screwing up, so, by taking responsibility, I mean taking responsibility for that bigger picture.

Taking responsibility doesn’t mean playing the victim; it means controlling the controllable. If you’ve put yourself in a situation where a mistake’s been made, you need to ask yourself what YOU can do to reduce the chance of it happening again – doing significantly helps to maintain your mental well-being too.

If you’ve got a mentor (or a therapist for that matter), it’s useful to talk about these situations. Another good way to do this is to write down what’s happened, leave it a couple of days, then go back and imagine a close friend is telling you the same thing’s happened to them. What would you say? What advice would you give them to help them stop it happening again?

Every mistake is different, so there’s no single solution. You might want to double check your dates every day or tighten up on your admin. Then again, you might want to drop the client; especially if you’ve tried to make changes but still find yourself unable to keep them happy.

You know that age-old phrase about “there’s no such thing as mistakes – only opportunities to learn”? Yeah? Definitely don’t say that to your client when you’re explaining what’s happened – but, that’s how you need to internalize this situation. You don’t want this to happen again, so spend some time thinking about which aspects of the project you can better control next time. Dig deep, they’re in there.

7. Do you need to compensate the client?

The idea of compensating your client isn’t an automatic go-to solution here, so consider this next point carefully before you act – but, if this is a client you’ve had for a long time, or they’re really helping you pay the bills at the moment and you want to hang on to them, it might be worth taking a short-term hit.

Compensating the client doesn’t mean giving them money. In fact, I’d avoid this solution; as it could look like you’re trying to buy your way out of trouble. The fact that you were being paid for this job in the first place already means the client values the outcome more than the cash, so don’t talk about refunds.

Instead, you might want to think about a gesture. Would doing the next job at a reduced rate get them make up for dropping the ball? It might sound risky, but you could even offer to not charge for the work you’ve done unless they were happy with the way you put things right.

If everything has blown over just fine, you might just want to send them a box of donuts – even little gestures can mean a great deal.

8. Don’t beat yourself up

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If you’re a bit of a perfectionist, it’s difficult not to give yourself a hard time if you make a mistake for a client. I can go from feeling like the greatest writer in the world to being a complete let-down when someone finds a fault with something I’ve done for them, but you (and I) need to fight this feeling.

When you started freelancing, you probably didn’t think you’d need to deal quite so much with this business side of things – but, honestly, that’s what a mistake is; it’s business – nothing personal. It’s just hard when you are the business.

I once wrote 600,000 words of copy for a client, only to find out I’d spelled one of their company names wrong throughout 700+ different documents. I’ve completely forgotten about work until a client has asked me where it is. Over the course of 10 years, I’ve made mistakes that I don’t even want to admit to. No one’s perfect, if you’ve never made a big mistake for a client, you’ve just got it to look forward to.

Ultimately; work out what’s happened. Take responsibility. Work hard to make the appropriate amends. Think about how to avoid it happening again. It might feel awful now, but I promise you, the mistake you’ve just made can make you a better freelancer going forward.

Made a mistake?

If something’s gone wrong and you’re not sure how to deal with it, comment below – and we’ll explore some options for getting you back on track. Agree or disagree with the strategy outlined here? I’d love to hear your opinion!

Read next: Managing Your Personal Brand As a Freelancer

2 Replies to “How Great Freelancers Deal with Making Mistakes for Clients”

  1. Tom says:

    I Was a freelance editor for a client, i’m new to the freelance world and thought the job went really well. It wasnt until a few days later when sending the invoice that I was told i’d missed cutting a small mistake out of the video for a presentation. I’m obviously kicking myself. I’m mainly worried that I’m unlikely to get more work with them now as I may be seen as lacking attention to detail. I’m new to all of this and I need every client i can so it’s scary to think I’ve messed it up. What is a good way of handling this relationship going forward to try and keep it going despite my mistake?

    1. Elizabeth says:

      “Thank you for picking that up” and correct the mistake. Part of how we take responsibility for our services is to ask our clients to QA the work we deliver (check that they are happy with our deliverables) and to sign off on it (even just a I am happy for email will do).
      We are human. We are going to make mistakes. It is going to burn you out very quickly if you are going trying to be perfect for your clients. Put systems in place to help you catch the inevitable mistakes. One of these system is your client. Make them part of your team.

      You will lose clients, it is part of the game. But very rarely over small mistakes.

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