The reality is that some time, either you or your client will make a mistake. You may fail to meet a commitment, or make an error in approach that impacts their business (yikes!). Your partner may have provided incorrect information, made a bad decision, or failed to pay an invoice when you were depending upon the cash flow (yikes!). Regardless of who makes the mistake—who is at fault—or the degree of damage that ensues from the mistake, the first thing to do is stop, take a knee, and try to view things objectively, especially if the situation seems to be turning into a crisis.
This first step is the foundation of your approach, so take a breath and study the problem. If your client partner is pressing you for resolution, be gently forthright in letting them know that you simply need a moment of evaluation to ensure that you are taking the right approach, and set a specific date and time for the discussion. If your client is bucking for a confrontation that must happen immediately, they were really never a partner, right?
Let’s back up just a bit, because the first step to diffusing difficult situations is to have processes in place that protect you from having them.
Protection From Difficulty
In our line of work—web design and development—that means the following, at a minimum:
- Thorough project scope and estimate documents, complete with all required legalese;
- A review of the items above with your client;
- A pre-established payment plan;
- Open communications for the duration of your project;
- Recordings and/or notes of meetings with quick distribution to meeting members;
- Timely, efficient time-tracking of billable hours and expenses;
- A method to control project changes; and
- A solid acceptance process.
When things do slip in or past you, don’t create drama within your team or with your partner—just handle it professionally. Many conflicts have started and good partnerships ended because of drama. Relegate your business to be a drama-free zone (DFZ), because drama, or emotional infusion, can only make a difficult situation worse.
Back to the program...
Make Investigation a Priority
Now that you have a moment, do whatever you need to do to set aside time in your schedule to evaluate. You have worked hard to earn this partner, and they have worked hard to be a good partner, too, so it is important enough for you to give the matter your full attention.
If you need information from your team, make sure they understand that it is a priority, too. This is a good time to remember that making something a priority does not mean injecting drama. Now is not the time for an emotional response. In fact, now is the time to remove emotion from the equation altogether in order to get to the root of the problem.
It may help to create a timeline of events at this point, just for clarity, and gather pertinent email correspondence or discussion notes. Meeting recordings or notes are crucial documentation for this very situation. Some call this CYA, but we consider it claryifying rather than covering. The extra bit of effort taken to document decisions being made is not only important to executing your project successfully, it may also be key to salvaging your business relationship.
The important thing is to get all of the facts—not the suppositions or opinions—but the facts. Discard all things that are not strictly factual. Doing so will keep you in the DFZ.
Find the Cause and SolutionYour evaluation should result in finding the error and the source of the error. If it doesn’t, you haven’t dug deep enough.
Regardless of who made the error, make sure that you understand every detail of how it transpired—the when and the how, even the why, if you can determine it free from opinion. And document it all, even if only to have discussion notes.
This is also a good time to analyze your assessment of the facts. Are you making assumptions, or are you able to remove yourself enough from the emotion of the situation to not make value judgments based upon this particular incident? Be honest with yourself and about your team. If you are a “never wrong” kind of person, weigh that into your assessment…and get over yourself. Being wrong is not a character flaw, as long as it is not your most consistent trait.
Resist the sometimes immediate stance of defense. Don't let protection of your team, self, or your client partner blind you to errors or omissions, and don't let excuses cloud your understanding of "why".
Next, make sure that you have a clear path for resolution, because there is always a solution. Part of the solution should be a process for ensuring that the same issue can’t occur in the future. Depending upon the circumstance, the resolution might be impacted by further negotiations—especially if finances are involved—but it is critical to understand what needs to be done and what you need from your partner to accomplish the resolution.
It is essential is to remember that your goal is an on-going relationship with your partner. As a true partner, you should not be willing to burn a bridge in your affiliation, but to prove, once again, why are you are the best partner for their business by getting through the difficulty in an amicable and just way. This is another good time to remember the DFZ, and squash any emotional response.
Prepare for the DiscussionHopefully, you have completed your investigation, established the cause, and found a solution prior to your appointment for a discussion with your client. Be urgent about doing so, because this is not an appointment you want to reschedule, and you should really have enough time to pray about or at least "sleep on" your approach. Keeping your scheduled appointment and being prepared indicates to your partner that the situation and their business is important to your organization. Giving yourself time for proper contemplation of the events and resolution will help you stay focused, confident in your approach, and keep you in the DFZ.
Your agenda planning is the place where “whose fault” matters.
If your team was at fault, your agenda needs to start with a firm statement of your error and a sincere apology. Practice this, even writing a very short script for your words. No excuses are welcomed, and the hard truth is that if you can’t offer a sincere apology, you should give someone else the reins. Keep it short, simple, and to the point, then stop talking. In my experience, this approach—the honest, truthful one—will diffuse almost all emotional response, as long as you remember to zip your lip.
Prepare yourself, however, to get some possibly well-deserved criticism, especially if there has been financial impact or if your team did something seriously unprofessional. You will live through it, and possibly even be improved by it.
If your client partner was at fault...
We know you'll want to come back next month for Being a Partner 202B: Surviving Difficult Client Situations to read the rest of the approach. Until then, keep it simple, always document, and focus on doing the right thing.