Nobody is perfect. We all make mistakes.
What makes the savvy assistant stand out from the crowd is the way they deal with them.
If you’re confident, experienced and well trained, making an error on a client task is likely to be thankfully rare.
If you’re starting out, you may be less aware of the potential pitfalls with projects.
Either way, be prepared.
Sometimes clients can be unhappy and it may not be your fault. That still needs resolving.
When something does go wrong, how you respond is important. Knowing how to put things right is key to mending a situation and protecting your reputation.
Here are some tips to guide you.
If you’ve checked and it’s clearly your mistake, the first thing to do is apologise.
Not one of those painfully vague or insincere apologies you might hear from a world politician. Do it properly.
Begin with the words “I’m sorry.”
When said with genuine feeling, those words go a long way to taking things down from the boil to a simmer.
Take Responsibility for Your Mistake
As a professional assistant, the likelihood is you have done the work yourself.
But even if you have delegated or outsourced something to somebody else, the responsibility still rests with you.
To start with, avoid attempting to skirt around it. Don’t begin by explaining what went wrong or deflecting blame onto another.
It might have been a genuine mistake, a rare oversight or a calamity caused by unforeseen circumstances. It might not be totally your fault.
Regardless of the ins and outs, admit your part in the failure. And say that you will take responsibility for putting it right.
Depending on the severity of the situation, the client may be angry, frustrated, shocked, surprised or feeling other emotions around it.
Being able to demonstrate that you understand how the client is feeling, showing empathy, is important.
It will really help to smooth a path to putting things right again.
Give an Explanation – If it’s Relevant
After you have made your apology and shown empathy, you could explain what went wrong.
Only do this if you feel it is relevant and helpful for the client. You may feel a detailed explanation is unnecessary.
If the client demands to know more, you can share what happened. How much detail is down to you.
Don’t use the explanation as an excuse. Avoid sounding defensive. Don’t dig yourself into a deeper hole.
Adjust your tone to be conciliatory – to match your opening.
State How You Will Put Things Right
Now the background to the mistake is out of the way, you can talk about making amends.
This is about reassuring the client that you have things under control. Something’s gone wrong but you’re going to put it right for them.
Say what action you are going to take and by when that will happen.
You could follow up the conversation with a confirmatory email of what’s going to happen next.
Demonstrate How You Will Prevent a Repeat
A mistake can harm or damage trust. You want to be able to reassure the client that it was a one-off and will not happen again.
Talk about the lessons learned. Share what steps you’re going to take to ensure there’s no repeat of this error.
Are you going to change your process or add to your procedures? Make a tweak to your system? Invest in better technology?
This helps to end things on a positive and begin to rebuild those bridges.
An apology, explanation and strong dose of empathy may be all that’s required to placate a client.
You promise to put things right and you do that. End of story.
However, if it’s a big mistake you may want to consider offering something to help put things right.
You could reduce the next month’s retainer by a suitable percentage. You could offer to carry out an additional task for free. You could add some additional output to a project at no extra cost.
It’s very much a judgement call as to what (if anything) you offer. It’s there as an option.
What If There’s No Mistake?
Sometimes a client may be unhappy but you’ve not done anything wrong.
What do you do then?
They may not like the cover you’ve designed for an E-book. They may not like the way you’ve summarised their presentation in PowerPoint. They may not like how you’ve written a report, drafted a white paper or set up a spreadsheet.
Refer to the Brief
This document should have set out, precisely, what the client wanted. This includes outputs, the outcomes and any brand, design, style or writing notes to guide you.
How you respond depends on the specifics of the situation. You want the client to be happy but at the same time be assertive about your work.
If it’s a draft document, you may already have included one or two revisions in your pricing. That’s easy to sort. Listen to the feedback and make the necessary changes.
Where it’s a one-off piece, you’re looking to find a way to make things right.
Again, start with a conciliatory tone. You’re sorry to hear the client is unhappy and you want to sort it.
Refer to the brief they gave you. Respectfully, ask them to explain where they think what you’ve produced does not meet the brief.
Talk that through. There may be points you agree on or disagree with.
Based on that discussion, propose what you will do to resolve the matter. See if they agree to that.
Every client is different. Some may be more fussy or pernickety than others. Usually, if you respond constructively and positively, they will be happy if the result looks right for them.
Reducing the Risk of Mistakes and Client Comeback
The savvy assistant will have measures in place to prevent the likelihood of mistakes happening.
Get your processes and systems in place. Do they include steps for clarifying tasks, communicating clearly, and checking and double-checking your work?
Make use of a project management tool like Trello, Asana or Monday.com to ensure everything is covered – and the relevant data or progress can be shared with the client.
Ensure the client presents you with a clear and detailed brief for every project. If anything is missing, unclear or leaves you uncertain – go back to the client and ask the questions on your mind.
The brief is an important document. It protects both you and the client. It spells out what has been agreed. It should be as detailed as it needs to be for the task.
Part of your role as a freelance assistant may include educating clients and prospects about how they should brief you.
Get your Terms & Conditions up to date. Include them in any proposal or contract before it’s signed.
As you gain more experience and build up a portfolio of work, keep examples to hand. Mindful of client confidentiality, you could share these ‘templates’ with a client to help clarify what they are looking for.
For example, you could say: “Here are three sample designs for an E-guide. Which one do you like best?” If the client chooses one at the start, they’re unlikely to say they don’t like that version when it’s presented to them as a finished product.
And, of course, make sure your Essential Office skills are up to scratch. The better you know how to use Word, Excel, Outlook, PowerPoint and Teams, the better you can serve your clients.
Need to upgrade your skills across the MS Office board? Might be time to invest in a package of online training through MS Office Maestro.
The more robust your processes, systems and training, the easier it will be for you to eradicate mistakes.
Your conversations will be less about complaints and more about compliments.
How do you deal with mistakes? What’s your way of making things right? What lessons have you learned from your experiences so far?