The virtues of falling on your sword at the appropriate time

Andrew Neitlich

At some point, no matter how skilled you are, you are going to make a client upset. There are lots of circumstances where this can happen, some your fault and some not:

– You make a mistake.

– You say something that is insensitive to their style and organizational way of doing things.

– You manage the process poorly, so deadlines are missed.

– There is a mismatch between client expectations of results and your expectations of delivery.

– The client has a crisis, needs to change the project plan, and you resist.

– The client makes a mistake.

In these cases, I find that — for whatever reason (Early childhood issues? Genetic predisposition? Lack of training? Taking the work too personally?) IT professionals tend to get defensive. They try to avoid blame rather than work with the client to get a positive outcome.

These situations feel like a tug of war, with both parties tense and struggling to win. Or, a different metaphor is: pushing against a wall — both parties feel like they are pushing and pushing, getting tired, but making no progress.

In many cases, the best way to handle these situations is as follows:

1. LISTEN to the client, and acknowledge their frustrations. They are stressed out in these circumstances, and can’t listen to you until you let them vent. This is basic Steven Covey, 7 Habits of Highly Successful People stuff. You should take the initiative to meet with them in order to get things on track; don’t wait for them to explode.

2. Take 100% responsibility for the outcome of the conversation. Even if you are not to blame, it is your job to make the project successful. Get on the client’s side, and empathize with their situation.

3. Be prepared to fall on your sword. Apologize for the situation, and especially your role in it. Make amends as needed.

4. Suggest ways to move forward and get back on track.

5. Take action to move forward and get back on track.

Steps 1-3 are especially hard for many professionals. For instance, I coached a client last week who was about to be fired by the client. As we role played (I took the client’s point of view), he refused to just say, “I understand your frustrations, and take 100% responsibility. At the same time, I have a plan to get you back on track in 2 days.” Instead, he kept focusing on his own frustrations with the project, how the client doesn’t acknowledge his hard work on the project, and how the technology he implemented works fine but the client isn’t using it right.

All of his issues were valid. But as a professional, he needs to get into his client’s shoes and figure out how to get things back on track. Otherwise, he risks having someone in the market speaking badly about him, lost fees, and even legal action.

So we role played and role played until he figured out that he needed to listen, fall on his sword (e.g. make amends), and show the client how to move forward. He also realized that he had to take more responsibility for the client’s results. If they weren’t using the technology correctly, he needed to intervene to show them how to use it properly.

What happens when you follow this advice?

1. The client vents, and so has room to hear you.

2. The client knows you are on their side, and appreciates that.

3. The clients views you as a professional, not a vendor.

4. Everyone can relax. In a tug of war, if you gently drop your rope, nobody falls and everyone can stop struggling. That’s what this process feels like.

5. You actually earn respect. Time and again, I’ve seen that clients respect professionals who fall on their sword during these situations. Even if YOU make the mistake, this kind of behavior can lead to rave reviews and referrals. (It’s not always perfect customer service, but rather how you respond to extraordinary and difficult situations that wins a client over).

Yes, this advice does not apply if the client is looking to get a huge amount of work done for free (scope creep), or if they are dishonest and out to get something for nothing. But it does apply in situations where both parties began the project in good faith and have hit a snag.

Okay, let the responses begin…..I’m confident that some of you will have the usual, “Well, MY situation is different. We started out okay, but now my client is really getting antagonistic and annoying….” That’s almost always a sure sign that you may benefit from the above advice.