A team I work on received a fairly lengthy letter from a client last week complaining about the size of the bill he had received from us and detailing all of the errors that he saw with our work product. Everybody receives one of these communications from time to time, hopefully not too often, and it’s easy to get angry when somebody is challenging your integrity and expertise. For now, some of the members of the team believe that the client was posturing to negotiate a reduction in the bill, probably because he and his colleagues were unable to close the project for which our work was being done. That may be true, and perhaps our side should have gotten a better idea of the risks that the client was facing in its own business before taking on the project; however, I think we need to view every client or customer, regardless of how painful it might be sometimes, as an opportunity to learn and improve.
In this case, two things stood out to me. First, the client had pointed out, correctly, the header on two of the pages of a 50+ page document that we had provided referred to a different client. The client took this as a sign that we had simply tried to palm off our work product from a different project without spending time on this client’s specific needs. He was wrong about; however, he did have a point. In my mind that was sloppy. I missed it in my review of the document and tried to rationalize it by thinking that I was too busy concentrating on the real meat of the document and that the way I set up to view the document on my laptop didn’t always show the header on each page. That’s all well and good, but at the end of the day we made a fundamental mistake: we got the client’s name wrong! I was told a long time ago that if you did something like that you would lose the confidence of the customer or client and it wouldn’t matter how good the rest of your work product was. It was a simple and valuable lesson that had now been refreshed.
Second, we had a loose arrangement with the client for a “fee cap” on this particular project and the client was clearly upset when he received a bill that was well in excess of what had originally been discussed. From our side we thought the client should have clearly understood that the pieces we had to pull together in order to move the project forward could not reasonably have been done within the cap amount. The problem is that it’s not the responsibility of the client or customer to be reasonable about the resources and time that we need to fulfill our promise to deliver. That was our job and we failed to take the time up front to find out as much as we could about the project in order to provide a better quote and, just as importantly, we didn’t communicate with the client as the project proceeded about some of the new information that would eventually lead to the project coming in over budget. Failure to communicate was compounded at the end by simply delivering a very large bill without someone from our team providing an explanation and establishing a platform to discuss mutual misunderstandings on both sides.
We’ll see what happens in this case. The client has asked to terminate the engagement and all indications are that the client is trying to tie up loose ends on a project that was not successful on its side, regardless of the work that we did. We will respond, it’s not wise or appropriate to simply be silent. When we do respond, both to the client and to ourselves, we need to be honest: admit mistakes when they are clear and demonstrate how we can learn from them. Double check names and headers? Of course. But also set up a better way to continuously communicate with customers and clients about their expectations. This sounds easy, but today customers and clients often don’t want to be bothered. They view certain products and services as commodities and they just want the best price and nothing more. My experience is that it is rarely that easy and you need to proactively engage with customers and clients from the very beginning to build relationships and trust.
Alan Gutterman is the Founding Director of the Sustainable Entrepreneurship Project, which engages in and promotes research, education and training activities relating to entrepreneurial ventures launched with the aspiration to create sustainable enterprises that achieve significant growth in scale and value creation through the development of innovative products or services which form the basis for a successful international business. Visit the Project’s Library of Resources for Sustainable Entrepreneurs to download handbooks, guides, articles and other materials relating to sustainable entrepreneurship and keep up with the Project’s activities by following Alan on LinkedIn, Twitter and Facebook.