4. Structure your client conversation around the error so it is unerringly constructive.
Set up a formal meeting with your client—you'll need a chunk of uninterrupted time to talk through your plan. Without formally initiating the meeting and preparing the client for the tough dialogue you're about to take part in, you'll immediately raise hackles, put them on guard, and lower the level of respect you've gained to date.
Use neutral language during the call. Be clear that this is a difficult conversation and that there will be a tough conversation ahead, but do it in a personally meaningful way: "This is hard for me to share with you. We care very deeply about the success of your project and want to outline what happened yesterday to the shopping cart on your website, and the actions that we're taking to resolve the situation..."
Take responsibility where appropriate, and provide a clear course of action that rights the perceived problem. Transcend the issue and be clear as to how you've already gone down the path of resolving the problem with a clearly defined solution. If there are a range of solutions to deal with the issue, outline each of them clearly before soliciting feedback.
Do not allow your client the opportunity to use this as leverage to ask for things like discounts, new features, and so forth. Resolving a project error is not horse trading. And as far as I know, there is no way to provide a discount for stress caused due to an unforeseen circumstances.
Also, there is no way to barter a new feature based on another feature failing. Instead, the error should be righted before there is a discussion of compensation or barter.
Don't ever formally engage your client without a very clear idea of how you can resolve the problem. If you do have to have client contact over the hours it'll take you to formulate your plan, keep it as simple as, "We're aware of the issue and are currently creating a plan that we will present to you on [date and time] to resolve it." Otherwise, you'll end up working out a solution with the client, and unless you're an expert negotiator or have an exceedingly tight relationship with your client, everything you say during your conversation may create liability. As such, you may need to say, "I wish I could answer that question, but I need to talk with [insert name of important person] before I can make an assessment. Can we talk later today, when I have the specifics?" Don't put your firm at risk for taking on liability for something said in the heat of the moment!
And honestly, this is where most design firms blow it. I can't count how many times major errors—even those caused directly by a client—have been wiped clean by a mea culpa on the part of the studio principal. The client was then unaware that the cost impact of the error was rolled into the next client's project with nary a word.
While ensuring maximum client satisfaction, this approach can yield negative returns in the long run—especially if the client questions why your pricing has risen over the past three months...
I describe this approach as the "abject fear" method of client service. It only goes to infantilize your business relationship.
5. Execute on the plan as swiftly as you can.
This requires no description. Show your hustle.
6. Record the error in a manner that helps you assess future risk and educate your peers.
If you knew that an upcoming, highly complex project was going to put a lot of strain on your client relationship, would you call it out before you even started?
This is where most designers feign forgetfulness—and part of the reason why I started writing this blog in the first place. Documenting failure, and having constructive methods of dealing with failure in the future, provides the learnings that can make your design business more efficient, effective, and downright mature.
Plus, if you're working on projects of great magnitude—such as Web applications or galactic-scale Web sites—you have to conduct a risk assessment before you move too far through the design and build phase. Otherwise, you're just asking for an unanticipated error to occur.
Sitting down with the client and troubleshooting all the things that could go wrong along the way may sound painful, but it can be conducted in a constructive manner that makes it clear how serious you are about meeting your delivery date, your client's expectations, and delivering a quality product.
Plus, I'll let you in on a little secret: If you've documented your work processes, you can easily fold your learnings you've gained from failures into the document in an unobtrusive manner.
One of the best ways to do this involves creating living pages, not binders that you put up on the shelf or Microsoft Word or Excel docs. Start a simple wiki that outlines the process steps you take when working through different kinds of client engagements. Then, in the wiki, write up a brief paragraph of learnings during various phases of the project that can then be referenced when you're writing up estimates for new projects. Yes, this document could get a little unwieldy in scale over a few years... but it's completely searchable, entirely malleable in structure, and can better withstand sharing and co-editing by your peers and superiors.
Failure Can Bring Clients and Designers Closer
No designer or developer has a 100% perfect delivery record. But a good designer knows how to manage errors that come up in produced materials—whether online or offline—in order to create compelling interactive work. You need to manage delivery, from your initial research to the final build, to maintain a perception of quality in the eyes of your client. Otherwise, your reputation can suffer. Failure in delivery, when poorly managed, can be fatal for your livelihood.
But in the midst of dealing with a project error—especially one caused by both client and designer—there is always a silver lining. It's not until things go wrong that you see the true personality of your client. And vice versa, your client understands more intimately your depth of character.
Your client will respect you even more if you can disclose and erase a mistake, all while showing your true mettle in how you handle it.