Jan 15, 2008
A defining characteristic of great organizations is the ability to handle mistakes well. Mistakes are a part of everyday life both personally and professionally; yet very few truly understand the value of taking responsibility, and the effect it has on others.
I believe it's human nature to struggle with taking responsibility or admitting a mistake. But nothing worthwhile comes easy, right? Being mindful your inordinate ability as a human to make mistakes is the first step to handling them well.
In a technical business such as web development, mistakes, errors and bugs happen relatively often. It's the nature of our business in a sense, because the web is still in it's infancy. Great developers find them before the client or the user does, but there is only so much testing that can be done. Sometimes mistakes happen, and handling these situations with integrity and humility is of the utmost importance.
When confronted with a situation where you could be responsible for a mistake, it helps to ask yourself the following questions:
- What role did I or my team play in this situation?
- What are all of the potential ways I could be responsible for what happened?
- If this is not my fault, how can I prove it and work towards a resolution with the responsible party?
Asking these questions always forces me to look into the situation and find an answer, rather than take the lazy, hands-off approach that can be frustrating for others. If you ARE responsible for all or part of the problem, handling it well means following up on 3 crucial levels:
1. Take Responsibility
Simply explain what happened, and apologize. Make sure you NEVER use "but", "if" or anyone else's name. Taking responsibility is not an opportunity to make excuses. Even if the problem was only 10% your fault, most times it is more appropriate to take full responsibility for your mistake(s) so that both sides can hopefully move on without hard feelings.
2. Make it Right
Steve Jobs recently did a great job turning a mistake into a great publicity statement for his company. Apple's environmental policy had came under harsh criticism for quite some time, and he responded with a public letter. This letter not only addressed the problem, but he made it right by revealing their new environmental plan to remove toxic chemicals from their products and recycle them at a higher rate.
What it takes to make a situation right varies, but don't hesitate to go over and above the status quo to keep the person or client's confidence. This might mean a discount, a refund, a public apology or simply a heartfelt letter/email.
3. Prevent it From Happening Again
Early last year, JetBlue had a customer service nightmare on their hands after a winter storm. Hundreds, if not thousands of customers were stranded in the Northeast, and subjected to awful delays and phone hold times. This was a defining moment for CEO David Neeleman and the 7-year-old company at the time. The letter he wrote to customers can be found here.
Not only did they accept full responsibility and attempt to make the situation right with their customers, but they took pro-active steps to prevent problems like that from happening again by introducing the customer bill of rights. Considering the situation, I felt that Neeleman's response was well executed.
When mistakes are made, apologizing and making the situation right is not quite enough. Very clear steps must be taken internally to ensure that the mistake does not happen again.
This article was written solely because this is something I struggle with daily, as most people do. We've made some bad mistakes too. Here are a couple of them:
Early last year, many of our clients experienced about 12 hours of downtime from a hard drive crash on one of our servers. It was the first crisis we had ever experienced with regards to our servers, and we were not prepared. About a week of work was lost, and it took weeks to get everything back the way it was.
Not only did I call each and every client personally to apologize and outline the plan to get back up, but we made sure it would not happen again. Now each of our servers has a RAID real-time backup drive, and each site is backed up every 24 hours to a separate server across the country.
Another mistake we recently made had to do with one of our clients losing a number of form submission emails from their site. A combination of about 5 separate things contributed to the problem. Were we responsible for all those things? Nope. But if we did our job as a server host and monitored our mail queue, we could have prevented it. Currently we are writing a script to monitor mail queues more closely so the problem does not happen again.