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  • Tyler Sirman

How to Keep Your Integrity & Clients After F***ing Up

I don’t usually curse a lot, but I felt like the this post needed it. (So reader beware/sorry mom)

If you’ve ever messed up as an entrepreneur or small business owner, you know that sinking feeling in your gut when you know you won’t be getting paid for this one this time. Or your client is unhappy. The point is, we’ve all been there and learned about it. A recent fail had me thinking about how I saved the

business, and kept my integrity – and hopefully there’s a lesson in here that resonates with you.

Damage Control

The first thing you absolutely should do when you mess up is to be transparent about what happened. For us in the photo/video industry, when we mess up a gig, we know pretty soon. From a corrupted memory card to gargled audio to everything inbetween – we know it when we see it. In other industries, it sometimes isn’t as clean cut, but you get the idea.

As soon as you figure out what went wrong, start decoding how it went wrong. Sometimes this isn’t clear, but at least come up with your best guess. You should now have the two first ingredients to start some damage control with your client.

Don’t tiptoe around the fact with your client. Break it to them straight. Apologize, obviously, profusely. Weave in what went wrong, and how you think it went wrong. Type carefully and thoughtfully.

Now, this all seems great on paper, but in reality, I need to stop, because it’s not this easy every time. Sometimes there’s a lot on the line. But the longer you wait, the harder it gets for you to say something (the right thing) and the harder of a pill it is for the client to swallow. So get to it.

Here’s where the great business people, the customer service-driven types shine. Because you have the opportunity to cap your crap sandwich news with some good news. This is also the time where ego can get in the way. And here’s where I’ve heard some horror stories.


Saying you screwed up is one thing. Owning it, and working your damn hardest to make it right is another. I’ve heard of people not owning the screw up, in short, just saying “you get what you get” and sending an invoice for the original price (which has ended in unhappy clients), and I’ve heard of people fight that they are right, and that there was no screw up (again, unhappy clients). Then there’s those who own it, and compensate. You’ll see this most in food service – where if the chef has forgotten a meal, or the waiter/waitress forgets to punch in the order and it gets lost, or you eat raw meat without realizing…whatever it is, you often get your meal free (and maybe then next one free too).

What gets in the way of making a level-headed decision after you’ve told your client the state of things, is your perception of how it will affect your reputation, how it actually will affect it, and how you can improve it. In the photo and video industry, your reputation and your portfolio is what gets you single gigs. No doubt. So one bad experience can maybe close some doors. But in reality, you have a lot of opportunity to make it right if it’s handled properly. Even if those doors of referral close, you’ll be left with your integrity in tact.

Climbing Out

If you’ve battled with your reputation perception conundrum, it’s time to make it right. It’s time to throw your client a bone and “give them a free meal”. Now, this doesn’t mean write off the whole shoot. You can judge if there’s some salvage-able parts. But ultimately, I don’t think you should be making a ton of money (yet). I believe your integrity, your reputation, your peace of mind, and the client’s long term satisfaction will rest on you taking a financial hit. And/or an ego hit (I think I needed it once or twice).

Immediately after the bad news hits, hit your client with some good news. That you’re willing to take X amount of this bill, or write off this part of the invoice. It has to be related to this invoice. And they won’t be super eager to book you again. But you’re playing the long game. They’re still in shock. And tread lightly. If the next few pieces of advice don’t feel right, they aren’t. I would highly encourage you to dig deep and take a deep breath. The painful part is mostly over.

Then one-two punch them with this next piece. Something for free. It can be small. It must have worth. It should be generous. Maybe a bit too generous. But you need to rebook something. You need to see that client again. The conversation should take a turn. You’ve went from bad news, to apology, to compensation, to over compensation. If it hasn’t, well you’ll need to just leave the offer with them at this stage. Review what you’ve said. But here’s to hoping you’ve started to massage the pain a bit.

If all goes according to plan, you should be rebooked for a free or deeply discounted gig. This is your chance to make it right, so do everything in your power to move your schedule around, rent extra gear, buy extra gear…whatever it takes to get it right. And make sure you’ve booked something you know you can do great at, or are confident at. And do it. Fast and well. Deliver it with pride. Deliver it with your head held high – you’ll feel better, I promise. But before you hit send on that final email to the client, we need one final piece to KO this saved experience.

Ask for a paid gig.

I said it.

Do everything you can to ask for their business once more. Point out how well you handled the f*** up. Then point out how awesome the free work was. Then get some value out of this experience. It doesn’t have to be right away. In fact, I would wait up to six months before expecting to make it into the green. But again, you’re playing the long game.

If you’ve followed this whole path, your client has long forgotten about the original mistake. They’re now focused on what you did to make it right. What you went out of your way to do to make them happy. This is customer service. They will write a gleaming review for you at some stage. They’ll smile at you again.

F***ing up is not the end of the world, though I know it feels like it. There’s really great ways of handling it, and there’s really sh*t ways of handling it. Put your ego aside, save your reputation, and keep a client that you would’ve lost – just by being a real person with real feelings, but also a business person who has great customer service. There’s a fine line where those two things meet, and it is for sure a balancing act.

Hopefully you learned how to be a pro, even when you f*** up by looking Through My Lens.

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