What happens when you fail?

March 09, 2014

It’s a sad truth that even if you are the most proficient of Account Managers, you will inevitably make significant mistakes during the course of your career.

The upside about making a mistake - in the design business - is that no one is likely to die as a result. The downside is that there will be a cost to someone: yourself, your client or your company's owner. The cost may a loss of time, money, reputation, respect and/or trust; and you could even lose your client, and therefore your future revenue. 

Mistakes, bad choices and poor judgement calls should be taken very seriously. It is easy to laugh off a mistake, especially when the cost is not coming directly out of your own pocket. You could flippantly think that “the company” will absorb the error and that no-one will really mind. The reality is that “the company” is made up of people (you, your boss, your colleagues, and the owner), and those people have just lost out as a result of something you have done. A hit to the bottom line affects everyone - and could even jeopardise your job.

So, what can you do about it when the mistake has already been made? How you react to the mistake will say a lot about who you are as a person and will determine how others view you. Let's assume your heart is in the right place and you want to do the right thing, here are some suggestions:

  • Own up...straight away...to both your boss and to your client (if the error directly affects them). If the buck stops with you, then take full responsibility for the failure. Don't try to be defensive, lie or palm the blame off onto others. Whatever you do, never try to cover up the mistake or wait for your boss or client to point the mistake out to you. If you pro-actively show that you understand the weight of the matter, there will be lesser need for your boss to underscore it. Acknowledging the error early also allows others to change their plans if need be - which may help to mitigate the fallout. 
  • Offer an explanation. Don't make an excuse (even if you have a legitimate one) - an excuse comes across as though you are trying to avoid the blame. An explanation explains how the error happened, and can serve as instruction for others in your company about what not to do.
  • Apologise. Someone is going to take a hit for the error, and it will probably be your boss when he has to justify the mistake on his monthly P&L. You owe him (and your client) an apology. You also owe an apology to everyone within your workplace who may have been impacted by your error. Apologising will show that you hold yourself accountable, you understand the seriousness of the mistake, and you want to rebuild trust and credibility. An apology is best given in person, rather than on the phone or via email. Never over-apologise - just proactively make it obvious that you are striving to avoid a repeat performance.
  • Don't panic. Panicking and worry only escalate the situation and this is the time for rational decisions. 
  • Act quickly.  Do whatever you have to do to rectify the mistake as soon as possible. This will show you acknowledge what went wrong and are doing all in your power to make it right. Quick action may also stop the damage from spreading. 
  • Explain why the mistake will not happen again. Your boss and your client need to know they can trust you in the future. Your client has made an investment in choosing your company and they want to stick with you, so they need to know that the problem won't happen again. 
  • Never do it again. We will probably be forgiven for one error - as mistakes are par for the course in business, and most clients are quite understanding. However, an error that is repeated will raise a red flag with your boss, your client and your colleagues, which could result in a tarnished reputation (which is almost impossible to reverse), loss of your job or loss of your client.
  • Consider compensation. Do you need to offer compensation to your client for the error? Have your actions resulted in missed deadlines, loss of revenue or a high level of inconvenience? If you do, just ensure that the compensation is fair and reasonable to both your client and your company. Compensation doesn't always have to be money - sometimes an "I'm profusely sorry" (combined with a decent explanation) will suffice.
  • Be prepared for the repercussions. Every action has a consequence. Even if you do everything you can to be forthright, apologetic and to fix the damage, you need to be prepared for the likelihood that there will be a consequence for your actions. If the mistake was a deeply serious one, you might be fired. You may need to rebuild trust with your boss or client. Even if you have to start back at zero, you have an opportunity to work hard and earn your credibility again.
  • Review your processes. What needs to change so that this error doesn't happen again? Do you need to review internal procedures, or is it simply that you have experienced a steep learning curve?
  • Attitude is everything! People will be watching how you handle the situation, so your ability to keep a level head and a good attitude will be vital to help you earn back respect and trust. 
  • Fail forward. Mistakes and problems are the way we develop and learn (unfortunately). There is no "how to" manual for most of what we do as account managers. Much of our learning comes via trial and error, therefore we need to move through it (acknowledging the facts and feelings of the mistake), learn, let go, and never forget what the process has taught us. Every learning experience is a step forward!


The original version of this article appeared on the Design Assembly website | 17 March 2014.


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