Recovering from the "Big Boneheaded Blunder"

August 16, 2010
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“I am grateful for all my problems. As I solved each one I became stronger and more able to meet those that were still to come.”  - JC Penney

  We’ve all been there, fully engaged in what I call the “Triple B”:  the Big Boneheaded Blunder. Simply put, you or your employees have screwed up big time. And everyone knows it…including your customer!

So how can you compensate and hopefully keep your client while at the same time learning from your mistake? Remember, this is not an unreasonable-customer-nitpicking-you-over-nothing scenario. Instead, this is where you were in the wrong, plain and simple.

I recently had a “learning opportunity” presented to me on what not to do after an especially disastrous and stupid slip-up in business. One of my commercial renters went bankrupt, and the bank contracted with a moving company to remove a 2,000-pound piece of equipment from my building’s second floor office.

Even after having pre-inspected the project the movers showed up without the proper equipment. The heavy item broke loose on the stairs, shattering most of the treads, damaging the drywall and putting a hole in my office floor. Fortunately, no one was killed.

That’s right, a Triple B.  It happened and no one was happy about it. But depending on how it is handled a Triple B can be smoothed over or it can become a tragic disaster. I was struck by how badly the moving company’s co-owner (let’s call her “Sally”) handled the situation. As I observed Sally committing one error after another I thought- here’s my next ICS article! So let’s learn what not to do by analyzing how to avoid the Seven Deadly Triple B Sins she committed.

1. Don't Try and Duck the Problem

In the beginning, as the aggrieved party, I just wanted to talk with a representative of the responsible company. But Sally ignored my calls, invented excuses not to meet and essentially postponed the inevitable.

Solution:  Don’t put off the problem. The situation is not going to go away; it will only get worse if you ignore it. Numerous government studies have shown that 95% of ticked-off clients will do business with you again if you resolve their problem quickly!

2. Don't Show Up with an Attitude

Once again, no one was happy about this shattered staircase. But when Sally walked on my property she obviously was angry and resentful about even having to be there. She wouldn’t look me in the eye, didn’t introduce herself and clearly wished that both my wrecked stairs and I did not exist.

Solution: Treat your customer as a victim, because they feel like they are. Look them in the eye, give a rueful smile, shake hands and introduce yourself. Sally’s negative, grudging attitude wasn’t going to make either the problem or me go away, especially when she forgot one cardinal Triple B rule…

3. Don't Try to Evade Obvious Guilt

It all went downhill when the very first words out of Sally’s mouth were, “Sir, obviously your office floor wasn’t built to proper specifications and therefore we aren’t liable.”  Whoa now!

I gently reminded Sally that a different moving company had very capably moved the same heavy equipment up those very same stairs 10 years ago with no incident whatsoever. As a property owner, all I knew is that my building was fine before Sally’s people touched the equipment and it was in shambles ten minutes later. My guess is a judge would have felt the same way.

Solution:  Keep an open mind and show an “attitude of care and concern.” Unfortunately, with obvious guilt established, Sally fell into another common trap…

4. Never, Ever Justify and/or Blame Others for Your Mistakes

You see, I didn’t really care that the moving company didn’t have the right equipment or that the weight had been misrepresented to them by the bank or that the stairs were too narrow/steep/fragile, etc, etc, etc. The time for the movers to have brought these potential problems up was before they accepted the job, or at the very least before the damage occurred.

The same goes for you. There are jobs that quite simply should be turned down or at the very least pre-qualified in writing. Letting the customer’s problem become your problem by accepting a marginal project inevitably leads to lost money and enormous emotional agony for you.

Solution: If you have accepted a “loser job” please don’t bore the customer with all the reasons why you screwed up. To you they are “reasons” but all your client hears are lame excuses. The customer only wants to know one thing: “What are you going to do about it?” This was my burning question for Sally too. But before I could bring it up, Sally stumbled again …

5. Don't Assume

Sally didn’t even look at the damage when she walked in and just assumed that I would demand full replacement. The truth was, due to numerous Triple Bs I had personally committed over the years, I was pre-disposed to be forgiving and flexible…that is, until Sally started down the path she did.

I actually already had my own construction crew working on other site renovations and could easily have had them do the stair repairs. But an irritated customer will demand their full “pound of flesh,” and I did too.

Solution: Listen before you leap. Let the customer vent their frustrations. Get the facts while you listen for clues as to what the client really wants. Be thinking of creative solutions that will please the customer while also getting you out of this pickle alive and in one piece financially! Of course, Sally would barely look at (much less talk) to me, so of course she stepped right into Sin No.6…

6. Fail to Interview the Customer and Solve it Quickly

Yup, this stuff isn’t rocket science. All Sally needed to do was:
  • apologize
  • take responsibility
  • ask me what I wanted, and
  • do it!
Assuming you have not ticked off the customer by committing the first five Triple B sins many times over, the customer will be happy with much less than you are prepared to offer.

Solution: After you have broken the ice and the problem is squarely in focus simply ask the customer, “What would you like us to do?”  Their answer may surprise you. Then do it and do it quickly. Sally hid out from me for a week after our encounter and required numerous phone calls to get the repairs moving.

Now for the biggest Triple B sin that Sally and her coworkers committed…  

7. Never Asking the "One Big Question"

I’m fascinated by how often companies will get whacked with the same problem again and again and again. My guess is Sally never even asked herself, “What systems and procedures can I change in my organization so this one particular problem never happens again?”  Instead, her company will continue to lurch from one easily preventable business crisis to the next one.

Solution: Don’t view a Triple B as a crisis only to be endured and/or survived. Instead, view any complaint as a learning exercise to “tune up” your company so this exact situation never, ever happens again. Establish responsibility by asking, “What broke down?”  Was it an employee, lack of training, a faulty system that needs to be improved/clarified or was it simply that there was no written, clear procedure in place?

Unlike JC Penney, I will cheerfully confess that I wasn’t “grateful” when I got whacked over the head with a Triple B problem. But if you avoid these Seven Deadly “Big Boneheaded Blunder” sins, you will not only survive but prosper as you build a dynamic and steadily improving business.

  Author’s Note:This process is not a witch hunt designed to hang an employee out to dry. On the other hand, all of us, including our employees, need to be held accountable. For more on “Adding Employee Accountability to Your Company” go to:  http://tiny.cc/SFSanswer.

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