How to Talk About Mistakes with Clients Before They Happen

How to Talk About Mistakes with Clients Before They Happen

You are going to make mistakes.

I can tell you this right now with absolute, 100% certainty.

It’s just a fact of life as a human being.

They may not be convenient. They are often messy and untidy, but mistakes and imperfections are the patina of life.

At the very least, you have to accept this. You might even embrace it and have it work in your favor.

Talking about mistakes with clients before they happen and how those situations are handled can be really useful in any truly authentic consultation discussion.

In fact, as crazy as it sounds, talking frankly about mistakes actually puts clients at ease.

They trust you more because you aren’t making far-fetched promises they know in their heart simply aren’t feasible.

Someone who says they never make mistakes is full of it (or delusional).

No matter how attractive fantasies and wishful thinking are, we all recognize this at a very basic level.

And so you become someone much more trustworthy and believable in their eyes when you admit the truth of the matter.

That’s not to say you should be telling clients, “Yeah, I’m gonna make mistakes left and right, all day long.”

You wouldn’t be a competent professional worth paying if that was the case.

The point is that while you should absolutely be at the top of your game and always giving your best to clients, there are going to be occasions when a mistake happens.

You might misunderstand something or lack information. It’s also not always clear when you need clarification and you proceed with what you think is the complete picture.

Whatever the case, there are simply going to be occasions (and they should occasions, not the norm) when either external or internal factors foul you up.

When it comes to conducting consultations with prospective clients, you want to get a feel for how they will handle those situations as well as be upfront and clear about how you expect to be treated in any circumstance.

Talking about these situations before they come up lets new clients know how to behave if/when they occur. At the same time, it helps you weed out potentially wrong-fitting clients and bring everyone’s attitudes and expectations to a more conscious level of awareness and mutual understanding.

This is what is formally called in business as “managing client expectations.”

What I like to tell prospective clients is basically this:

“I am exceptionally good at what I do. I can absolutely, confidently declare this. I’m also human and once in awhile, I am going to make a mistake. I very much need and want to know if/when that happens so I can fix it and work to ensure it doesn’t happen again where that’s possible. I welcome your input and feedback. To make sure our relationship remains happy, mutually respectful and most importantly, helpful to you, I look to work with clients who aren’t so quick to be upset, but rather will trust and have confidence in the fact that I will make things right once it is brought to my attention. And I will always strive to earn and maintain that trust and confidence. At any time that I fail to maintain your trust and confidence in my service and abilities, I would fully expect that you’d want to end our relationship. In any situation, I always, always expect to be treated and spoken to respectfully, with the same courtesy, respect and professionalism that it is my standard to extend to you and all my clients.”

This, of course, is always delivered conversationally, but those are the main points I like to cover.

We then have a discussion about their thoughts on the subject. Based on their tone and responses in this discussion, I can usually tell (or at least simply decide) if someone seems like he or she would be a good client to work with, one who will be likely to maintain calm composure, respect and professionalism towards me in the event a mistake is made.

[Important Side Note: You naturally want clients with whom you can have great relationships. Plain and simple, it’s just not profitable or energizing to work with poor-fitting, abusive clients. And so you choose clients well as best you can. That’s all any of us can do, and it’s one of the important reasons to conduct thorough consultations. But if it turns out a client isn’t so great to work with, you always have the option of ending the relationship. You are never stuck. Always remember that.]

Unrealistic expectations are often rooted in impossible ideas of perfection. In talking about mistakes when I conduct consultations with clients, and how they should be viewed, I like to use proofreading as an analogy.

I explain that the value of a proofreader is not that he or she is going to be absolutely perfect 100% of the time. That’s unreasonable and humanly impossible. We should never proofread our own work because we can’t see our mistakes much of the time. Even if you give that work to five other people, each of those five people is going to miss something, guaranteed. So while all of us (including clients) might work and strive for perfection, we always need to keep in mind that it’s not “perfectly” attainable. Likewise, the value in great proofreading is not that the proofreader will never, ever miss something. Even if they are pretty darn close to being perfect, their true value is that they have a firm command of the language and rules of grammar, punctuation and usage to know what to look for in the first place. Skill is important, but without that knowledge and sensibility at the core, there would be no skill.

So this is the part of the conversation I have with clients during our consultation to help shape their expectations and feel them out with regard to how they deal with mistakes (or any other situation for that matter) and what ideas they may have about perfection.

The more you conduct consultations, have these discussions and work with clients, the more you’ll develop your own green and red flag intuitions for deciding who is likely to be a great client, and who is more likely to be a demoralizing soul sucker with unreasonable standards of perfection.

(Hint: Prospects who have realistic expectations about mistakes and give all indications of being able to maintain an even keel and professional demeanor towards you tend to make for better, more ideal clients. 😉 )

Breaking the Ice: Your Complete, Step-by-Step System for Confidently Leading the Consultation Conversation and Converting Prospects into Well-Paying Monthly Clients Who Can't Wait to Work with You (GDE-03)

If you are looking to grow a practice of ideal clients who pay you a monthly retainer fee for your administrative support, check out my guide on successfully conducting client consultations: Breaking the Ice: Your Complete, Step-by-Step System for Confidently Leading the Consultation Conversation and Converting Prospects into Well-Paying Monthly Clients Who Can’t Wait to Work with You (GDE-03). In this guide, I share with you my entire, fool-proof system—based on 20 years successful experience in this business— for getting every client I want, every time.

11 Responses

  1. Great point! I think when we first start our VA businesses, we often set unrealistic expectations for ourselves. I’ve made it a practice to own up to any mistake and try to bring a solution to the conversation in which we’re discussing the error. That way, my client knows that I’m accountable for my work and am working toward a solution to prevent making the same mistake again.

  2. I agree with Franni, just being accountable for your work goes a long way to gaining the trust and respect from the client. I don’t believe most people expect perfection, but they expect to be notified when a mistake is made and to have it corrected as quickly and efficiently as possible.

  3. Julia Lilly says:

    I am the person I am today because of some of my mistakes. They shape our knowledge and instincts, making us better on many levels. The best way to keep those errors to a minimum is to commit to being all present (mentally/physically) for each client. Never spread yourself out to thin and cut back on multitasking. But like Franni states above, when a mistake is made own up to it, learn from it and move forward a better person.

  4. Hi Franni and Julia. 🙂

    Always nice to hear from you. Great points you make about owning up to mistakes (absolutely!) and embracing mistakes as they are part of our growth and learning and help shape us professionally and personally (double absolutely!!).

    Of course, those points relate to mistakes after/during the fact. What I’m referring to is having a discussion in your actual consultations with prospective clients about the whole topic of mistakes: the fact that being human there are going to be mistakes here and there, what everyone’s attitude about mistakes is and what each party’s expectations are and how they will be dealt with. This is a post more about how to choose ideal clients and manage/set clients expectations before you work together. I’m hoping that point wasn’t lost on anyone. 😉

  5. Tash Hughes says:

    Trackback: […] came across a blog post by Danielle Keister where she advises new VAs that they will make mistakes. I love her attitude and her honesty in warning people that they will make mistakes – […]

  6. Claire Smith says:

    A great piece Danielle!

  7. Thanks, Claire 🙂 I hope it helps some folks. I actually wrote this article back in 2010, but it’s a timeless topic.

  8. Great article about a topic that should be included in EVERY prospective client consultation. Thank you for sharing this Danielle!

  9. Cindy McIlhargey says:

    Thank you! I would not have thought to do this.

  10. Glad it was helpful, Cindy. Thanks for commenting 🙂

  11. Cindy McIlhargey says:

    I ran out of your posts to read I think! LOL I gained something from every one of them. Keep it up! You are making a difference and helping us “newbies”

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