Recovering From a Mistake

We all make mistakes and most of us have learned over the years that making mistakes and, most importantly, successfully recovering from those mistakes can be great learning experiences. In fact, I’ve noticed in the communication classes that I teach that it’s one thing for me to tell students, for instance, that they need to proofread carefully and that they should be particularly attentive to client and company names and another thing entirely when they actually make such an error and the client notices it. They learn far more from the latter.

The most important thing that anyone can do to recover effectively from a mistake is:

1) “Own” the mistake – accept responsibility. Don’t attempt to make excuses, blame others, etc.

2) Consider and offer options for addressing the error.

3) Learn from the experience.

Several years ago when I was the advertising manager for a small, privately held company, one of my employees — a copywriter — came to me in my office. She had just been part of a project that was one of our largest campaigns to date at that time. It involved the printing and mailing of a large format, full color brochure that was going out to more than 100,000 individuals.

She had made an error in the piece. Instead of a price of $265.00 for a particular product, she had misplaced the decimal point, so it read $26.50. The brochures were already printed.

Now, in reality, she was not alone in making this error. She was the project manager and the copywriter, but there were other proofreaders as well. Despite this, though, she took full responsibility — never mentioned any others and this is what she did:

  • Came to my office and said. I’ve made a big mistake that I need to let you know about.
  • She told me what the mistake was. I heard it from her first!
  • She then told me that she had explored some options to correct the mistake and recommended one particular option — working with a career services organization that happened to be right next door to us to print and apply stickers to the brochures with the corrected price. She had a cost for this service and a timeframe (which would only hold back our mailing date a few days).
  • She added: “Of course, I expect this cost to come out of my paycheck.”

It was and still is the best example of service recovery I have ever experienced. There was no other way to respond than to thank her for coming forward so quickly to inform me of the error, along with her recommended resolution, and to tell her that, of course, the cost would not come out of her paycheck.

I’ve shared this story often over the years with staff members, students and others. It is, I think, a great example of how — if handled effectively — even a significant error can result in a positive outcome. She remains, in my opinion, one of the best employees I’ve ever worked with!

What’s the biggest error you ever made? How did you recover?

by Linda Pophal

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