Beating Business Burnout

Can You Manage?

Oops, I Goofed!

As a consumer, you've undoubtedly been on the receiving end of goofs: the repairman who showed up three hours late; the mail order blouse that arrived in the wrong color; your name misspelled on every engraved invitation to your party. Those foul-ups can be infuriating. But when you're the entrepreneur who makes them, they can be more than aggravating--they can be expensive.

Ellen Shapiro, owner of EPSD Graphics in Somerville, Massachusetts, made an error that might have cost her one of the company's best customers. The hours Shapiro put into a project greatly exceeded the number she'd quoted in her original bid. Understandably, the client's eyebrows shot up when Shapiro handed her an invoice for almost 70 percent more than anticipated.

Shapiro felt terrible and agonized over what to do. "I considered taking the whole invoice in trade because I felt uncomfortable about not telling them sooner," she says. After thinking it over a bit more, she sent a revised invoice that included a partial trade. "The client offered compensation of an amount in between, and we basically split the difference."

What did Shapiro learn? For one thing, to get everything in writing. She realized having an agreement letter explaining that the bid was a ballpark estimate could have saved her the trouble she encountered.

Of course, avoiding all goofs is a worthy goal, but since that's not realistic, here are some ideas on reducing the damage should you happen to mess up:

  • Take the long view. Tom Gibbons, president of Cornerstone Associates, a Sparta, New Jersey, consulting company, emphasizes that entrepreneurs must be farsighted in trying to right a wrong. In the case of Shapiro and the overpriced invoice, Gibbons counsels, "The issue is not the invoice or the cost, but the long-term relationship. Is she looking to maximize the profits of each job or of all her jobs?" If you want customers to be yours for life, be sure to act in ways that will help the relationship endure despite periodic problems.

  • Accept the blame. Have you ever called a company with a complaint and been passed from person to person like the hors d'oeurvres platter at a cocktail party? Not helpful, is it? Finger-pointing and excuses only infuriate customers. Instead, take a deep breath and admit you made a mistake. Customers appreciate and respect someone who is honest with them.

  • Put yourself in the customer's shoes. If you're worrying about how to make things right, take a look at the situation from your customer's perspective. If what happened to him had happened to you, what would it take to satisfy you? What could be done to ensure that you would continue to do business with the company?

  • Figure out why it happened. Ron Willingham, chairman of Integrity Systems, a training firm in Phoenix, and author of Hey, I'm the Customer! (Prentice Hall, $10.95, 800-922-0579), suggests following a simple four-step formula to regain your customer's goodwill following a slip-up: 1. Understand the problem; 2. Identify the cause; 3. Discuss solutions; 4. Solve the problem.

Typically, Willingham says, businesses skip step number two and treat goofs as isolated incidents. They send a coupon and an apology and think they're home free. "But if you understand the cause," he says, "you can then understand the effect, have a better chance of correcting it, and avoid making the same mistake."

  • Find the best solution. Every goof will require a different action to resolve it. In some cases, a small gift accompanied by a note of apology will suffice. Ask the client what you can do to satisfy him. If he likes you and appreciates your products or services, he's likely to want the problem resolved fairly.

Whatever you do, be sure that your customer is happy with the final outcome. Check back after a couple of weeks to ensure his continued support. --L.H.C.

Contact Sources

Lisa Roberts, (203) 372-4977,

Avenida Travel Services, 2 Venture Plaza, #140, Irvine, CA 92718, (714) 325-4637.

Cornerstone Associates, P.O. Box 514, Sparta, NJ 07871, (201) 729-9992.

EPSD Graphics, (617) 666-3874.

Integrity Systems, 2425 E. Camelback Rd., #785, Phoenix, AZ 85016, (602) 955-9090.

Renaissance Interactive,

Ronin Publishing, P.O. Box 1035, Berkeley, CA 94701, (510) 540-6278.

The Perfect Gift, 9648 Olive Blvd., #403, St. Louis, MO 63132, (314) 872-0202.

"The Stress Doc," (202) 232-8662, (

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This article was originally published in the June 1997 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Beating Business Burnout.

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