📺 Stream EntrepreneurTV for Free 📺

How To Win When You Fail The way you react to screw ups is a critical factor in determining how successful you will be in business.

By Josh Steimle Edited by Dan Bova

entrepreneur daily

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.


If you're an entrepreneur, you will fail. I don't mean your business is going to fail and you'll go bankrupt. I mean that sometime, somewhere, to some degree, you will fall short. You will forget to follow through on a commitment to an employee, partner or customer. You'll be late to a meeting. You'll make a bad choice. You'll exercise poor judgment. You will make a mistake.

How you react when you fail will say a lot about who you are as a person, and will be a critical factor in determining how successful you are in business in ways that go beyond financial. But many of us make a mistake and then compound it with further mistakes, not because we have bad intentions, but because we simply do not know what to do. Assuming your heart is in the right place, here are four steps to increase your odds of winning when you fail.

Related: Customer Retention Begins on the Front Lines

Take full responsibility for the failure. Don't dodge. Recently a subsidiary of my online marketing firm that targets small self-storage companies signed up a new client for a $200 per month website and marketing package. We set up the website, but forgot to get the marketing services in the queue. Last week the customer contacted us and in effect said, "Hey, I'm happy with the website, but I think I was supposed to be getting online marketing services too, and I haven't seen any reports. What's going on?"

I could have dodged. I could have told the client we were waiting for something from him, or I could have blamed the problem on an employee. But I simply told him, "There's no excuse, we dropped the ball." The problem with dodging responsibility, apart from it simply being unethical or downright dishonest in most situations, is that what you are telling your customer is "I do not have the power to provide the level of service you expect." Is that the message you want to send your customers?

Unfairly compensate your customer. In 2006 I heard NPR's Scott Simon tell the story of how his father, upon complaining to his favorite shaving cream company that they weren't delivering the 90 shaves per can they promised, received a crate full of cans of shaving cream. "I think my father may have been buried with the last few cans," Simon says. If you unfairly compensate your customer to their benefit, your company's actions may one day become the stuff of legend.

Related: Experience Your Brand From Your Customers' Perspective

Explain why the failure will not happen again. Your customers are looking for an excuse to stick with you. They've made an investment. Switching to another company is time consuming, bothersome, expensive and potentially risky, since the customer has no guarantee that things won't be worse with a new vendor. The customer wants to continue working with your company, but needs to know that the problem won't happen again. It's not enough to merely ensure the problem won't happen again, you also need to make sure the customer understands this.

Never do it again. Let me down once, shame on you. Let me down twice, shame on me. Everyone fails now and then. Most customers are reasonable people who understand this. When a vendor fails two or more times in the same way, the customer begins to realize this is not a one-time occurrence, but a rather inconvenient pattern. At some point, the time, cost, and risk of finding a new vendor eclipses the time, cost, and risk of staying with you, and then the customer is gone.

After 14 years of running a service firm I've come to understand that most customers have fairly simple expectations. They want what they paid for in the form promised, within the time frame committed to.

In the case of my firm's client, we followed these steps and the client was not only thrilled with the way we treated him, but then asked us to take on more of his business. We failed, but by taking the right steps to clean up the failure, we won in the end.

Have you ever failed to deliver on a customer's expectations? How did you handle the situation?

Related: The Ethics Coach on Cash Deals, Transparency and More

Josh Steimle

Speaker, writer and entrepreneur

Josh Steimle is the Wall Street Journal and USA Today bestselling author of "60 Days to LinkedIn Mastery" and the host of "The Published Author Podcast," which teaches entrepreneurs how to write books they can leverage to grow their businesses.

Want to be an Entrepreneur Leadership Network contributor? Apply now to join.

Side Hustle

These Coworkers-Turned-Friends Started a Side Hustle on Amazon — Now It's a 'Full Hustle' Earning Over $20 Million a Year: 'Jump in With Both Feet'

Achal Patel and Russell Gong met at a large consulting firm and "bonded over a shared vision to create a mission-led company."

Side Hustle

How to Turn Your Hobby Into a Successful Business

A hobby, interest or charity project can turn into a money-making business if you know the right steps to take.

Business News

These Are the 10 Most Profitable Cities for Airbnb Hosts, According to a New Report

Here's where Airbnb property owners and hosts are making the most money.


Want to Be More Productive? Here's How Google Executives Structure Their Schedules

These five tactics from inside Google will help you focus and protect your time.

Business News

How Much Do Engineers, Software Developers, and Analysts Make at Apple? See Salary List

Using application data from highly-skilled foreign workers, Insider revealed a range of salaries at the tech giant.