5 Steps to Take When Sh*t Hits the Fan

It was 7am on a crisp winter’s morning. I was up going through some emails. The phone rang.

I had been heading up my company’s Japanese business for a couple years at that point…and the phone never rang that early.

As soon as I picked the phone up and heard the voice on the other end I knew there was a problem.

Thankfully for my ear’s sake he wasn’t yelling. But he wasn’t happy. My Japanese wasn’t fluent at that time, but I understood more than enough to know this was serious.

The Dash
I threw my suit on, hailed a cab and 20 minutes later I was at my clients office. He was sitting in his director’s chair smoking his cigarette. He waived for me to sit down across from him…this was going to be interesting….

It turned out that the problem my client first noticed wasn’t such a big problem. In fact, through a set of coincidences something had a occurred that no one on earth could have predicted. But it happened and I had to deal with it.

“It” was an English language advertisement that we created as part of a campaign for our multi-national client. And that client found a similar advertisement done in Japanese by a different company using the same photo we had selected. It wasn’t a competitor and we had never seen that other ad before…nonetheless the client company was pretty pissed at our…shall I say, “lack of creativity.”

The Fix
Within 2 days the problem was solved. But that experience, many years back, taught me a great lesson in how to deal with problems when sh*t hits the fan.

Problems? You never have problems right? Listen, let’s not beat around the bush and pretend that every consulting project runs from start to finish without a hitch.

Most projects hit a snag at one time or another. That’s all part of being in the business.

But what should you do when a project really blows up? When something’s gone wrong. When something clearly isn’t right.

Damage control time
Let’s put aside all the usual “first figure out why the problem happened and make sure it doesn’t happen again.” That makes sense, but when the pressure has caused your client’s head to pop your first action shouldn’t be to think about the future…it should be to think about right now.

To help you navigate this situation let me share with you 5 steps you can take to eleviate your client’s unhappiness, solve the problem, and get the project train back on its tracks.

1. (Wo)man Up! – If it’s your fault, admit it. Don’t hide from it. Trying to put the blame on someone else or some event doesn’t help. And your client will only view you in a lesser light.

2. Be Transparent – Explain to your client what went wrong. More importantly tell them what you’re doing to fix the situation. Everyone makes mistakes. There’s no shame in admitting that you made one if you did. Put all your cards on the table and show your client that you are holding nothing back and really do have their best interests at heart.

3. Protect Yourself – On the flip side if you didn’t cause the problem or are being blamed for something that wasn’t your fault you need to protect your ground. Simply arguing that it wasn’t you is a big mistake many people make. Come prepared. You need to reverse the odds in your favor by showing your client with real proof (numbers, data, results, materials, etc) that you’ve done nothing wrong.

4. Support Them – Regardless of who’s mistake it was, you need to support your client. Clearly they are upset and feeling stressed. Maybe the mistake has put their job on the line. Maybe they’ve lost a boatload of cash. Whatever it is show your support and help them to get to the bottom of the issue and assist them in fixing it.

5. Chill – Seriously. Take a deep breath. This is where I messed up when I first had this experience. I got so stressed I lost sight of the other important things in life. It was a big mistake because not only did I damage my mind and body for a couple of days, my brain was so stressed that it was clouded…which slowed down my thinking and as a result took longer to arrive at the solution.

When stress hits you…and it always will, do your best to put it all in perspective. What’s the worst that can happen? Is it really that bad to your overall business and life? Clarifying your perspective and placing what’s really important at the forefront of your  mind can turn this whole experience into a valuable lesson. You can actually ‘control’ the situation, rather than having it ‘control you’.

Any tips for dealing with situations like this? Any stories to share? Please do in the comments below…

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  • Shea Johnson

    I think this is an important story. I had a similiar situation once and looking back could have handled it differently.

    • Shea – thanks for the comment and glad you enjoyed the post!

  • Boye

    Consulting is like being the doctor of a critically ill patient, who looks only to you for survival. In a real patient-doctor situation, if you let your patient die, you will only live the guilt and move on to the next case. Whereas, in a consultant-client situation, after your “patient” dies, you live with the guilt of the failed project and also a real ghost of the client hunting you. Nowhere to run really!

  • Thank you so much guys for that awesome post. from the first line till the last line it seems like i was right there in the ro0m. In life or in our business when things go wrong we have two choices: One we can fix it and Two we can go around blaming every one else. Like you said in step 1. (Wo)man Up!. The moral of the story here is do the right thing for our clients and ourselves.