Mea culpa. Now what?

Today, I made a mistake. OK, that's not news. I make several mistakes every day. But today's mistake cost my company a client. More about that in a minute, first I want to tell you a quick story.

A few years back I had a call lined up with a potential client. About 15 minutes before the call was set to start, something went wrong with an existing client's website. A co-worker and I sprang in to action and started solving the issue. When it was time for my call to start, I dialed in to the conference line and we began our conversation leaving my co-worker to continue solving the issue.

A couple minutes in to the call, my co-worker sent me an instant message asking a question. When it popped up on my screen it took roughly 10 seconds to read and respond to it. I apologized for the interruption and started back on the discussion we were having. But before I could finish the first sentence, the lady I was speaking with says:

“Are you instant messaging with somebody while you're on a call with me? That is extremely rude. You have a choice, you can give me your 100% full attention on this call, or we can hang up right now.”

It caught me off guard and I was definitely rattled. I apologized again, quickly explained what was going on and promised her my undivided attention. We spoke for about 30 minutes and all signs pointed towards us being a perfect fit for her project. Later that day I spent an additional 90 minutes working up an estimate for the work, which I already knew was inside of her budget based on our call, and sent it over to her.

I never received a response from her. Nor did I receive a response from the 2 follow-up emails I sent over the next 3 or 4 days or the 2 voicemails I left. I have to assume that that 10 second blip in our phone call tainted her view of me and my company and she chose to take her business elsewhere.

Time Zones are Tricky

Last week I received a contact form from a potential client who wanted to set up a call for this week. I offered up a couple days for the call and she responded with a request for a call at 2pm Central on Tuesday. Simple enough… But I obviously wouldn't be writing this post if that was the end of the story, right?

Today at 12:15 Pacific, I received an email from the lady I planned to speak with in a couple hours. The subject was in all caps. I opened it to find that she had been on the conference line for 15 minutes and that she was hanging up.

I hate having my time wasted, so when I see that I've wasted somebody else's time, it really bothers me. I immediately responded and apologized for the confusion and noted that the meeting is listed as 2pm Pacific time. I offered to move the call time up to 1pm if that would be work.

Here is the response I received:

In light of the confusion, I do not believe your company is a good match to move forward with the [company name] Project.

Not knowing exactly how to respond to that, I did some quick research in to the email history to see where things went wrong. Where exactly was the disconnect? And then I found it…

I messed up. I somehow managed to miss the fact that the requested time was listed as Central time. So when I sent out the calendar invite, it was sent with the time listed as 2pm Pacific.

Dang it.

What should I have done?

As soon as I figured out my mistake, I sent a quick response to acknowledge that the fault was definitely mine and I apologized for wasting her time. I didn't try to salvage the relationship, I simply wished her good luck with the project and stopped at that.

I've now been stewing on it for the past two hours and I would love to get your opinion. How would you have handled it? Should I have picked up the phone and tried to salvage the relationship, or do you think I would have been wasting my breath? Did I dodge a bullet with both of these clients, or did I simply screw up two opportunities?

Your input is greatly appreciated!

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  1. castorvx on December 2, 2014 at 2:50 pm

    I have mixed feelings here.

    My gut says bullet dodged on the first client. 10 second interruptions happen to us all. If you explained that you had an outage you were just alerted to, you were demonstrating that you take the uptime of your existing clients seriously. Presumably that sense of urgency would be extended to the new customer as well. Would they prefer you not care? Happy customers before new customers, I always say.

    The second case feels like maybe a smaller bullet dodged, but it was a pretty apparent blunder on your part. If anything, it makes you come off as not having to deal with time zones often, and maybe that makes it look like amateur hour? That said, using caps lock to express dissatisfaction is pretty immature. You have to wonder if that is how they are used to treating vendors.

    • John on December 2, 2014 at 2:58 pm

      Excellent points.

      On client #1, you hit the nail on the head. I’ve had to cancel calls in the past or delay an email response because of an issue with a current client. I always feel like that should give the new client some sort of warm fuzzy feeling that we take care of our existing clients before bringing on new. Glad to see it’s not just me that feels that way.

      As for the second, yup. Definitely my blunder. Not denying that fact. But, do you think it would have made any sense to try and salvage the biz?

      • castorvx on December 3, 2014 at 1:39 pm

        I think whether I would try to salvage that business would be dependent on how “hungry” I was at the time. I’m willing to put up with a little additional terror from a client if the money is there and there is a likelihood of success. Some clients are just difficult to work with but those relationships can still be lucrative.

        I’m on the fence.

        • John on December 3, 2014 at 1:42 pm

          We’re on the same page.

    • Phil Simon on December 2, 2014 at 7:50 pm

      I agree that these are two different scenarios. The second was more of an honest mistake. We are all guilty of multitasking. Your heart was certainly in the right place but I understand how the first woman would’ve been offended. By the same token, she certainly should have told you not to bother with an estimate.

      • John on December 2, 2014 at 9:37 pm

        Yeah, it’s hard to say if she was being malicious/petty by continuing the call and having me go on with the estimate. I’m not suggesting that she did it on purpose. But we’ll never know if that’s the case.

  2. Chuck Reynolds on December 2, 2014 at 2:56 pm

    Potentially dodged a bullet (or 2 as it were) but… do you just get leads from high-strung people or is that just how it sounds with the two examples?
    I’ve made the timezone mistake before – and it’s a pain but not typically a deal killer in most cases. Especially since moving out of Az, SF actually does DST which I had forgotten about mostly. anyways…

    The instant message thing sounds like perhaps that was part of the problem with their old person/team? Just not listening… sounds like that was a pain point for them and the ‘repeat’ just waved the flag.

    The second one, again sounds very jumpy and quick to flip but… may have just been shopping and needed to pull a trigger… that one I think you may have dodged some PITA but whatever. It’s not like it was a big mistake you should beat yourself up about – it happens… when busy it’s an honest mistake… whatever. move on. Spend the time being salty about it towards closing somebody else or keeping a current client happy and in the MRR fold.

    Cheers man.

    • John on December 2, 2014 at 3:03 pm

      With the time zone thing, (not deflecting blame here), when she accepted the invite, it had to show up on her calendar as 4pm local time. So, it’s very possible that there are other possible dev shops in play and any bump in the road is reason enough to narrow the field.

      Thanks brother!

      • Brandon on December 3, 2014 at 9:57 pm

        That was actually my first thought…If she accepted the meeting for the incorrect time, she’s as much at fault as you were in my opinion.

  3. Mike on December 2, 2014 at 3:01 pm

    Two .44 magnum bullets dodged with inflexible and unforgiving people. They both did you a huge favor. The same rules would apply toward dating. Would you want a second date with either of these two? How about marriage?

    Oh, and not returning your calls or emails is very passive aggressive. Good riddance to them both. And pity your competition for inheriting them.

    • John on December 2, 2014 at 3:04 pm

      Hey Mike! Good to hear from you. Haven’t chatted in a LONG time! Hope all is well.

      Appreciate your input!

  4. jb510 on December 2, 2014 at 6:56 pm

    Agree with the above, but to offer a slightly different take.

    First, you shouldn’t be so critical to company function that you need to interrupt a sales call with a IM. She’s right that you should plan for exclusive focus during the call, but then well… shit happens and we all ought to tolerate a 10s focus disruption when they happen.

    Second, how many time zones have I personally made you deal with? Working on all of them and only have a few left 🙂 Many of mine aren’t even consistently offset from you going on/off DST at different times of the year or not at all. So, time zone slip ups are frustrating, but they happen. I’ve learned to ALWAYS type the time zone when I mention a time, even when I’m in the same zone. Granted I often fail to correctly delineate 2PM PST vs 2PM PDT, but I’m getting better about that.

    • John on December 2, 2014 at 9:33 pm

      Couldn’t agree with you more about trying not to be the bottleneck. Takes me back to my post from last month where I talked about “You can’t do it all yourself“. For a while, I was the guy who had to answer all questions. I’m very happy not to be in that position any longer.

      And don’t get me started on your time zone hopping! 😉

  5. Brandon on December 3, 2014 at 10:21 pm

    I’m big on forming solid partnerships with our clients, and I know you are too. That’s why things like this hurt for a while. However, like most of the responses you’ve gotten so far, I think it was better that you didn’t try to salvage these particular relationships. Here’s why…

    When you’re a smallish shop, the good relationships you have with your clients will always lead to new good relationships. If a new potential client stumbles upon your business without a human reference – just because they know how famous you are – and they’re not willing to spend the time to get to know you and your team, it’s not likely that the relationship is going to be fulfilling for you, and they’re not likely to see the true value you bring to the table. It’s important for companies like yours to connect with the work you do because you pour your heart and soul into it. Don’t waste your time with clients that aren’t going to reciprocate the human connection. You are more than your ability to code and manage a business.

    That being said…close your instant messenger, hipchat, slack, email, and all other distractions when you’re on a call. Everyone deserves 100% of your attention.

    With the second case, as I said above, I see the fault as 50/50. You sent the calendar invite and she accepted it without letting you know that you made a mistake before it was too late. When I make mistakes like that, and I do, I generally follow up with a phone call instead of an email. It’s way easier to be mad digitally via email than it is to actually have a conversation about it. Because of that, I’m able to turn a mistake into an example of why we’re the right team to work with.

  6. Kri on December 4, 2014 at 8:09 am

    I think you did a great job at being forthcoming with your apology, John.

    Client relationships are tough simply because it’s up to you to find the right balance. Each client has different passions, needs, responsibilities, etc. and it’s really up to you to do your best to find the best way to open up lines of communication.

    You have always been an inspiration when it comes to communication, both with your co-workers and your clients (to me at least). Why not take it one step further?

    I say this because succumbing to the thought that you’ve dodged a bullet seems like an easy way out to me — an excuse that puts the blame somewhere else rather than using this as a learning opportunity to better yourself, your processes, or more importantly, your company culture.

    1. Make it a point to give everyone your undivided attention. Of course there are boundaries here, but in the case of #1, there was an agreed amount of attention that you promised to the customer and that’s what they expected. Emergencies and urgent issues come up, but that’s really your problem as a business owner and it shouldn’t be projected onto a client.

    2. Open up your lines of communication (even more). Let your team know that you’ll be on a call for x amount of time and that you’ll be unavailable. Unplug from chat. If it’s a true emergency, hand the decision over to your audience. “I have an emergency going on right now, do you mind if I respond to this quick message?” If they say yes, then you have their permission. If they say no, then respect their boundary.

    3. The devil is in the details. All of us have made those tiny errors (such as #2) that turn out to be very costly — and embarrassing! This is a sign that you’re not paying attention or that you’re overextended. You’re skimming, you’re answering email while you’re doing 10 other things, you’re not taking time to plan your day, etc. Let’s face it, small mistakes are big issues in disguise. Figure out what that is and address it!

    Love these posts, John. Keep up the awesome work!

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