Excellence in Handling a Mistake

April 19, 2021

Most of us are familiar with these old saying, “Nobody is perfect,” and “We all make mistakes.” The expressions usually go hand in hand and convey that, no matter how hard we try, as humans, we can never get everything right all the time. The question then becomes how you’ll handle the situation when it inevitably arises.

One of the members of an association that we both belong to recently made a mistake difficult for him to own. It was a bit embarrassing, which is why I believe he found it tough to accept. The result was that it became a much bigger deal than it otherwise would have been.

Having made more than my share of mistakes, I’ve developed a simple 4 step process that has worked well for me personally, in businesses that I have owned, and in organizations that I have run. I’m sure it will work for most.

  1. Acknowledge the mistake.
  2. Apologize for any harm caused.
  3. Make it right
  4. Ensure it doesn’t happen again.

When I owned my fast-food restaurants, we secured a very profitable relationship with the Boston branch of a national brokerage firm. Our local Subway in that area provided six-foot subs and all the extras for their Tuesday weekly sales meeting and other events from time to time. I knew the manager well, as we were both active in the Boston business community. I received a call from him late one Tuesday morning in my office asking where his weekly six-foot sub order was. I told him I would check and get right back to him.

My Big Mistake

When I called the store, I discovered that someone had misread the catering schedule, and the six-foot subs were scheduled to be delivered on Thursday. We had made a colossal mistake! The bread for the six-foot subs must be specially baked, so there was no way that we could fill the order. I told the manager to close the store, prepare footlong subs and party platters, and to have our other nearby store do the same. Finally, the order had to be delivered by noon to meet the client’s lunch schedule.

I called the client back, acknowledging the mistake, and explained what had happened. I apologized for not being able to deliver what he expected, as the very sight of six-foot subs coming through the door is a part of the ambiance of the experience. I conceded that we would not be able to provide that this week. I shared my backup plan to ensure that his teams would still have their lunch and made clear that this week’s lunch would be at no charge. Lastly, I emphasized that I would personally develop a procedure so that a mistake like this one would never occur again.

The Result

We delivered the order on time, and everyone ate their lunch at the appointed hour.

Two things happened because of our mistake. First, despite my objections, the manager insisted on paying the regular price for the food we delivered. Second, he complimented us on how we had handled the situation and asked me to come in and speak to his teams on how to handle a mistake when dealing with customers. He also paid me a generous fee for my words.

Because “Nobody is perfect” and “We all make mistakes,” I have found that most people are very forgiving if you handle the mistake using the 4 steps offered above, if you handle it with excellence.

A Quote To Consider!

“What do you do with a mistake: recognize it, admit it, learn from it, forget it.”

--Dean Smith