When It’s All Your Fault: How to Own Up to a Mistake and Break Bad News to a Client

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Back in 2016, my worst nightmare as an editorial business owner came true. After weeks of copyediting a novel, I was doing final checks and preparing to send it off to the client when I was suddenly overcome with a feeling of impending doom.

I hurriedly did a Compare Documents in Microsoft Word, comparing the rough manuscript to the version the author had sent me to copyedit. As I looked at the red text on the screen, a wave of nausea hit me: I had edited the rough manuscript, which was missing tons of extra scenes and small additions.

I had edited the wrong manuscript.

See? True nightmare status. It was one of the most crushing moments in my editorial career up to that point. But these tragedies can happen, even with all the normal checklists and processes in place. The most important thing is how you handle the problem and move forward with the client.


Develop a Solution Before Talking with Them

Before contacting the client, make sure you’ve figured out exactly what happened and—even more importantly—how you’re going to make it right. That way, when you’re ready to break the news, you’ll have a solution already formulated and ready to present to them.

Don’t pick up the phone or start drafting an email until you’ve worked through exactly how the mistake was made and how you can fix it.

Keep Your Explanation Simple, and Be Direct

When you do call or email the client, don’t dance around the topic. Get straight to the point: let them know that there’s a problem, and that you’re going to make it right.

Instead of telling them every detail of what happened, keep your explanation simple and focus on what you’re going to do to fix the problem.

Be Accountable, Honest, and Empathetic

Own up to your mistake right away; don’t make excuses or point fingers. Everyone makes mistakes, and if you admit to yours in an honest and open way, your client will likely think even more highly of you. (Don’t over-apologize, however—saying you’re sorry over and over again doesn’t provide a clear path forward, and it makes it seem like you aren’t taking control of the situation.)

It’s also important to let the client know from the beginning of your conversation that you understand how your mistake will impact them. Be empathetic to how the situation might affect them emotionally or financially.

Make It Right—Even if It Means Taking a Financial Hit

Be reassuring, and let the client know how you’re going to fix the problem. If the mistake was entirely your fault (as it was in my case), you’ll likely need to fix it at no charge—even if that means an extra 20 hours of unpaid work. It’s all about integrity: the most important thing is to maintain the client’s trust and let them know that you’re fixing the problem.

When you’re dealing with a tough (and embarrassing!) situation like this, remember that failure isn’t the end of the world, even though it can feel like it sometimes. If you follow the guidelines above, you’ll impress your client and possibly even strengthen your relationship with them. And hey—if they flip out and start yelling at you, maybe you don’t want to work with them anyway.


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