Miss a Client Deadline? 5 Steps to Take When You Mess Up

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Miss a client deadline? Mess up on a work project? Here's exactly how to handle a career mistake so you can get back on track!

When I first started working for myself full-time, I knew it was going to be a lot to manage. As a freelancer, you wear many hats and are juggling many different aspects of work.

In addition to your main product or service, you also have to be the admin department, marketing department, and human resources.

Managing all of these things is a delicate act and one that requires extreme organization and persistence. One small thing can fall through the cracks and affect everything else after that, like an unfortunate domino effect.

So for the past few months, I’ve been diligently putting everything onto my calendar as well as into Asana.

Asana lets me set up a task, as well as a deadline. At this point, if it’s not in the calendar, or Asana, it doesn’t exist in my scope of vision. Essentially, I live by Asana and have it open at all times.

Carrie’s note: I run my business the exact same way (and require freelancers that I work with to do the same). Tasks are scheduled through Asana with deadlines, details, PDFs or docs attached, and then integrated into Google Calendar. If you want to learn more about Asana, check out the Asana For Bloggers guide.

Realizing I missed a client deadline

So wouldn’t you know that a few weeks ago, I got an email regarding a small task by my client. I saw the email, acknowledged it, then kept on working.

Deep down I knew I should have put it on my task list, but I thought “I’d get to it later.” And by later, I mean that I realized I had completely forgot about the task after it was supposed to be done.

I started to have this sick feeling in my stomach and I furiously went back through my email to assess the gravity of the situation. Indeed, I had dropped the ball.

After cursing myself, I took a deep breath and tried to look at the situation with fresh eyes. I knew I had to say something — not only say something, but do something.

So I completed the task, albeit a bit late, and emailed the client in question and fessed up. I was lucky in that it was a pretty minor task and I have a good relationship with the client. There were no repercussions from this mishap, except my bruised ego and perfect record.

After the incident, I thought about the weight of the situation. It wasn’t that serious, but what if it had been?

As a business owner, there will be times when you mess up, drop the ball, or make a fairly significant mistake. Why? Because we’re all human and things happen.

So if you find yourself in a situation where you dropped the ball, here are steps you can take to remedy the situation.

Step 1: Acknowledge your mistake

First things first. Fess up! Don’t run away and not return client emails or phone calls. Acknowledge what happened and face it head-on. Your reputation and client relationships will be much better off by approaching it this way.

I know, it’s uncomfortable, but if you want to salvage any semblance of a relationship you have with a client, this step is key. Don’t make excuses, or tell a sob story — even if you did have a legitimate reason, just state the facts and acknowledge what happened.

Most business owners will understand that sometimes life gets in the way (or the internet craps out, your computer dies, etc). But don’t go overboard with the story. Acknowledge your mistake and move on to the next step.

Step 2: Sincerely apologize

After you acknowledge what happened, offer a sincere apology. Be direct, honest, and genuine and stay away from drama-filled, woe-is-me apologies.

I have a tendency for being dramatic and blowing things out of proportion, so initially I wanted to write an apology essay, until I cleared my head and realized that would do nobody any good. A simple and sincere apology should suffice — sounding desperate is never good.

Your character shines through during the tough times, so clients are likely to be impressed if you remain calm and act professional in the face of the problem.

As an additional reminder; it’s important to know the type of client you’re working with and how they deal with these kinds of problems. Maybe they don’t care at all why it happened, and just want it fixed. Or perhaps they have no patience and want assurance that it won’t happen again.

Offer an apology in the style that will ease the client’s mind the most, and work towards a solution.

Step 3: Find a way to fix it

After making a mistake or missing an important deadline, do your best to remedy the situation as soon as possible. Don’t let your client clean up your mess.

Remain calm and fix the issue!

If you missed a deadline, do a quick turnaround. If you made an error in content, point it out and fix it quickly. Is there some way you can rectify the problem and go the extra mile? Offer to do whatever it takes.

Things happen, but your ability to react quickly and fix the situation can make your mistake a minor annoyance, rather than a crisis.

character shine tough times quote

Step 4: Don’t beat yourself up

It’s so easy to be your worst critic. I’ve been fighting my own thoughts nearly every day and have to work hard to make sure I am positive, and practicing self-love and self-care. So when I made this minor blunder, my mind went wild with self-loathing and abuse.

As I calmed down, I realized I had an unrealistic expectation that I’d be perfect at all times and never disappoint anyone, ever. I’m still new at being a freelancer, and if I want to do this long-term I need to get used to the fact that mistakes will happen.

Miscommunication happens. Technology fails. Our human nature lets something slip through the cracks.

So don’t be too hard on yourself. It’s not worth it. It happened, and it may suck, but you’ll both forget about it eventually, if you use these steps to handle the situation with grace and fortitude.

Step 5: Avoid this in the future

The final step in dealing with a mistake as a freelancer, is actually avoiding this same issue in the future. What was the problem?

Was it lack of organization? A technical issue? Human error? Whatever the case may be, it’s important to figure out exactly what led to the mishap, in order to prevent future mistakes of a similar vein.

I realize that I could have all the organizational tools in the world, but if I don’t use them properly, they are useless. Your systems are only as good as your ability to manage them and actually input information.

I knew deep down, that I should put everything in Asana, no matter how small the task. I can’t rely on my short-term memory to handle this any longer.

It makes sense — our short-term memory is only capable of handling about seven bits of information. So while it may have been on my mind at some point, it quickly got pushed out by more pressing tasks.

I now know that going forward all to-dos, big or small, will go into my task management system and calendar to help manage my time and tasks.

Learning to deal with mistakes as a freelancer

If you’re faced with a problem where you missed a client deadline, submitted a project late, or something slipped your mind entirely, acknowledge the issue and what went wrong.

Sometimes it won’t be all your fault. Maybe your computer crashed or you had an emergency to deal with. Those things happen too and are a part of life.

But being a successful business owner is reflected in how you deal with a situation like this arises. Will you face it head-on, or run away by avoiding it?

Have you ever had a mishap like this? What was your process for dealing with missing a deadline or messing up a client project?

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  1. Kayla says:

    Great tips Melanie! I haven’t run across this situation yet, but I’m sure I will as time goes on and I get more busy with my freelancing. Thanks for putting this post together.

  2. Sarah says:

    I made a stupid mistake recently. I write SEO blog posts and articles for most of my clients and I always add a link back to my client’s website in the content. This time, with a NEW client on my FIRST project, I totally forgot. They asked me why and I hate having to tell them I just forgot. This may be kind of a minor problem but I can’t afford to make dumb mistakes like that with a brand new client. Makes me look terrible.

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