Oops – I Messed Up

Written by Pam Lefkowitz on February 3, 2022

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Recovering From IT Mistakes and Working With Angry Customers

Man rubbing his eyes after making a mistake

Sometimes, we’re the bug.

Sometimes, we’re the windshield.

When you’re the IT person, causing the pain is bad. I don’t mean darnit-I-have-to-rewrite-a-proposal bad. I mean holy-cow-I-threw-out-all-their-email-and-I’ll-be-sued-and-living-in-a-box-on-the-street bad. Or I-underbilled-them-for-the-last-5-months-and-now-I-have-to-explain-why-their-bill-is-tripled-this-month bad. 

How we handle ourselves during a Big Bad™ will test our mettle. What precisely happened and in what order it happened will determine the fix, so I won’t talk about that today. Instead, let’s work on how to handle the mistake and how to deal with the (rightly so) angry user. 

Remain Calm

The first thing to do upon discovery of the error is to breathe. Do a quick assessment on a scale of:

Scale of zero to "someone died"

If handled correctly (and if this isn’t a pattern for you), this is not the end of the world. Neither is it the end of your job nor your business. If handled poorly, well … losses could be incurred.

Hopefully, you find the error and are able to fix it before your client notices. Being the ethical person that you are, you will tell them what happened and that it’s fixed, even if they never would have known. Why? Because transparency and radical candor go a long way to building customer confidence and loyalty. Plus, it lets your customer know that you are taking care of and protecting them no matter what.

Hair on Fire

But, sometimes, your client will notice the problem before you do. And, also sometimes, there will be anger. And they may not be kind and they may not want to hear what, to their ears, sounds like an excuse. They want the mistake to never have happened. And this will be your greatest test of character. As my pal Tom says, “How you act during a crisis is who you really are.”

The single best tool in your kit right now is honesty and transparency. Communication is the key to dealing with the angry customer. It doesn’t matter if the problem is tech-caused or outsider-caused or you-caused: if it happened on your watch, it’s your problem. Acknowledge it. Own it. Set about a plan to fix it — and save your reputation.

Profile of an Angry Customer

My example for today is my HVAC system here at home. As I write this, it’s 62º in my house and 30º outside. My furnace isn’t working. Again. This happens every winter since installation (2018). I have had one part replaced multiple times. Not because the part or the furnace is inherently bad, but because the installation was poorly engineered, causing part failure. The provider tells me the problem, jiggles something, and blames other people. The furnace works for the season, but the provider never summarily addresses the actual problem with the original installation. I finally called Company B who explained exactly what the problem was and told me how it should be fixed. Getting Company A (provider) to actually fix it and compensate me for charges from Company B will be the next battle. Bad reviews will certainly follow. Legal formalities and a visit from the local TV station’s consumer complaints team may be in our future. This is not the result you want when dealing with an already angry customer!

The provider’s instinct to blame someone else kicked in immediately. When that didn’t pass muster they tried to explain to me that “xyz” was the problem when it clearly wasn’t. Here’s the most damaging part: they patronized me – “explaining” the problem to me in terms that were ridiculously basic and functionally impossible. They dismissed the possibility that I might have some mechanical and technical aptitude. They didn’t know who they were dealing with, and they were disingenuous. This is not how you deal with any user, angry or not!

Improving Communication

What would have made it better? More than anything, honesty and transparency. They should have admitted that they didn’t know the answer. They should have committed to bring in someone who did. Lack of knowledge is never a problem. Hiding a lack of knowledge is a huge problem.

There’s a lot to know in the world, so there is no shame in saying, “I don’t know what the problem is, let me find someone who does.” Most folks will totally respect that statement and the courage it takes to say it. 

When you’re being held up as the expert, it can be ego-crushing to admit that you don’t have all the answers. And let’s be honest, IT folks spend a LOT of time on the interwebs looking for answers. It’s like we have a community secret: “psst – we don’t know everything but don’t let the users know that”. 

Profile in Courage

Summon up your courage, Grasshopper. Outline how you are going to get an answer for your customer. Give your users an action plan. Let them know what you’re going to do, who you’re going to get assistance from, and when you’re going to do each major step. Knowledge is a great slayer of fear.

Once you have created the plan, it’s time to get to work. Keep your boss/user/client informed at all stages of the process (as makes sense) and keep a level head. If you are calm, they’ll be calm. Show them that they are your number one priority until the problem is fixed. 

Speaking of Focus

This is a good time for a reminder: staring at a problem non-stop can be a stumbling block to solving the problem. 

Take regular mindfulness breaks — not 20-minute meditation sessions, but a couple of minutes of deep abdominal breathing, eyes closed, can do wonders when you’re stuck in high-stress mode. It works the same as when you wake up in the middle of the night with the answer to a question that was bugging you all day. If you give your brain a break, you open it up to receiving new information.

The Problem is Solved

Once you have rectified the issue and your client is past their anger, it is a good idea to sit down with them for a debrief session. Explain to them what caused the problem, explain the basics of the solution, and explain to them what you put in place to ensure it won’t happen again. Admit any mistakes you might have made and show them how you plan to adjust your work going forward to avoid similar issues. 

Great Customer Service

Even if the problem wasn’t something you caused, it’s something that you can learn from. Once burned, twice shy and all that. If you are their consultant (rather than an employee), you may need to come to some agreement on billing for the emergency. 

In my practice there were times that I could not, in good conscience, bill fully for my time. Putting customer service first went a long way to keeping a loyal customer base. 

Certainly, if the problem could have been mitigated by better knowledge or better planning on my part, I made compensations in my fees. If the mistake was my fault, I probably comped the customer the entire bill. If the incident wasn’t my fault, I billed the client but advocated for them with the provider. 

Users will get angry. It’s inevitable. Unless you directly caused their dismay, they’re probably just taking out their anger on you (sorry). Take offense, or respond in kind, and you might just find yourself down one client. Learn to diffuse others’ anger. Let them have their say – and don’t interrupt. Listen to them. Really listen. And then use your reflective responses genuinely (“I hear you … ,” ”I understand that you expected … ,” “what I hear you saying is … “). When angry customers feel heard, they’re more likely to engage in a valuable and productive conversation. 

How we communicate with our users is power. And we all know the saying about great power. Let’s talk about how we handle people difficulties in the JumpCloud Lounge #AdminLife channel! 

Pam Lefkowitz

Pam is an IT Columnist at JumpCloud where she uses her experience as a consultant and MSP to write about IT admin life and tech. Outside of (remote) work hours, she spends her time with her dog, visiting her kids across the country, and being creative with fiber.

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