What to Do if You Mess Up as a Freelancer

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Karol K
Karol K. (@carlosinho) is a blogger and writer for hire. He has his work published all over the web, on sites like: NewInternetOrder.com, Six Revisions, Web Design Ledger, Lifehack.org, Quick Sprout, ProBlogger, Writers in Charge, and others.
Karol K
Karol K
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Mess Up as a Freelancer

Dropping the ball, so to speak, is not a popular topic among freelancers. And that’s for all freelancers – writers, designers, consultants, everybody.

We all do like to read and learn interesting case studies, success stories, “underdog turned big deal” – stories and so on. But the “Hey, I messed up and now I’m in trouble” is not the most common type of a blog post around the web.

In all honesty, this isn’t that surprising after all. I mean, who would eagerly want to share their failures when there’s no silver lining, right?

Nevertheless, failures still educate. In fact, when you fail, you get a lesson you wouldn’t have gotten any other way.

So, long story short, yeah, I messed up.

Not in a hugely significant way, luckily nothing got on fire, but still.

The interesting part was that me messing up wasn’t a result of not paying attention to my work, ignoring the things I should do, or taking a nasty shortcut.

In fact, I worked hard to complete a given project – a freelance writing project. I started with an outline, listed all the things I needed to write about, and spent probably 7-10 hours (not quite sure) in total to get it all done.

Yet when I sent the article, the client wasn’t all that impressed with it.

I had to find a solution. I didn’t want to lose the client. And not only this, but I also wanted him to be happy enough with my services so that he would come back with more work in the future.

So here are the things I learned solving this difficult situation, and which I’m sure you can utilize too, should you ever mess up as a freelancer.

1. Don’t respond right away

When I got the email saying that the client wasn’t impressed, I didn’t respond right away. In fact, I waited two whole days before taking action.

I needed this time to free my mind from all the negative thoughts and self-doubt. I knew that my first reaction would surely be in some way defensive.

We are all like this. When someone is questioning our knowledge, skill or expertise, we don’t tend to take it lightly. And that’s no matter if the person is right or not.

Some time just needs to pass before we can look at the problem with a fresh eye and respond with something that’s an actual solution.

Like I said, in my case, two days was what I needed. Of course, your mileage may vary.

2. Take the blame entirely

Now, this is the important part, and please bear with me on this one. I’m going to explain what’s the reasoning here in just a minute.

When you mess up, you need to take the blame entirely. Even if the issue is a result of poor (mutual) communication, or poor project definition, or no feedback along the way, or any sort of direction changes mid-project made by the client, etc. You are always to blame.

Now, why would you want to take the hit?

The answer’s this, when there’s a problem already, the fact who is to blame changes nothing in regards to finding a solution. Whether it was your fault, your client’s fault, or your mutual fault, it’s always on you to come up with a solution and then execute it.

It’s therefore easier to take the blame, forget about the fact right away, and immediately focus your brain power on solving the problem.

However, don’t start by saying, “Oh I’m terribly sorry […]. This will never happen again […].” You don’t want to do this because there are different kinds of people, and while some will just accept your apology, others will become the dominant persona seeing your lack of confidence. You worked hard, so you have nothing to be ashamed of. Stay confident and get to the bottom of the problem.

3. Ask for the details

No matter how unsatisfied the client is, they still want to have their work done (they’ve already invested some money sending you an advance, haven’t they?). Because of this, they will be ready to cooperate and let you know what they don’t like specifically if you only ask the right questions.

The key-phrase here is “the right questions.”

Probably in their first message, the client will give you a general description of what they didn’t like, but what you need to do now is take that info and get a little deeper. Explore the possible causes and learn exactly what you need to fix in order for the client

to still walk out of the deal satisfied.

Simply keep asking until you get an answer that you can use to fix the problem and deliver an improved version of your work.

Of course, respectful tone and understanding is what you need to exercise here.

4. Offer extra work as a way to get back on their good side

I was in a restaurant one time with my girlfriend. We ordered some soup that we kind of didn’t end up enjoying. I mean, it was okay, but not quite there yet. Since the waiter asked how I liked the soup, I told her my honest opinion. A while later, when we were getting ready to leave, the waiter came back and gave us a bonus card for 20 percent off next time we’re there.

That’s a nice trick. Even though I wasn’t that impressed with the food, the waiter managed to turn the experience around.

Why not do the same when there’s a problem with the work you’ve delivered as a freelancer?

For instance, if you’re a writer charging per word, make the article longer for no extra charge (add a bonus section). If you’re a web designer, you can prepare a custom Twitter background image as a bonus. In short, no matter what kind of work you do, there’s always something you can give away for free to make the client happy.

5. Take notes for the future

Some sticky client situations will happen every now and then. It’s just pure math. If you handle X projects every year, for five or ten years straight, inevitably some of them will get difficult. Now, if you are to learn how to handle them effectively, or how to try to prevent them as much as possible, you need to take notes and keep introducing new elements into your work process.

Every lesson you learn from failure will be easily ten times more valuable than a handful of successfully completed projects.

For example, maybe the thing that failed in your case was not the actual product, but the process and the way you defined the project in the first place? Having this knowledge you can search for new ways to construct a proposal and pick the elements of the project that clients really want. Maybe you need some expert resources on how to handle proposals and how to make all the details clear right up front.

Another example. Maybe the client didn’t see the vision you had in your head? If that’s the case, you should probably search for some ways to create visual representations of your work, products, or whole work processes. Using a tool like Visme will make this easier.

Need more? In general, most communication problems can be fixed with a good CRM system (like Nutshell), plus some tweaks to your work methodology. Luckily, the technology these days gives us huge possibilities, and with just some trial and error it can help us overcome many obstacles.

6. Realize your most effective work routine/time

As a freelancer … scratch that, as a human … you are bound to have better and worse days. I mean, it’s actually quite strange when you look at it. It’s still the same you, same computer, same environment, yet sometimes the results you’re getting out can vary significantly from day to day.

So use your new note-taking habit to find the best approach to do your work, or the time of day/week when you’re the most effective.

For instance, what I’m finding is that I write much more smoothly in the morning than I do in the evening. Having this knowledge, I try not to schedule any writing tasks to begin later than 12PM. As a result, this helps me deliver better work to my clients.

7. Embrace failure

Okay, maybe embrace is not the best word here, but what I actually mean is that the fact you’ve failed at something doesn’t define you as a professional or as a human. Everybody fails and it’s only how we handle failure that defines us at the end of the day.

Every success is a nice pat on the back and a small kick to keep us going forward. But failures are so much more than that. Once we find the strength to get up after a failure, it gives us huge motivation to keep going and teaches us how to deal with similar situations in the future.

Just to leave you with something that one of my idols once said:

I’ve missed more than 9000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. 26 times, I’ve been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.

-Michael Jordan