It can be as simple as a harsh comment on a discussion board or a missed important deadline. Just like that, you’ve burnt a bridge. As GDB reader Fion mentions in a comment on this post,
“…I regret to say that I have made some mistakes in my youth, and have burned some bridges. (Bad client relationship because of slow work pace, ‘bad attitude’…) Is there any way that bridges can be repaired? Should they be repaired? Or is it better to just move on and avoid burning more bridges?”
I’m sure Fion isn’t alone.
Whether it’s a client, a peer, or an online discussion group, the problem with a burnt bridge is that you’re very unlikely to be hired ever again by the offended party(s). Let’s take a look at how bridges get burnt and what might be the best course of action going forward. It still might not get your business back, but it might lessen the sting of their experience with you.
First things first.
The first thing to do, regardless of offense, is to apologize. Be honest, be sincere, and acknowledge the mistake(s) you made. Humility and humbleness are good traits to have. No one is infallible, and it makes you look terrible to pretend as much. More importantly, an apology might prevent the offended from telling everyone they know what a rotten experience working with you turned out to be.
That said, a statute of limitations does apply. There’s really no need to bring up an angry conversation from 5 years ago and remind the offended of your misdeed. Hopefully by now you’ve all moved on.
Assess the situation.
To asses how to go about mending the situation (if that’s possible), first you need to understand where you went wrong.
There are two major components to every business: product and customer service. In the design business, our product is the final piece and the process with which we arrive, and our customer service is how we treat the client along the way. I’m also going to lump networking discussions gone bad or inadvertent insults in with customer service, as they’re all related to you rather than your product.
In every business relationship, either one (or both) of these can fail, potentially burning a bridge. The likelihood of repairing the relationship depends upon which of these components did not succeed.
Okay, so you’re wonderful to work with but you missed the mark on the design. Maybe you took a job that wasn’t your forte or you got overbooked and this was the something that had to give. Suddenly the client isn’t so interested in the next phase of the project they were so excited about 2 weeks ago and have stopped communicating with you.
Is it likely that you’ll regain their business? Not likely, but it depends on the severity of their unhappiness. With a discount proportional to offense, you might be able to convince them back, but make sure their business is profitable enough for you to chase after them. In other words, don’t dangle a carrot in front of them if all you expect in return is a peanut.
Case in point: The local Fedex office I worked with fairly regularly on a contract job royally fouled up a very time-sensitive print job. The text was illegibly blurry and the colors were hideous. I contacted the service representative and gave him a decent piece of my mind (why didn’t they stop and call me?!). He apologized profusely and promised if we’d give them a second chance that he’d give us a 50% discount on the next print. We did, and the next one turned out great.
Since the company I contracted with gave them a significant amount of repeat (and rush) business, eating half of the costs of the next print job for their continued business was a smart move.
Customer service failure:
You insulted the client by remarking how lousy their previous design was…that was designed, unbeknownst to you, by him. He loves your final product but really doesn’t love you.
Is it likely that you’ll regain his business? The amount of attitude a client/peer/vendor will tolerate is related to the quality of the product. If your client is absolutely smitten with your work, he’s much more likely to put up with your tardiness, off-color remark, or ‘better than thou’ attitude.
Case in point: My boyfriend and I purchased some pants on sale at a Men’s Warehouse while out of state. At our local store, the sales lady very rudely and brusquely claimed that one of the pairs of pants wasn’t purchased at one of their stores and “she’s worked at Men’s Warehouse for over 18 years and they’ve never sold that brand in any store,” so the hem on that pair would be $10 more. Afterward, Eric found the exact pair of pants on the home page of the Men’s Warehouse website. When we returned to pick up the hemmed pants, we complained and showed the manager.
It really had nothing to do with the $10 or the hem on the pants; we felt insulted in how we were treated. That the manager was apologetic and the pants are perfectly hemmed means that we’re likely to shop at Men’s Warehouse in the future.
Product and customer service failure:
If the customer likes neither your final product nor the way you treated them, you’ve really botched the job and you’d better fix something or you’re going to be out of clients soon. Often this happens to new designers who get defensive about a design or idea to the point of rudeness.
Is it likely that you’ll regain the business? No. Make as good of a peace as you can, wish them well in the future – it’s harder to carry ill will toward someone when they’re being nice in return – and move on.
Case in point: The company that installed my air conditioner installed a leaky unit. My puron leaked out and I had to purchase more the next year, even though the company couldn’t find the leak. The following year the same thing happened and after over 5 hours of searching, a bad seal on the unit was found. I got charged full price for the time and the fix because the warranty on the install was now expired and the warranty on the unit didn’t cover the leaky part. I was VERY upset, to say the least. I told everyone I knew how awful my experience was, I wrote a scathing letter to the local newspaper and the Better Business Bureau, and I gave a poor review on Yelp.
Had I gotten an apology and a compromise, I wouldn’t have shouted from the rooftops what a lousy company they were. (I’m still bitter.)
To recap: people will tolerate a total jerk for exquisite work, or average work for a wonderful experience, but not poor work and a crappy experience.
The best solution:
Don’t burn bridges!!! The only way to win is not to play. – bonus points for the origin of this quote!
Your reputation and your network are some of your most precious (and nonrenewable) resources…and the world is smaller than you think. Act like an adult and a professional in all of your dealings to keep them in pristine condition.
Have you unburned bridges?
It’s time for your input, GDB readers. How have you unburned bridges with clients or peers? Do you move on or do you repair? How do you run damage control on a burning or burnt bridge? Leave a comment on this post!
Author’s Note: A huge thank you to my boyfriend, Eric, for his thought-provoking insight on this topic. My post is at least 100 times better because of our discussion. Thanks, dear!