On the importance of writing everything down, and the power of owning your mistakes — even when it’s not your fault.
Earlier this year, I built a website for a client. The client is someone I’ve known for many years. This client is the type of person whose old-school when it comes to making deals. A handshake is a deal. A verbal agreement (among two men in this case) is a deal.
In other words, if you’re a man of your word, you don’t need to pull out the artillery and lawyer up every time you do business with a client. In fact, the very act of doing this, can cause friction on its own:
I like this old-school mentality. It’s honorable.
But... (wait for it...)
Because of my client (“Bob”) and I’s relationship, I decided to build a website for him, without using an overly detailed contract. Meaning, not every part of the business requirements was written down to the tiniest detail.
Note: Bob is not the actual name of my client. There’s no reason to use my client’s real name.
Now, the approach outlined above is totally doable in some cases. I believe that on small projects, where there isn’t much to misunderstand, it might be redundant to spend an entire day writing a 10 paper Business Agreement.
If you’re building a tiny one-pager website, charging $500 for half a day’s work, you might just want to get it done, and then send the bill. You don’t have much to lose.
But this particular website project was leaning on the bigger side, and now I deeply regret that I didn’t write every tiny detail down from the beginning.
A big misunderstanding between me and my client ended up forcing me and my business partner to do several days of extra work, for free.
Now, I could have returned to my client and said: “No Bob, that wasn’t part of the agreement, and if you look at the Business Requirements which you approved via email, you’ll see that this is not part of the deal”.
But here’s why I didn’t do that:
It’s true that nowhere in the Business requirements was this extra work included. Because it wasn’t written down.
My client, however, thought it was implicit. He assumed things were included, which weren’t.
Now from a legal perspective, I’d come out on the top from this situation, because obviously you cannot be accused of not living up to your end of the deal, because of something that isn’t written down in the business requirements.
But the above is a mere statement of facts, based on my subjective perspective.
Here’s how the real world works:
In this type of situation, it’s always your fault. Even if it’s not. Pretend that it is. When things like this happen, don’t blame your friends, clients, or family. Blame yourself.
Why? Because it’s usually totally within your power to prevent this awkward situation from happening in the first place.
Make it a point to detail everything in a project, early on, instead of “assuming that your client won’t assume things”. Chances are that they will assume because people (including you) tend to hear what they want to hear, especially when it comes to getting value from their money.
Even if this one particular incident is “objectively” not your fault, sometimes it will be. Nobody is perfect.
Besides, when you blame others, you’ll be less motivated to fix & improve your own faults. Because.. this wasn’t your fault, so what’s there to fix, right? Self-improvement is always good.
By taking the blame on the chin, as a default, you automatically avoid causing irreparable damage to your relationship with your client. Once you make it a habit, to blame yourself, it will eventually rewire your brain, and sharpen your understanding of reality. This will make you a stronger communicator, and therefore a better businessman.
For any project of significant size, write everything down, and don’t begin working until you have a written contract, signed by all parties involved. How much you need to lawyer up, or if you even need to, will depend on the project. There are plenty of template contracts you can use for free.
But be careful, just because a document is supposedly written by a lawyer, it doesn’t mean it’s a perfect fit for your specific use case. You’d need a lawyer to know (hah!).
A powerful side-effect of taking responsibility
Taking ownership, and as a result, doing something extra for your clients can sometimes help you unlock one of the most persuasive powers in business:
The power of Reciprocity.
In short, reciprocity is when you do something for someone, and they feel inclined to do something back. This is marketing 101.
If you offer someone an eBook for free, and it’s actually valuable (not some half-arsed book written by some Ghostwriter hack from Fiverr) then they’re likely to return the favor at some point. Sometimes immediately.
And sometimes, they’ll end up giving you back much more than what you gave them. Doing something for free can easily end up being a solid long-term investment.
How does reciprocity apply to the story with my client?
Well, I called my client up and told him that X was technically not part of the deal (it started out as a not-so-fun conversation). He was not happy about this, but he didn’t complain either (because of our relationship, I suspect) he just became silent.
Before things got awkward, I did something that my former self would never have done. I immediately switched lane and took full ownership for the misunderstanding. Even though the rational part of my brain kept telling me “But dude, you should have asked for more money, this extra work was not part of the deal”.
As soon as I told my client “don’t worry, we’ll take care of it” my client’s tone of voice changed, instantly.
He went from sounding pretty disappointed, to “Well, just tell me what I can do on my own to speed up the process, and I’ll do it, I got time in the early morning hours” (I’m paraphrasing).
Now, not only does my client now appreciate that my team and I are doing something that was technically not part of the deal, but he’s also willing to help to get it done faster.
So I guess that was three lessons in one story:
- Write everything down. For a larger project use a professional contract that protects all parties.
- Always take ownership, even if it’s not your fault.
- The power of reciprocity is real, and one way to unlock it is by taking responsibility.
Of course, you can never protect yourself from everything. Every now and then there will be a misunderstanding. If that happens, take responsibility, and solve the problem. By doing that, you’ll end up becoming more appreciated, and probably much more rewarded down the road.