The client’s not happy.

Four words that send a shiver down the spine of anyone in the event or hospitality business.  Of course “not happy” in our world is customer service code for “furiously angry”.  The event can be spectacular, but if the client’s not happy, we are dead in the water.   Likewise, the event can be a train wreck, but if your client looks at you from across the room with unbridled joy and appreciation as he raises a shot of Patron toward you, all is good in the world.

Whether you’re a vendor or agency servicing a paying client, or an in-house planner dealing with an internal client, none of us are paying for our own personal events; we’re all accountable to someone.  And unlike most other service businesses, if a screw-up occurs during an event, there’s no pause button; you’ve got to roll with it.  When the CEO comes to the podium and the sound craps out, it’s hide-under-the-table time.  There’s often very little you can do.

One thing you can do, however, is not make things worse by blaming someone else.  When your CEO walks backstage, he does not care that the audio tech missed his cue.  He wants someone to be sorry, and since you’re his point person, that means you.

Too often our initial reaction is to deflect blame onto someone else, so we don’t look bad.  Or worse, we push back, reminding the client that he signed off on the script change he insists you butchered.  All this serves to inflame the client further.  For now the discussion is no longer about xyz problem; now it’s about his frustration that you are challenging his need to vent and be heard.  And the anger he may have over the event mistake is nowhere near how angry he’ll be if someone doesn’t step forward and take responsibility.

Nothing takes the air out of an angry client faster than a sincere apology.  Once you accept responsibility for a miscue, there’s simply nowhere for him to go in the argument.  By not providing  resistance, he has no one to argue with, and it’s only a matter of time before he gets it out of his system.  Show your empathy, say what you’ll do to fix the problem moving forward if possible, and move on.

Try practicing this in front of the mirror, That should not have happened, and I take full responsibility for it happening on my watch.  Let me get to the bottom of why this occurred and I’ll debrief with you when the event is over.” Doesn’t exactly flow off your tongue, does it?  But said with the right combination of understanding and resolve, it comes off as extremely professional after a major gaffe.

Now, if event screw ups keep happening, eventually you’ll be out of a job, whether you become the ultimate apologist or not, as well you should be.  Otherwise, never underestimate the power of an apology.   Unfortunately we live in a culture where people don’t apologize until it’s too late.

Yes, we live in a culture where nobody thinks to apologize.  The great irony of this, of course, is that we are an incredibly forgiving people once we hear one.