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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Work Relationships

How to Backtrack on a Promise to a Client (Without Losing Their Trust)

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Your client expects something that was included in their contract and you have to explain why you can’t deliver on it. Or, your team is behind on developing a new feature that was promised and you have to break the news that it won’t be ready on time. Or, your former co-worker promised an insane renewal deal that is just off-the-walls.

Tricky stuff, for sure. But don’t stress! It’s normal to have to readjust a client’s timeline or expectations, and if you do it right, it can actually make your relationship that much stronger.

Here’s the best way to handle backtracking on a promise.

1. Figure Out What Went Wrong

The first thing you need to do is figure out how this promise came to be. Go back through old emails or talk to anyone who worked with the client before you to see if (and if so, when) that expectation was set and who it was set by.

If there’s a contract involved, think about whether you should loop in your legal team.

And finally, see if you took any notes (or someone did) on the client’s original goals. Why did they start working with you in the first place?

2. Research Replacements

Come to the conversation prepared. What other benefits can you offer them instead? A discount? Access to other parts of your platform? See if your product team has ideas for quick things you could come up with.

3. Set Up a Call

The next step is to set up a call with your client. I know, email’s so much easier to send, but also much harder to interpret. Someone’s far less likely to yell on the phone than they are to send a rude message, especially when they hear your voice and remember you’re a human on the other end of this exchange.

You can initiate the conversation with this email template:

Hi [Client’s Name],

Hope all is well with you!

[We’ve recently made some changes to our product offering/I have some updates to your contract/I understand you’re concerned about receiving X specific feature], and I want to address this as soon as possible to make sure we’re on the same page. Would you have time this week to chat on the phone?

Please let me know what times work best for you.

[Your Name]

4. Get on the Phone

The key to this conversation is to be empathetic and patient. Let them explain their side of the story and show that you’re invested in their concerns by really listening and using the following phrases:

  • “I understand you…”
  • “I recognize…”
  • “I see your point…”

If the mistake was your fault, apologize (genuinely). If it was promised from someone else on your team, apologize as well, but don’t throw them under the bus. At the end of the day, your client’s working with your company, not just you. When you put the blame on another colleague, it sends a signal that your organization’s untrustworthy. Instead, assure them that you’re all working together to make things right.

Finally, don’t pretend the promise didn’t exist in the first place or put the blame on the client. Even if it was a simple miscommunication, acknowledge that and take responsibility—don’t spend your time pointing fingers.

5. Offer Your Alternative Solution

Time to put all that pre-work to use and show that you’ve actively worked to resolve the issue.

Of course, sometimes there’s just nothing tangible you can give them in that moment. If that’s the case, go back to their goals and figure out how you can help them reach them in other ways.

For example:

I understand your goal is [their goal]. We can’t guarantee this, as that’s unfortunately not what our product is used for. However, we’re happy to work with you to [leverage your current product/have you speak with someone else on our team/discuss other options you might be interested in or we’ve done with other partners].

Make it Clear You’re the Client’s Partner

Throughout this entire discussion, it’s important to be your client’s advocate both internally and externally. Show them you’re making the effort to find a solution, and you’ll assure them you not only take their goals seriously, but that you’re willing to go the extra mile to satisfy your clients.

6. Set Clear Guidelines for Next Time

Once you’ve diffused the bomb, make sure this doesn’t happen again—for everyone’s sake.

The best way to do this is to document everything. After speaking, send a follow-up email outlining what you discussed and have them clarify anything they’re confused or unsure about. Keep a running folder of emails and documents you have with them to reference in future conversations.

This not only makes addressing the issue in the moment easier, it also keeps your client honest. If they swear they were promised something, you can go back to your notes and see if that’s actually true.

After that, spend time with your team to figure out what happened and how to prevent it going forward. Maybe you need a refresher on what you do and don’t provide clients, or maybe your team needs to re-evaluate how you present your product. Regardless of what you decide on, it’s important to take away some lesson from this.