Gaining the love and respect of a client is the ultimate benchmark for measuring your success. While a fat paycheck and killer perks can make you feel like a rock star, deep down we all know, if our clients don’t respect us, we just look good on paper.

So, how do you achieve that coveted spot as the apple of your client’s eye? There are scores of management programs and books out there that aspire to teach you everything you need to know to make your clients happy, but it doesn’t have to be that complicated. In fact, there’s one very simple rule that will get you pretty far:

Own up to your mistakes.

I know, it sounds a bit counterintuitive to approach client mistakes, given you want them to think you’re a genius, but trust me: They know nobody is perfect. In fact, your clients will probably get a bit suspicious if you never, ever, make a single mistake. Admitting when you do, however, shows them you’re confident (and humble) enough to face the music. In my experience, that’s a trait most people respect—especially a paying client.

Consider this: When your internet isn’t working and you call customer service, and they tell you the issue is being addressed and should be resolved in the next 20 minutes, do you believe them? Probably not. Why? Because you’ve heard that story before, and it almost never works out the way they claim it will. You’ve learned over time not to trust your internet service provider, and the same thing can happen between you and your clients. Without that trust, it’s nearly impossible to develop much of a relationship with them, let alone get any love.

On the other hand, I’ll never forget the first time I fessed up to a client after I’d made a mistake. I was working for a large bank, and my client was one of our largest and most important. Everyone was afraid of him to begin with, and when things didn’t go his way, no one wanted to be the unlucky one to call him up with the bad news.

Exhausted by the usual efforts to sugar-coat the situation, I decided to bite the bullet and just be honest. I called him up and explained that I’d made a mistake. I’d missed a deadline, and his transaction didn’t happen when it was supposed to. I apologized for the mistake, explained what I was doing to correct the issue, and offered to compensate him for the inconvenience.

The line was silent for what felt like hours, until he finally spoke. He thanked me for my honesty and told me he appreciated me taking responsibility for the mistake. “We’re all human, and mistakes will sometimes happen,” he said.

Two things happened as a result of that conversation: I never made that mistake again, and my client trusted me to handle his account with integrity. For my remaining years at the bank, he preferred to deal solely with me.


How to Do It

Of course, breaking the news to your client should be approached with care and a lot of planning. Simply cold-calling a client to reveal you’ve messed up probably won’t go over so well, and not being prepared for a difficult discussion won’t pan out how you imagined, either. Also, sharing too much—or too little—detail about the chain of events can easily take a problem from bad to worse in a hurry. Deciding to own up to your mistake is the first step, but how you do it will play a crucial role in making the experience ultimately positive for your client—and you.

Before you have the talk with your client, grab a pen and paper, and write out a brief outline of the events leading up to your mistake. Spend some time and really think about why things went wrong, and what you’ll do going forward to prevent it. When you confront your client with the information, try to summarize your explanation in one or two short sentences.

Obviously, you’ll want to apologize for the mistake, identify what the mistake was, and share how you’ll fix it. None of these steps needs to be overly descriptive—in fact, the shorter the better. But, you should be prepared to give more detail if your client asks for it.

Here’s an example:

Hi Bob, I’m calling to follow up on the issue we had with your transaction yesterday. The issue was on our end, and was an oversight on my part. I’ve pinpointed the gap in my process and have adjusted my procedures to avoid any future issues like this in the future. I apologize for the inconvenience this may have caused you and have refunded the service fee on your account to help compensate for the error.

Once you’ve given your schpeel, give your client the opportunity to ask questions, and be prepared to listen to him or her vent. Remember, you’re taking the heat for this, so don’t let yourself get defensive. You did make a mistake, after all, so it’s understandable your client may be upset.

But, after the dust settles—if there is any—most of the time you’ll find your clients become far less frustrated when they realize you’re taking responsibility for what happened. Most people understand, as my client did, that we’re all human, and we all make mistakes. But, what everyone doesn’t always do is own up to them.

Admitting to your mistakes is an easy concept to understand, but a difficult one to put into practice. But, with patience and preparation, you’ll find that being straight with your clients will be the foundation for a beautiful professional relationship.