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How to Handle a Big Mistake

tower of pisaIn the 12th century, Italian City States were all very testy with one another. Competitions were not merely displays of military might, but also some intense rivalries on who could build a better monument. Jumping into the fray was the scrappy City of Pisa – determined to show off their muscle, might, and minds with the biggest, boldest and baddest tower on the peninsula.

Halfway through the construction of the second story however the building began to sink to one side. A shallow foundation, improper planning and a complete misunderstanding of the soil were to blame. The structure seemed doomed to demolition and Pisa might have had to sit this one out. But that’s not how this story would end, and Pisean engineers have had the last laugh for 900 years.

This is a lesson that every contractor and builder should study. Like the leaning tower of Pisa, shift happens! It’s how you deal with it that determines if you can recover and hold your head high, even if it leans just a bit to the side.

Say you hire a subcontractor to do work on a structure and the work that is done is all wrong. Everyone knows that you should demand the subcontractor correct the situation, pay for mistakes, fix things. Everyone that is, except probably your customer, who holds you responsible for the project. You were hired to complete the building project, and at the end of the day, it is your issue.

Let’s face it, problems are going to arise in every construction and building project, from the back yard tuff shed to the tallest sky scraper. Buildings are not created in a machine where some completed project pops out on the other side. Ironically, it is often the problems that will determine if you have any future in the construction industry.

The first thing a good contractor does is own the mistake. Sure you may place blame on the subcontractor on the back end, but your customer doesn’t want to hear that. They want an explanation on what happened and they want it fixed quickly.

You should immediately create a plan on how to remedy the situation. Give your customer some options in terms of time line or engineering modifications and see what works best for him. I have found that innumerable problems have been solved by simply communicating with a customer. You are a builder, but you should be building more than a structure, you need to be building trust and rapport.

Handle the mistake. Manage the correction personally. Make things right.

Inevitably, some customers are just incapable of understanding this is part of the process. As consumers, we have come to expect good customer service so when you do something correctly, it is rarely rewarded. This is the way it should be in business, a quiet commendation is the norm. Make a mistake, however, and watch your tower tilt in front of the whole world.

Bad reviews are written and posted on the internet. Letters are written to local papers. People complain about you to anyone who will listen (and some who won’t). A bad review or negative letter is survivable and is no reason to retreat.

Once your situation has been corrected, structurally, then it’s time to correct the damage to your reputation. Respond to negative comments and reviews with the specific details on how you handled the situation. Responding in a public forum to a negative public review shows that you take the situation and your reputation seriously. Just as communication is critical for correcting a construction mistake, it is critical for remedying damage to your reputation.

Identify the problem, how did you fix it? How much did it cost you in days and dollars? How do you feel, really, about the mistake. I’m sure you didn’t want to mess up, no one gets out of bed in the morning and thinks to themselves, “How am I going to really screw this project up for my customer,” and you should mention that.

Once you’ve corrected the mistake and responded to public assaults on your reputation and character in a professional manner, then it’s time to consider the situation closed. You have done all you could do, remedied the problem as efficiently as humanly possible. Move on to the next project and make a personal commitment to try to avoid a repeat of the mistake. As I said before, mistakes are going to happen so you will have many more opportunities to create new ones. In construction, it’s never a question of ‘if’ you will have a problem, but ‘when.’

When you do have a success, don’t be shy about asking for a positive review from a satisfied customer. Most customers will be happy to explain how you really came through when you did. By bracing yourself for problems, financially and mentally, you can expect to survive in this industry. Like the builders of the leaning tower of Pisa, when handled correctly, your mistake might prove to be your greatest triumph.

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