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  • Carol Reeve

Responding to Mistakes

Updated: Jun 23, 2022

I’ve often told people who work for me, “I don’t expect you to be perfect. We all make mistakes. It’s about how you respond to a mistake that matters.”

I had a Project Coordinator named Melissa who was my eyes and ears at the main office of an ad agency in Louisville while I ran a satellite office in Cincinnati. She was fresh out of college and made her fair share of mistakes. But she learned quickly how to respond to mistakes. She would call me and say, “OK, I really messed this up. But here is what I’ve done to make sure it doesn’t happen again.” She would follow that with a detailed account of her error, how it happened and what steps she put in place to prevent a recurrence.

One of Melissa’s mistakes proved costly and required some reprinting that numbered into the tens of thousands. She was devastated but took it upon herself to rally all of the Project Coordinators in the company (probably about 10 or 12 at the time) and explain what she had done and what they could do to prevent making the same error on their watch. When I wrote up Melissa’s performance review that year, I focused on my mantra: “We all make mistakes, and Melissa’s cost us some money. But she took responsibility for it; she didn’t try to hide it. Further, the initiative she took in training others in her role likely prevented a repeated error, saving the company money in the long run.” When I sat down with the CEO of the company, he questioned whether or not we should even keep Melissa on staff. By the end of the meeting, I had not only kept her job, but I had gotten her a sizable raise.

In a service industry, this principle of responding well to mistakes is absolutely critical. Taking responsibility, rather than shunning it, is the mark of a true professional. None of us are without fault. But if we admit an error, correct it and take steps to ensure it doesn’t happen again, we may arise from a difficult situation with deeper loyalty from (and to) our clients.

I was reminded of this principle when I took my Toyota Camry Hybrid to my local Toyota dealer (which is not where I purchased my vehicle) for an oil change and for a recall service. I was remarkably impressed with the dealership. They…

  1. Waited on me right away and offered me a free cup of fresh-brewed coffee.

  2. Gave me a free oil change.

  3. Gave me a free tire rotation.

  4. Gave me a free car wash.

  5. Gave me a free loaner car.

  6. Took the time to explain to me the recall, how my car was impacted, how it differed from the standard Camry recall and exactly what they were going to do to fix it, using an actual gas pedal part to illustrate the details.

  7. Finished in half the time they estimated but allowed me to keep the rental car until it was convenient for me to pick up my vehicle.

It is important to note, of course, that this Toyota dealership did not make the error that caused the recall. Further, I realize that Toyota Corporate is providing them with incentives to keep customers happy. But my mother, who drives a Toyota Avalon, did not get a free car wash, tire rotation or rental car (she chose to wait, so perhaps they would have given her one if she had pushed it) when she took her car in for the recall. Nor did her dealership take the time to explain the exact nature of the recall and the repairs they would be making.

I say all this because, though I previously treated my automobile service as a commodity, this experience made me a loyal customer with this dealership. They did not manufacture my vehicle or even sell me my vehicle; but when a mistake was made, they understood that the buck stopped with them because the name Toyota was on their sign and on the shirt of the lovely woman who served me.

May we all handle our mistakes as well.

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