(You have caused) A catastrophe!
Any profession that relies on technologies is prone their vulnerability. Things break, things go wrong, systems fail. It happens. Sometimes catastrophes occur through no fault of your own; other times things go wrong precisely because of your own mistakes.
In the rare instance that you are in the midst of a deadline-intensive project and a catastrophe occurs due to your own mistakes, what do you say? How do you handle the situation?
Making the phone call you don’t want to make
Under the worst of circumstances, there will come a time when you realize that there is no way that you can recover from a catastrophic situation in a way that does not affect your client. For example, if you do your daily project work and then make a backup copy of it every day, then if your computer crashes and you lose everything on your hard drive, you have a backup copy ready and waiting. All you need is another computer to work on. Your client will never know that you just lost an entire hard drive’s worth of data.
But what about situations where you have no backup? (There should NEVER be a situation where you have no backup. But for the sake of discussion, let’s continue.)
You will have to make a phone call to your client to explain the situation. What communication strategies should you consider?
Your options depend on whether it is possible in any way to recover or reproduce the work that you had produced up to that point. For example, if you had original digital video files taken directly from the video camera and they were all destroyed because of a hard drive crash, and you had no backup, then it would be impossible for you to recover the status of your video project up to that point because you cannot reshoot the video. (This is an extremely rare scenario, but in the days of shooting film onto film negative stock, there have been instances where all of the content of the film rolls was lost in the development process due to accidental exposure. With digital files that can be copied in a matter of minutes, there is no excuse for total loss.)
However, if you still had all of the original video files but you lost the project file that you used to edit it all together, you could, in theory, reproduce the status of the project at the point at which you left off. It would take some very long hours to do this, but it could be done.
Once you have made some kind of determination of a project’s recoverability, how should you go about communicating to your client about what happened and what you plan to do about it? Here are several points to consider:
Be direct: When you speak with your client about the situation, be direct and concise. Explain that a catastrophic event occurred that caused a loss in the progress of the work up to that point.
Can the deadline still be met?: Your client does not want to know all of the details about how this problem occurred at this point (maybe later). Right now, your client is thinking that the final deliverable will miss the deadline. You need to explain whether the deadline can still be met. If the deadline can still be met, explain to your client that the deadline will still be met, but that some time will be needed to recover the loss of progress up to that point. State that you are committed recover the loss of progress as quickly as possible. Try to impart the feeling in your client that nothing will change except for a temporary delay while you recover the work.
No excuses; no blame: Your client does not want to hear any excuses. Your client does not want to know all the details about what happened. Your client does not want to know who’s fault it was. All your client wants to know is when can they pick up where they left off. Promise them that you will provide them with a progress report at a specific day and time, and then stick to it. Resist the temptation to tell the story of what happened. They do not want to know.
What to expect as a reaction
As you explain the situation, you can expect a range of reactions from your client.
If you have presented the situation concisely and have explained that nothing significant other than a delay in the work-in-progress will occur, there is a good chance that your client will be annoyed but not be too alarmed. They, in turn, will have to explain to their colleagues and perhaps their supervisor that there will be a delay, which might be embarrassing for them. But if you have committed to providing a status report, your client can state to their colleagues and supervisor that an update is forthcoming.
There is also the possibility that your client may yell at you and even say some nasty things. You might not like being on the receiving end of this treatment, but considering the totality of the situation, the best advice is to remain respectful and just let your client speak. Admit that it was your mistake, take responsibility for it, and continue to promise that you will make good on recovering the project. You may need to develop a thick skin for these kinds of engagements–they are certainly not pleasant. But you should be prepared to manage them as well as possible.
You can demonstrate your professionalism by how you manage catastrophe just as well as you can demonstrate professionalism by doing excellent creative work on-time and on-budget.
Client Relations Scenario
A storm rages across your city and the roof in your production studio springs a massive leak. The leakage destroys your computer and its hard drive.
You are about 3/4 of the way complete with the project, and you have a backup copy of the project and all of its elements, but it is about two days’ worth of work out-of-date. You are able to recover the most recent work-in-progress video that you shared with your client, so you have a reference for rebuilding the project again from scratch. However, it will take you about 48 hours of non-stop work to catch up.
In this situation, what are your options? If you hire someone to help with rebuilding the project, you will not make a profit on the job. If you work for 48 hours straight, you will burn out or possible make some serious errors.
Which option would you chose, or are their other options? What would you say to your client, given that this was an “Act of God”?