Sooner or later it happens to every editor: you make a major mistake on a client project. The problem might be something that wasn’t completely in your control, such as a major hardware failure or a serious illness that put you out of work, but it’s perceived as your fault all the same.
Your client’s project is now at risk and they may never use you again. You know an apology letter is necessary, but how do you go about it?
Particularly if your client is still angry, a little throat-clearing can engage the reader’s attention and get them to hear you.
"Dear Jane, I want to take a moment to discuss what happened with your manuscript."
Outline the situation and state your part in it as soon as possible. Don’t drown your client in details, however, especially if they already know them.
"I took far longer than I had estimated to finish the edit on your manuscript. I realize that the timetable for getting your completed manuscript to the printer is in jeopardy."
This is actually the hardest part. Too often, we’re ashamed or defensive, and we hedge our words. We say we’re sorry but follow it with why it’s not really our fault: I’m sorry it took me so long, but I did the estimate quickly so I could get started right away for you. Or we never actually say we’re sorry for what we did: I’m sorry you’re hurt. And while we might state that we want to apologize, we shouldn’t skip the apology itself.
In your apology, don’t go into endless detail. At this point, frankly, your client doesn’t care. They care about solving the problem.
"Because I failed to review the entire manuscript before I started editing, as I usually do, I didn’t accurately estimate the time the project would take. I’m sorry about that."
Don’t take responsibility for things that weren’t your fault, however. Your client might see this as desperation or a lack of professionalism. They might also use it to take advantage of you later.
And if someone else has mistakenly received the blame, absolve them of fault. You’ll demonstrate humility as well as responsibility.
"I’d like to clarify that the extra hours I spent were not the result of your assistant Tom sending an updated references list during the edit. The original and updated lists were not significantly different, and Tom sent me the list in a timely fashion."
It’s time to tell your client how you’re going to help them out of this situation, if you can. Keep the focus on your client and their needs.
To help you meet your publishing deadline, I can prioritize proofreading your manuscript, cutting the time needed to complete the project by a week.
If you can’t resolve the issue, acknowledge that and consider what you can do instead. Will you offer a refund? Offer preferential fees or scheduling for the next project? Focus on something that will solve another of the client’s problems.
"I realize my error will push your publishing date back by several weeks. While it doesn’t fix the issue, I’d like to do the proofreading round for 20% less than we originally agreed to."
If part of the solution is to offer discounted or free work, be sure to note that on the invoice, along with the original price. This will reinforce the value of what you’re offering your client in a positive way.
As you wrap up, don’t just reassure the client the mistake won’t happen again: tell them how you’ll avoid it.
"In the future, you can be assured I will not rush through an estimate and that any estimate you receive from me will be as firm as I can make it, based on the manuscript reviewed."
For those errors that were outside your control, such as software failure or severe illness, be sure you have a way to prevent them from upsetting your deadlines again. Resolve computer issues and coordinate with colleagues to step into each other’s work in times of crises.
Finally, for major problems, apologize a second time, reiterating your important points.
"Once again, I’m sorry my actions caused delays in your manuscript. I will do my best to help minimize the delay and ensure costs as outlined above."
After you’ve sent your apology email, if the client decides not to work with you again, accept their decision gracefully: I understand your decision, and I wish you well. Not every situation can be saved; you can’t make the client forgive you.
Yet a well-written apology—one in which you focus on the client’s problem, sincerely apologize, and do your best to fix the situation—often leads to the aggrieved client regaining trust in you.
This article was originally posted on Copyediting.com on 6/22/18.