Last week the Cleveland Metropolitan School District, regrettably, provided an excellent example of what not to do when you make a mistake. Its mistake: assigning almost 300 students to Almira Elementary, a school that closed in 2009 and is now, quite literally, a hole in the ground at a construction site.
That’s a pretty big mistake for a school district to make, but still, it didn’t have to be a huge embarrassment. After all, the district realized the mistake the day before school started, so it had an opportunity to fix it. What compounded the problem was the school officials’ solution. They scrambled to record a message explaining the mix-up and had the automated calls dialed to the families. That’s not a bad start, but it’s all the district did.
Unfortunately, like many school systems, they didn’t have up-to-date phone numbers for all of the families. That’s not totally the district’s fault, of course, but it’s inexcusable that they didn’t do anything else to alert parents. As a result, some bewildered students and parents arrived at the construction site on the first day of school.
When you or your team makes a major mistake that affects others—be they customers, clients, vendors or colleagues—think about how best to remedy the situation. Cover your bases by including all three of these components in your solution:
- Apologize. Start by saying “I’m sorry.” If it’s possible to do in person, that’s ideal. But don’t delay an apology just because you can’t meet face-to-face. In those situations, immediately call the people affected, and follow up with in-person apologies at your next opportunity.
- Minimize the inconvenience. If the error is yours, the burden of the inconvenience should fall on you. Examples: You accidentally took home the wrong flash drive, and a co-worker needs it for a presentation he’s making in the morning. Offer to deliver it to him, or at least to arrive early the following morning so he’s not waiting for it. If your team sent the wrong product to a customer, provide the customer with a stamped and addressed envelope or box to minimize the trouble of mailing it back.
- Make it up to them. There are limits to what you can—and should—offer, so consider the mistake, how frustrating or inconvenient it is for those involved and what you can reasonably do to compensate them. Example: You forgot to send an important form to a colleague in another department, and that person had to stay 20 minutes late to merge it into a report. Don’t offer to cover her assignments for a week; that’s excessive. But you could offer to cover her phone for a few minutes sometime when she needs a break. If the mistake is larger, your solution should be a bit grander too. For example, if your team accidentally sent a large shipment to Portland, Ore., when the customer is actually in Portland, Maine, you might offer a discount or free, expedited shipping on future orders, in addition to correcting the current order as quickly as possible and at no added expense to the customer.
In the case of the Almira Elementary mix-up, here’s how I’d have handled the situation:
- Record a message explaining the problem and send out the robocalls, as they did. If the mistake didn’t affect hundreds of families, I’d suggest a team of school employees make the calls, but that wouldn’t be possible in this scenario. If the school system also has email addresses on file, I’d send out the message that way as well. Because the district has a mobility rate of 30%, it was unlikely to have current information for all students. Therefore, asking local media to spread the word could have been a great way to reach more students. It’s better to be a news story because you are correcting a mistake than to try to keep it quiet and risk making it worse.
- Send a friendly representative to the incorrect location, preferably the principal or an assistant principal from the school where the students should have been assigned. That person should greet the students and parents, apologize and explain the mistake.
- Provide a shuttle from the incorrect location to the correct one. Have hot breakfast sandwiches available for the students to eat on the shuttle bus.
- Leave a clearly visible sign at the incorrect location with an explanation and directions to the correct school, in case any students arrive after the representative and shuttle have already departed.
What have you done to make up for a big mistake?
[Image Source: Maroon Surreal]