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Columns by Peter Economy

When Hackers Attack

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No one likes to give their clients bad news, but sometimes even the best, brightest, and most talented IPs are left with no choice. Whether it's a roll of film from a key photo shoot that gets botched by your lab, or a computer that decides to munch a hard drive (along with that logo you've dedicated the last week of your life to fine tuning), there's going to be a day when you've got a big problem on an important project -- and you'll have to tell your client about it.

I know. Occasionally things get so screwed up that my perfectly good projects are transformed into utter crap. And this is bad news -- in some cases, very bad news -- for my clients. The kind of news that makes you want to run and hide somewhere very far away -- somewhere like Outer Mongolia or Timbuktu sounds about right.

I remember one time when a project absolutely, positively, had to meet my client in Aspen, Colo., the next day. I gave it to the company that claims that it will get your stuff where it's supposed to go when it absolutely, positively has to be there overnight.

The project didn't make it.

In fact, it wasn't even close. Maybe Federal Express had a good reason not to put my urgent client package on the connecting flight from Denver to Aspen at 4:30 a.m. Perhaps they didn't like the way I wrapped my pride and joy, or maybe I didn't put an "x" in the right box on the shipping form (out of several hundred tiny boxes to chose from). Maybe I should have taped a twenty-dollar bill to the package to help ease its way to the proper destination. Whatever the reason, instead of being in my client's briefcase the next day, the project was treated to an all-expenses-paid tour of downtown Denver, inside the back of its very own red, white, and blue panel van.

Being the obsessive-compulsive type that I am, I was regularly tracking the progress of my package across the country using FedEx's handy Web site. Once I figured out that the package wasn't going to make it -- and phoned FedEx to confirm that fact (speaking with a very polite, but ultimately powerless customer service representative) -- I had a choice: call my client to give him the bad news, or feign ignorance and pretend that everything was A-OK, all systems go.

I decided on the former option.

Why? Because, just as producing first-rate projects is a part of my job, so too is keeping my clients informed and up to date on the progress of their projects -- even if informing them means giving them bad news.

As I look back over the cold, dark days when I was a 9-to-5 wage slave, I can recall being extremely fearful of having to give my boss bad news. I was afraid that I would be perceived as incompetent or worse, and that I would be adding another page to my already weighty personnel file -- a file that might someday be used to justify my termination. And, back in my pre-IP days, the thought of losing my job -- and the "security" that I mistakenly thought came along with it -- seemed a fate worse than death.

Now that I'm an IP, all that has changed. I realize that you just can't run and hide from bad news -- not if you want to make a successful living. You've got to embrace problems, and then come up with solutions for your clients. While you may be an independent professional, you're also an important part of your client's team; keeping your clients informed is part of your job, and sometimes that means giving them the bad news along with the good.

So, is there a right way and a wrong way to present bad news? You bet there is. Here are some tips for getting your ill tidings across in the right way:

  • Make sure you've really got a problem. You definitely don't want to get your clients all riled up if there really isn't a problem they should be concerned about. Tell your client that the sky is falling too many times, and he or she is going to decide that you're more trouble than you're worth. Before passing bad news on to your client, be absolutely certain that the problem is of such magnitude that you can't solve it, avoid it, or make it go away.

  • Don't delay. Once you've determined that you really do have a problem -- and that there's nothing you can do to make it go away -- inform your client immediately. At this point, delaying communication about the problem isn't going to help you or your client -- in fact, any further delays may create even more problems. The sooner you inform your client of the trouble, the sooner he or she can get to work on developing work-arounds.

    The best way to break the bad news is usually over the phone (unless you have an incredibly close relationship to the client, and are within visiting distance, in which case you might want to deliver the bad news face to face). If your client isn't in -- or isn't answering -- leave a message on voicemail asking the client to phone back ASAP.
  • Arm yourself with solutions. There's nothing worse to a client than getting bad news with no recommendations on how to solve the problem that led to the bad news in the first place. It's kind of like tossing a lead life preserver to someone who's drowning. Instead of being a part of the problem (and being labeled as such by your clients), be a part of the solution by giving your client options for solving it.

  • Act now. Once you and your client agree on a plan of attack, put the plan into action -- right now! Depending on the nature of the problem, you may be able to turn it around almost immediately; other problems may require some time to sort out and resolve. Remember: your client really needs your help now -- keep solving the problem at the top of your priority list. Even if it means dropping that lunch trip to McDonald's down a notch or two.

The world is an imperfect place -- you're always going to have problems related to your projects. The real measure of your effectiveness as an IP is how you deal with problems when they occur. Hiding your head in the sand is not the appropriate response (unless you're an ostrich). The way to make bad news go away is to (1) face up to it, (2) inform your clients about it, and (3) put your all into implementing solutions. That way, you'll earn the respect of your clients -- and their continued business.

We'd love to hear your feedback about this column, or put you in touch with Peter Economy if you like. You may also like to see his biography.

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