Can you repair a burnt bridge?

What's important is deciding how to move forward
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It’s inevitable. At some point, every business must deal with a difficult hire that has caused problems with a client. What’s important is deciding how to move forward. You have to ask yourself an important question: Are burnt bridges repairable, and if so, what steps do you need to take to reestablish trust, repair the damage and chart a better path forward?

When an employee is no longer a good fit or no longer supports the company’s goals, they need to move on to a different employment situation where they can be happier and more fulfilled. Yet even when that employee transitions out of the company, problems may continue to fester and the business’s name may continue to suffer.

These employees are not entirely at fault for this unfortunate scenario. As managers, we are responsible for adequately training our employees and setting them up for success; we own at least half the blame. Recognizing emerging problems with an employee is also our responsibility. Failing to meet this challenge can come at a cost: The brand suffers, the clients suffer and your team suffers. All of this can eventually lead to unexpected departures – either from your staff or client-base – and losing great people or a great client can be a terrible feeling.

How exactly do you move forward then with repairing the bridge between the business and client? The first step is to ask the client what went wrong and what they wish would have happened differently. Next, admit fault. Apologize and own your mistakes. This step may feel uncomfortable, but it absolutely must be done. Fall on your sword and fall hard so the client knows you understand the situation fully and emphasize with how it has affected them. If you do this right, you will gain respect and show your integrity at the same time. Remember, we’re all human, and “to err is human.” The client may still not work with you again, but at least you’ll know you did your best. 

After this, it is time to focus on moving forward. Look inward and begin to implement changes that will lead to long-term improvements in your company. Ask yourself what changes you can make as a leader. Are there additional steps that need to be taken? New systems to implement? Novel processes to be developed? Always remain adaptable to the evolving workforce and different project dynamics. Listen carefully to what your team and clients tell you. 

One resource that can be helpful when conducting this inventory is W. Edwards Deming’s Plan-Do-Check-Act Cycle. This model has been around for years. It is simple, effective and can be applied to a project, burned bridges, new bridges or other goals. Use it as the foundation for improving your staff and operations. Begin by defining your desired outcomes and brainstorming pathways for achieving them. Then you’ll want to establish the systems you’ll need and conduct the training your team may require. Be sure to frequently measure your processes.  Perform an internal quality control or audit, and draw conclusions from your findings. Act on the lessons you’ve learned and continue the process.

While this process is theoretically simple, it still necessitates a lot of work to pull it off. Your team will need to diligently follow the cycle and consistently improve upon it. But if executed correctly, the hard work and patience will gradually begin to show results. New clients will be attracted to your firm, and longstanding clients will experience the improvements and provide solid testimonials. 

Even former clients who you thought were gone for good can be positively impacted. Those “burnt bridges” may become curious about the positive changes they are seeing coming out of your company, and after some time goes by, they may even begin sending over some small opportunities once again.

Always remember that the past is the past. Whatever internal issues initially led to the loss of a client, all you can do is take proactive steps to ensure that they do not happen again. By following the Deming Cycle and applying what you’ve learned, you may be pleasantly surprised to learn that bridges you thought were burnt can be repaired and that new ones are out there just waiting to be built. This is a two-way street. When the roles are reversed, please allow someone who’s let you down the courtesy of your providing the constructive feedback, helping them to improve, and a chance to validate their advances.

Categories: Business Insights, Human Resources