how to tell my employee I made a mistake with a client

A reader writes:

My employee, Joe, met with a client, Alice, who had previously met with me before Joe started in his role). I know that my meeting with Alice went poorly — she was making unreasonable requests and displayed a level of inflexibility that I knew would not get her where she needed, but I also did not do a good job being client-centered and I could tell our meeting left a poor taste in her mouth. Fast forward to this week and Alice set up a meeting with Joe; in that meeting, I overheard her say (repeatedly) how much better he did and how awful I was to her. She also had totally changed her goals and was asking for something much more reasonable. I don’t know if she knew that I could hear her or if she was just venting. I don’t know if Joe suspects Alice was talking about me, but it was clear he handled the whole thing very professionally.

What do I say to him now? I feel like it’s bad precedent for me to not own up to my mistake, but since her goals are totally different than they were before, our earlier conversation isn’t particularly relevant to the work they’ll do moving forward. I would want to give him more context, but I don’t want him to think I’m being defensive — even though she was being unreasonable in our meeting, I think her frustration with how our meeting went is justified. On top of all this, I still feel badly about how the meeting went, so it’s not easy for me to talk about at all.

I answer this question — and two others — over at Inc. today, where I’m revisiting letters that have been buried in the archives here from years ago (and sometimes updating/expanding my answers to them). You can read it here.

Other questions I’m answering there today include:

  • I keep ending up involved in things that I wanted to hand off
  • Asking junior staff to speak for their generation

{ 39 comments… read them below }

  1. Lilo*

    This kind of thing is super normal. I work with the public and we’ll sometimes have a “try again” call if it went badly with a colleague (obviously not in the cases of abusive language). Sometimes it’s discrimination, sometimes hearing the same info from someone else just gets through.

    1. ferrina*

      Yeah, I think a lot of us have been in this situation. If it’s a coworker that usually does strong work, I know it’s a client thing. If it’s a regular thing that happens to that specific coworker or I know that coworker is tetchy, I’ll be a bit more particular.

    2. tamarack etc*

      Yeah, I, too don’t see much complicated about the situation. I’d just compliment my employee along the lines of “You handled this meeting very professionally. Alice can be complicated to manage. The last meeting she was asking for [unreasonable thing] and in general the meeting went off on a bad foot. It was actually me who was meeting with her that time, and I definitely should have taken a different tack with her. Great work!”

      The best way not to appear defensive is, in my experience, not to be defensive.

      1. Lilo*

        A client meeting going badly doesn’t mean it’s the employee’s fault either, especially if the isn’t wants something you can’t give. OP needs to stop beating themselves up. Sometimes people need breathing room after being told no.

  2. bamcheeks*

    With LW1, I’d also frame it as what Joe did right, and redirect back to him. “I had a frustrating meeting with Alice, and I’m annoyed with myself for how much I allowed my frustration to show! It sounds like you got on with her much better— tell me how it went!” If you acknowledge something you didn’t do well but focus on what your employee did right, the conversation will probably leave both of you in a much brighter frame of mind and it’s much easier not to get caught up in your own defensiveness and come across badly.

    1. HonorBox*

      That’s a fantastic suggestion. Rather than going in with the negative, showing the positive in Joe’s conversation with Alice focuses on the “moving in the right direction” versus potentially painting Alice as a difficult person with whom Joe is going to have to work.

  3. el l*

    Have a collegial in tone conversation where you say, “Yeah, glad you and Alice had a good conversation. Sounds like you handled things relationally, and that her requests were far more feasible and flexible than what was communicated to me. Good job and carry on.”


    1. Mrs Marple's Favorite Niece*

      See this to me sounds like you’re excusing the negative conversation that the OP had by putting it all on Alice’s requests, as well as failing to provide any actual helpful information to Joe.

      1. Lydia*

        Yeah, there’s something in the middle that doesn’t blame Alice but acknowledges her requests weren’t possible.

  4. zuzu*

    Perfect opportunity to boost Joe, point out what he did right, stress that everyone messes up, and that the client’s unreasonableness when dealing with you also played a role here.

    Learning opportunities all around!

  5. Antilles*

    For #2, I’ve found the key to successfully handing off requests is having the discipline to step back (and stay stepped back) after making that initial connection.
    There’s a clear link between “how clearly you step back” and “how involved people think you want to be”. If you step back completely, the other people are going to recognize you’re fully out on it and handle it; if you follow up regularly to check on status, the co-worker is going to assume you still want to be part of addressing it.

    1. Peanut Hamper*

      Yep. “Thanks, but Gillian is actually handling this now, please reach out to her.” is a good retort.

      1. Mangled Metaphor*

        especially for that tiny percentage of people who insist on re-cc’ing you in to the email chain, apparently having never read “I’ll leave you to it” and taken it seriously.

        “Thanks, but Sally is doing it” (and politer variations) is a useful phrase to add to any delegation vocabulary.

  6. Blue*

    For #3, another approach is (if it’s actually relevant!) to say to the full group, ‘I wonder how this campaign can most effectively reach folks in the 18-30 age group. What thoughts do people have?’ And then maybe, your team member who is in that age group will feel equipped to offer insight – or maybe someone in their 50s who volunteers as a mentor to college students, or who just stays very current on demographic trend data, will have the perfect suggestions.

      1. TechieBoss*

        Yes, this is the most positive way to frame what is being asked. Maybe coach the person privately about this kind of framing? It’s helpful for all sorts of questions like this, such as not asking the women in the room to speak on behalf of all women, etc.

    1. Zzzzzz*

      OR, or, you hire a researcher/firm to find out how to message to the audiences you need to target. You may find out along the way that “x” gen isn’t actually who your audience is to get your goals met.

  7. Dances with Flax*

    #3. Not asking or expecting anyone to speak for their entire generation is an excellent idea because NOBODY can actually do that! Of course it’s irritating to be put on the spot as your generation’s voluntold representative and of course it leads to exasperation and resentment.

    And while we’re at it, can we all PLEASE dispense with sweeping generational shaming and blaming as well? No, folks, all younger people are NOT sniveling snowflakes and all Boomers are NOT responsible for every current problem on earth. Meeting each other as the individuals we are is a lot more realistic and a lot more productive (in every sense) as well.

    1. Sara without an H*

      Well said. I get rather testy about the whole concept of “generations.” The whole idea that people born between two arbitrary dates form a homogenous block — ignoring race, class, economic status, educational level, geographic region, etc. — is rubbish worse confounded.

      Back when I was a graduate student, one of my faculty members kept asking me for “the woman’s viewpoint” on things. He was my advisor, I needed his support/recommendations, so I tried to tactfully explain that, while I’d be glad to share my personal views, I couldn’t really speak for half the human race…

      1. tamarack etc*

        Yes, that needs to be shut down. We put together diverse teams in (important) part to get input from a diversity of viewpoints. So each member should be solicited for making contributions, but it should be understood that they speak for themselves and on the basis of what they know without having to carry the weight of representing a whole demographic. Participants are not delegates, and the obligation to think beyond one’s own narrow circle is on everyone.

    2. Peanut Hamper*

      At my last job, we had “generational training”. As is “baby boomers are like this, and millenials are like that”.

      And it was spot on. You could certainly find baby boomers in the organization who were exactly like this, and millenials who were exactly like that.

      But you could also find baby boomers who behaved the way millenials were expected to act, and vice versa. The problem with this kind of generational thinking is that you find a couple of examples that prove your point and stop there. But people are people, and they don’t necessarily fit into the boxes we’ve put them into in our minds the minute we see them.

    3. Seeking Second Childhood*

      And half the time people go from Boomer to Millennial and ignore GenX. … who may be better nicknamed “the overlooked generation.”

      1. TeaCoziesRUs*

        Shh. We’re happy to be quietly overlooked while the grands (kids and parents) are battling everything out. We did great as latchkey kids… we’ll eventually do great in our own quiet ways in all the halls of power. Bwa ha ha.

    4. Goldenrod*

      “And while we’re at it, can we all PLEASE dispense with sweeping generational shaming and blaming as well?”


    5. Cheshire Cat*

      Yes, this! I’m one of the youngest Boomers, and I’m not like most of the stereotypes about that generation. People tend to think of Boomers as those who graduated high school in the ‘60s, but I was just starting elementary school then.

      And I try not to stereotype other generations, either.

  8. Just Me*

    I think for the age related question, it helps in explaining why it was wrong to take a step back and consider how you’d like it if someone asked hey Susan, how does that feel for the Boomers…maybe different reasons asking about ‘for gen Z’ feels bad vs ‘for Boomers’ but either way, it gets the point across…no one wants to be called old, no one wants to be called inexperienced, and most people don’t want to have to judge how their opinion fits into their generation as a whole or feel like they can’t share their own perspective because it isn’t the same as the rest of their generation

    1. Eldritch Office Worker*

      Ugh I have a boomer coworker who is trying to speak for her generation all the time…the others her age don’t appreciate it

  9. Northcountryjen*

    In my experience, personality fit can really factor in to some situations with customers/ clients. accentuate the positive, tell Joe good job and move on. In addition, some customers just have quirky things about them. Sometimes they are easier to work with and jobs work out more fluidly than other times. No need to make an appointment to take blame for anything. Also if Joe is smart and has much experience he’s keeping an open mind about all of this and just being professional.

  10. nnn*

    An entertaining but unprofessional option for #3 would be to constantly ask that person “And what does your generation think?”

  11. Susan*

    It’s too late now, but if something like this comes up again, please help Joe be successful by briefing him about the prior meeting with Alice before he meets with her.

    1. Lilo*

      Agreed. People are tricky, the fact that someone else sold a solution later doesn’t mean OP could have at the time. The client may have needed the reinforced “can’t do that” from someone else or just time to stew on the other solution. She didn’t like being told no, that happens.

    1. Peanut Hamper*

      And if you haven’t, please don’t. This just makes the situation worse and reinforces the idea that ideas and understandings are generationally based. (Protip: they are not.)

  12. Anonymous Pygmy Possum*

    Re #3: Does anyone have ideas on how to answer the “what does Your generation think” question when you’re the one being asked? Luckily I haven’t experienced it at work, but in my free time I am the youngest person by far (late 20s) in a activity with people mostly in their 50s and above, and I’m starting to get involved with committees as part of that activity, and people are asking me how to recruit younger folks when I’m really new to the area, and I’m struggling to answer those questions.

    1. run mad; don't faint*

      A good answer to your question would be, “I can’t speak for everyone in my generation, but what I think is…”
      That said, I think a good answer to the recruitment question would be that you couldn’t speak for everyone your age, but [this] is what attracted you to the group.

  13. Sarah*

    If this is healthcare/therapy, sometimes people don’t jive. It’s fine, I’ve asked to not work with people because something about me stresses them out and there are other clinicians they click with and there are people who prefer me to other clinicians or people that get added to my schedule because they dont click with another clinician. You dont have to be perfect with everyone. Being a manager is bigger than the one on one part of the job, it’s having a birds eye view of what’s important in the department and how you manage your employees.

  14. msd*

    I have to say that I often found when I suggested an improvement, change or pointed out an issue/problem that it resulted in me being tasked with “running with it”. Kind of killed any incentive to mention things. To be fair, though, it wasn’t like there were lots of folks with idle time that could/would take on the additional work. And implementing any idea or suggestion is work

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