Just over a year ago, while I was driving home from my mother’s funeral to catch a flight for a job, I hit a tire in the middle of the highway. Rain, traffic – I couldn’t swerve, so I just hit it. A jolt, a shudder, and then my rugged little SUV recovered. It was going to be okay.
Until suddenly it wasn’t okay. The steering mechanism failed, and I hit a Kentucky mountain’s rock wall at 60 miles per hour.
In slow motion my vehicle flipped onto its side and slid back onto the highway. A thick haze of dust from the airbags had me coughing and barely able to see, but I crawled out the back of the car and sat on the side of the road to wait for the ambulance. With a dazed curiosity I surveyed a surreal landscape of rubble decorating the wet pavement: my luggage, my car battery, a concrete dove from my mother’s garden.
Later, after x-rays, I thanked God that I had survived with fairly minor injuries. The doctor had said no air travel for at least a week because of the soft tissue damage and a possible risk of developing blood clots. Sitting alone in the examination room I breathed deeply and gathered my thoughts.
I’m supposed to be in New Mexico in two days to deliver a speech to hundreds of people. Clients are counting on me. And I won’t be there. Now what?
Family soon descended on the emergency room to check on me. We found a nearby hotel to rest overnight. The doctor had advised staying close in case my leg swelled and I needed to return to the emergency room immediately.
As soon as we were settled into the hotel, I considered all the impacts for my client and grabbed my phone to call and explain what had happened.
I calmly explained about the funeral and the accident. I said I was very unhappy to have to break the news that I wouldn’t be able to do the workshop and keynote based on medical advice.
I apologized for the inconvenience a second time because I knew that this event had been a year in the making.
My client reacted with concern and compassion. She asked how I was, and assured me that she and the conference committee would work around my absence.
She expressed her condolences and said that while it was unfortunate to have to cancel, she was sure everyone would understand. Accidents happen to all of us, she said, and sometimes we have to adjust.
She expressed a hope that we could work together in the future.
Collaborate On Next Steps
Sensing that she was ready to end the call and begin to troubleshoot, I thanked her for her support and explained that I wanted to collaborate with her on next steps.
I offered to contact the travel agent to cancel the flights and hotel reservations and to pay any cancellation fees. I didn’t think they should be left with those expenses because of events outside of their control.
She thanked me for my consideration, but said that she would take care of everything and that I should just rest and get well. Before we hung up, she asked if it would be okay to touch base in a week or two to check on me. I thanked her and said I would like that.
I have advised many clients over the years on how to deal with unexpected change: Consider Impacts, Communicate Facts, and Collaborate On Next Steps.
That strategy worked wonders for me in this situation. A few months later, my client called and invited me to give a keynote at their next event.
Considering impacts, communicating facts, and collaborating on next steps helped to preserve a valuable, and mutually beneficial, business relationship.
Life happens. What matters is what you do next.