5 Ways to Break Bad News and Still Keep Customers Happy

Businessman with client

Once when my youngest daughter was about twelve she had a plan in mind for an upcoming trip. I don’t remember the details, but it was not a very realistic plan. “We’ll see,” I told her as she was laying it out for me. “Right,” she sneered in the way that only a tween girl talking to her clueless father can. “Dad, I know you, ‘we’ll see’ always means, ‘no.’” She was right, of course, “we’ll see,” is what I said to her when I didn’t want to disappoint her by saying, “no.”

It’s an understandable and natural reaction to try and protect people, and ourselves, by not delivering bad news. “Kill the messenger,” is a saying for a reason. But when dealing with customer service, delaying the bad news is exactly the wrong way to go.

In my claims work I deliver bad news to people all the time, from those who owe my clients money to my clients themselves. I have seen many collections cases that could have been solved with less rancor, and at less cost, if those in debt had learned how to deliver bad news effectively. Obviously, bad news will upset people, but keeping these five tips in mind should help you deliver unfortunate information, without losing your customers or clients.

1. Talk in person (when possible)

It may be uncomfortable, but it’s best to deliver bad news in person. This approach demonstrates to the customer that you are taking the situation seriously and also allows you to clearly express empathy. Too often intention and tone of voice are lost in email, and even in phone calls where people cannot read body language.

We all know the stereotype of the cad inviting his girlfriend to a fancy restaurant to break up, because he knows she won’t make a scene. There’s some logic to that behavior. You don’t have to take a customer out for a fancy lunch to explain a late delivery, but delivering bad news in person allows you to control the setting and decide when the conversation is over. This is especially helpful if you expect an ongoing argument about the situation.

If you cannot meet with someone in person, a phone call is definitely preferable to text or email. Frequently, people fail to prepare properly for phone calls, instead attempting to squeeze it into a busy day. This is not a smart move when delivering bad news. When calling to deliver bad news, have all the information necessary at your fingertips and make sure you are in a place free of distractions. Imagine how disrespectful it would feel being given bad news by someone who was simultaneously checking Facebook or driving a car. If you are having trouble reaching someone by phone, try a text or email to let them know that you need to speak with them about an important matter.

2. Be clear and honest

By not simply telling my daughter “no,” I had actually begun to erode her trust in me. The truth is “we’ll see,” didn’t really always mean “no,” but I had said it often enough that she no longer trusted me to really listen to her suggestions. The same is true of your customers. If you say that you can deliver goods by a certain date, knowing that actually you can’t, you will erode their trust in your ability to ever deliver. On the other hand, if you tell someone upfront, “I’m sorry, I won’t be able to make the due date, but here’s how I can make the situation better,” they will trust you to work with them.

3. Take responsibility

One of the reasons customers overreact to bad news is because they expect that the bad news will be followed by a series of excuses and frustrating conversations. By immediately taking responsibility for a situation you can actually diffuse this tension and put the customer on your side. “We failed to consider the possibility that there would be a typhoon this time of year,” can result in sympathy for your plight rather than anger. No one holds you responsible for the weather.

4. Offer a solution

Ultimately, your customer doesn’t care about the problem; he or she cares about the solution. Coming to the conversation with a solution in mind lets your customer know that you’ve thought about things from their point of view. You should always have a solution in mind before you give someone bad news, but you should also be prepared that they may ask for a different resolution to the problem.

5. Be empathetic

Delivering bad news is an uncomfortable position to be in. When delivering bad news it can be tempting to gloss over the feelings or distress of the other person. Putting yourself in the other person’s shoes and not rushing them through the time they need to process the information can go along way towards retaining your customer’s trust.

Occasionally you may have to deliver news so bad that there is no way you can retain the customer; sometimes you may not even want to retain the customer. Even in those situations delivering your news honestly, clearly, and with empathy can help preserve your reputation and help you handle the situation in a way with which you can be comfortable.

About the Author

Dean Kaplan is President of The Kaplan Group, a commercial collection agency specializing in large claims and international transactions.  He has 35 years of international business experience, traveling to over 40 countries to negotiate over $500 million in mergers and acquisitions and other business deals.

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