7 Tips For Communicating Bad News to Customers
Effective communication of bad news to customers is essential to maintain good relations. Here are some tips to do this.
Communicating bad news to customers can be a challenging and delicate process. It's important to handle things with empathy and clarity to maintain trust and credibility. Sometimes you’ll be the owner of the cause and you’ll feel professionally deflated and beaten during this process. If you own the cause, though, you also own the solution and THAT’S where your energy needs to go.
Sometimes it may be a member of your team who messed up. Sometimes problems stem from outside forces that you couldn’t have controlled. Sometimes it’s the client’s fault. You may even have warned them about the consequences. Whatever the reason, you can still choose to be the responsible party. Own the solution process and don’t make the client feel like you’re blaming them — at least not until the next time they look like they’re going wrong.
Once you have your head in the game rather than focusing on blame, these are some basic ideas about how to handle this delicate and professionally challenging situation so the client gets what they need and the problem gets solved. If you handle this stage effectively and with grace, you’ll likely get what you need — a client who comes back.
Listed below are some tips to help you properly communicate bad news to customers:
Everybody appreciates honesty, even if the news is bad or the response unpleasant. Be transparent about the situation, and avoid hiding or sugar-coating the news. Be clear and direct and provide details as necessary. Take a factual and clear approach. It will be uncomfortable, and you're going to have to accept that, but the person who is most appreciated in a crisis situation is the one who focuses on open communication and clarity. Avoid defensive or guarded responses and postures, and roll with the punches. Realistically, your task starts when the anger stops, so handle the situation with stoic composure and be ready to lead the action that will generate a solution.
Try to lay out all the facts in one thorough sweep. Surprises are bad in these moments, but having to break more bad news later, even though you already know it NOW, is just self-imposed repeat misery. Don’t let clarity get bogged down in minutiae. Include enough information to inform, keep to the key elements and make sure to express the positives as well (as long as they’re true!).
Acknowledge the customer's feelings and emotions. Show them that you understand the impact of the bad news on them and that you are there to support them. Use empathic language and a neutral, professional tone, and let them know that you are sorry for the inconvenience caused — whether or not you or your team were responsible for it.
Above all, receive their fear, anger, blame, and negative emotions with equanimity and patience, stoicism and kindness. The negative emotions must be acknowledged and cleared before you’ll be able to move on to a positive plan of action. While the customer may want to blame someone, it’ll usually help if you can try to delay that until the review. Though blame is often the natural first reaction when things go wrong, the USEFUL function is a result of a solutions approach. Acknowledge that there may be issues to address downstream once the crisis is answered.
If possible, offer alternatives or solutions to the problem. Let the customer know what you are doing to address the issue and what steps you are taking to prevent it from happening again.
Along the way, though, avoid guile and deflect the client’s responses with optimism. Expect your optimism to be challenged and expect to ‘defend’ your reasoning. The client wants reasons to feel positive, but they may instinctively believe your optimism to be too strong, especially at this stage. Be careful to temper your hopes with calm and supportive advice about probabilities and timelines.
At the same time, do not over-promise. You need to have genuine confidence in your ability to deliver as stated. Under-promise so you can over-deliver.
Don't delay in communicating bad news to customers. It's better to inform them as soon as possible to avoid any misunderstandings or false expectations. Gather all the relevant information before communicating with them. Then, using clear and succinct language and a confident tone, tell the client what they must know, warts and all.
Don’t delay the bad news in hopes of having good news sometime soon, even if it’s really soon. Be sure the news is good before you share it. If it's not, another bad news layer will likely harm you more than the good news would have helped.
Choose the appropriate communication channel based on the severity of the news and the urgency of the situation. Sometimes an email is all you need. In other cases, it’s best delivered over the phone or face-to-face. Ensure that the message is conveyed effectively and that the customer understands your information. Make your approach personal; a written message might be fine for minor news, but for anything serious, pick up the phone.
Maintain a professional tone, even if the customer gets upset or angry. Remain calm, and respond to their concerns with patience and understanding. Remember, the customer is not angry at you personally, but at the situation.
Stoic acceptance of the anger/denial phases will serve you well. You should be sympathetic but resolute in your desire to steer the conversation toward solutions and away from mere blame. Avoid talking down to the client at all costs, no matter how they express themselves. Keep your cool and guide them past the surprise/fear stage to focus on solutions.
Once you have communicated the bad news, follow up with the customer to ensure that they are satisfied with the resolution or to answer any additional questions they may have.
Give them enough updates to be supportive, but don’t go overboard. If it’s a big issue and you have regular progress points, then once or twice a day is reasonable, depending on the pace of breakthroughs and solution development. Other situations may not require so many updates.
Communicating serious problems to an unhappy and angry client is some of the toughest work you’ll ever undertake. But learning to do it well marks you as a professional. It’s a skill that few master; amateurs often lack emotional control or end up over-promising out of a need to steer the conversation into positive territory.
These are not tough problems to solve in theory, but the heat of the moment can make things more difficult. When you get your tone right, address your client’s genuine needs, and work the problem with a patient approach, you can turn this trying situation into a win.