Client Clash: How Do You Deliver Bad News to Customers?

Anticipate. Communicate. Repeat. Learn how to prevent all-out battles from customer conflict.
Client Clash: How Do You Deliver Bad News to Customers?
If you caused the problem, attempting to spread the blame for bad news to the client, or a subcontractor will backfire.

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Service-based businesses thrive on delivering top-notch results to customers. Delivering bad news requires quite a different skill set.

“Often, news is bad only if customers perceive that they have no control over it,” says Kristin Robertson, president of Texas-based management consulting firm KR Consulting, Inc. “Sometimes, the way you phrase your communication turns the message into bad news for the customer. 

“Learn to recognize bad news from the customer’s perspective, and how to influence the perception of what is bad news and what is good news.” 

Robertson provides some strategies for delivering bad news in the best way possible. 

1. Anticipate bad news

“Anticipate instances in which you have to deliver bad news to your customers,” says Robertson. “Generally, honesty is the best policy, but think through how you are going to present the honest truth to make it easier to swallow. 

“Develop responses and techniques to deal with bad news before you need them.” 

2. Communicate bad news quickly

Bad news won’t go away, so the sooner it’s delivered, the more control the customer has over the outcome. If you know you can’t make a piece of equipment available, or a project will be delayed, an early admission gives customers time to accommodate the problem and may give both parties time to develop a workaround or alternative solution. 

3. Deliver bad news calmly

“The calmer you can deliver bad news, the calmer it will be received,” says Robertson. “Use a confident but soothing tone of voice, and deliver the news using a moderated pace. The customer will sense your assurance and will react positively.”

4. Accentuate the positive

“Start with what you can do for a customer, not what you can’t, and offer options and choices,” says Robertson.

Example: “The good news is that we can work on another phase of the project now, while we address the scheduling on the main contract.”

5. Choose neutral words

“Trigger words will almost certainly anger a customer,” says Robertson. “Starting any sentence with ‘you should’ or ‘you can’t’ comes across as shaking your finger at the customer.”

Better choices: “We can,” or “Let’s do this together,” or “What I could suggest is...”

6. Three words to avoid: “That’s our policy.”

“Using the phrase ‘That’s our policy,’ is never advisable,” says Robertson. “If company policy prevents you from offering a remedy the customer is requesting, go to the heart of why the policy was developed and explain that it was created with the customer’s best interest in mind.”

Example: “We recommend this option because it will keep your project compliant with environmental regulations.”

7. Take responsibility

If you caused the problem, attempting to spread the blame for bad news to the client, or a subcontractor will backfire. 

8. Wait for a response

“Listen and focus on what the customer is saying, taking notes, and paraphrasing their concerns to confirm you understand what they are saying,” says Robertson.

“Correct any misunderstandings and begin to work on a solution.” 

9. De-stress

“Delivering bad news can be stressful,” says Robertson. “Take a break and walk around the building or take several deep breaths and stretch.”


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