How to Deliver “Bad” News to Customers

Delivering bad news (e.g., delayed shipment, software virus, no warranty coverage etc.)  to customers is not usually pleasant.

Bad news is bad news but how you deliver it can have an impact on future customer relations. There are five steps to delivering bad news in a more effective, customer concentric manner:

Step #1: Prepare and Plan Your Call

Before you make you call, gather all the facts surrounding the situation.  Try to anticipate your client’s reaction by asking, ‘what would I ask, want or demand if it were me?’  Think of what you want to say and HOW you want to say it.   Use a sheet of paper to jot down key points you want to make or important questions you might want to ask.   Determine action plans, alternative recommendations or other solutions to help mitigate the issue.  Finally, minimize external distractions.  If necessary, find a private office to avoid interruptions so you can give 100% of your attention to the issue at hand.

Step #2: Don’t Delay

There’s an old adage, “If you have to eat crow, it is best to eat it while it’s young and tender.  Crow does not get better with age. “  Good advice.

Deliver your ‘dreaded news’ as soon as possible especially if you’re at fault or if there are significant implications.  Bad news is bad enough but delays suggest indifference which can exacerbate the situation.  Gather your information and then pick up the phone.

Step #3: Don’t Beat Around the Bush

When you get your customer on the phone do NOT try to build rapport or make small talk.  It will ultimately ring as false.  This is probably the most awkward part of any call. Here is a nifty technique you can use to break the news.  After you’ve introduced yourself and your company follow this template:

 “Aaron, I have heard back from shipping regarding your last order < slight pause>

(In effect, this preps your client about the topic or issue)

I’m afraid I have some bad news <slight pause>

(This is an extremely important line because it ‘warns’ the client that bad news is forthcoming.  The bad news isn’t quite so shocking when they are anticipating ‘something.’)

The shipment is delayed for two weeks.  It will arrive on the 18th of May <slight pause>

(Okay, so this is where you lay it on the line.  No frills. No obfuscation.  Black and white.  Facts. The dreaded news)

I am sorry about this news.  I know you have due dates and this must be distressing. <slight pause>

(Finally, you conclude your message delivery with an apology and acknowledge the implications.)

Of course your tone of delivery is ABSOLUTELY critical.  The pace should be somewhat slower than you normally talk.  This allows the customer to absorb and comprehend the message.  It also helps make you sound more sincere.  Your tone must resonate with concern and regret.  Use the pauses after each sentence.  Most of the time, the client will allow you to continue as they adjust to your message.

Step #4: Let Them Respond

Pause a bit longer after your last line.  One of two things will happen at this stage. One, they  interject with a question, a comment, a lament, maybe even a curse or two.  It will vary with the individual and the situation but it is important that you let them vent or comment.  It is an emotional moment so bare that it mind if it gets a little heated.

Or two, they will say nothing.  This is kind of a kin to being in shock.  Use it to your advantage.  If they don’t reply right away, move to the final step below.

Step #5: Offer a Plan of Action or Alternatives

Here’s where your pre-call planning can help you out.  If you have an alternative or a plan of action, say so. Tell the client what you CAN do.

“Aaron, here’s what I have done…” or,

“Aaron, here’s what I recommend we do…” or,

“Aaron, I haven’t given up on this. As I see it we have three options…”

Of course, this assumes there is a Plan B.  If not, summarize the action items you took:  who you spoke with, the various avenues you searched, etc.   It won’t always appease the upset client but it will convey that you attempted to DO something.


Hopefully you won’t have too many dreaded calls to make but when you do, remember these steps.  How you respond with tough news will often dictate the future of that particular customer. This approach is a responsible approach.  Many of your clients will sense that and work with you to achieve a satisfactory solution.  Give it a shot.

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