How to Communicate Bad News to Customers

When I worked at Samsung, I had to call Walmart and tell them a huge shipment was going to be late.  Fun, huh?  I actually had to make that kind of call all the time, because, let’s face it, shit happens (and it happens by the ton for a huge global business like I was running).  So I want to share five secrets to communicate bad news in the best possible way.

(Read to the end to download word-for-word scripts for communicating bad news)
Oh Crap

Even though we bust our butts to please our customers, things go wrong.  Now there’s nothing you can do, and your customer is going to be pissed.  I’m sure some (or all!) of these things have happened to you:

  • Something bad happened externally (delay from a subcontractor, price increase from a supplier, natural disaster, etc.)
  • Something bad happened internally (an employee screwed up, critical information got lost, scheduling mistake, etc.)
  • Saying no to a special request (can’t get that product, can’t meet that timeline, etc.)
  • Negative policy changes you’re making (price increase, tightened return policy, instituting a no-show penalty, etc.)

Telling the customer can be really scary!  Especially if it’s a big customer, or a big opportunity.  Or if it affects lots of your customers.

Here’s what you need to do to get the best possible result with your customer.

1
Start By Focusing on the Result the Customer Wants

Before you get into the bad news, show your customer that you know what they want and are working to get it for them.  This powerfully frames the conversation with you on THEIR side, understanding their needs and going to bat for them.  Otherwise, it will quickly become adversarial, with you as an obstacle to what they want.  If you’ve gone above and beyond in any way, this is a good time to mention that.

For example, if a special order got delayed, start with: “That gorgeous dress you wanted is on its way.  I had to make a few extra calls to get your size, but I found it.”  Outdoor-equipment retailer REI recently reigned in its returns policy, and the subject of their email was “100% Satisfaction,” to remind you that’s what they’re committed to.

2
Take Full Responsibility, and Don’t Air Dirty Laundry

It’s our natural impulse to show the customer that it’s not our fault!  Don’t do it.  Blaming suppliers/partners/employees not only shows an inability to manage your business, but an unwillingness to take responsibility for satisfying your customer.  People don’t buy from companies that don’t take responsibility for satisfying them.

Also resist the temptation to get into the story of how the issue happened, and how complicated it is.  This invites your customer to second-guess you at every step along the way.

The best explanation is short, takes full responsibility, and focuses on next steps, rather than rehashing the past.

3
Be Clear on What They Can Expect Now

OK, so there’s a problem.  What your customer really wants to know is, what’s going to happen now?  So lay it out for them, and be clear.  A common mistake is, in an effort to avoid messing up again, we’ll give ourselves wiggle room by being vague about our new commitment.  That makes the customer even more nervous, since they don’t have a clear picture of what they can depend on.  Instead, let them know exactly what they can expect, and when.

Sometimes you won’t be sure how long the fix will take.  In this case, don’t be vague, give a specific date that you KNOW you can meet.  Even if it’s far away.  It’s much better to undercommit and then surprise them later with good news, than to risk having ANOTHER missed commitment.

4
Restate Your Commitment to the Customer

It may feel cheesy, or it may feel like just words, but a heart-felt Agenda Job Fair Event statement explicitly telling them they’re valued goes a long way.  Avoid cliches like “We value your business.”  Instead, tell them WHY you value them and how you look forward to a long relationship together.

5
Explain What You’re Doing to Make it Better

Reassure the customer that you’re working hard to make things better, both with the immediate issue and longer term.  There are a few types of things you can mention:

  • Tell them how you and your team are busting your butts to fix the problem quickly.
  • OPTIONALLY, you can offer an apology gift (such as a discount for next time, free overnight shipping on the replacement, etc.).
  • Explain what you’re doing to make sure it doesn’t happen again.  (But avoid the gory details, that quickly becomes dirty laundry.)

Here’s Exactly What to Say

To make it easy for you, I’m happy to send you a 1-pager with 3 sample scripts for delivering bad news.  You can copy this exact language!

Share Your Thoughts

How do you break the bad news to customers?  Share your tips (or battle stories) below!

  • Great advice Evan!!

  • Sophie Syed

    Hey there!

    I was curious to take a look at the scripts you provide, but when I input my information, it said “There was an error with the AJAX request: Forbidden”. I’m guessing there’s an issue with your back-end, as I did try 2 different e-mail addresses. Hope you can fix it for anyone else who’d like a copy of your suggested messaging 🙂

    Best,
    Sophie

    • Hey Sophie — it’s fixed now! Thank you very much for the heads-up! 🙂

  • Andi Davis

    Hi There!

    This is great information! Do you have a printer friendly version? I’d like to share this with my Customer Care team.

    Thank you!

    • Glad you found this helpful! You’re welcome to share it with your Customer Care team as long as you include my info. This is the only version I have.

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