How to Deliver Bad News and Have Your Customers Thank You for It

Look, there’s no way around it. Delivering bad news sucks.

When you’re receiving bad news, you sit back, you listen, and you react.

But when you are delivering bad news, your mind races with possibilities: What will I say? How will I say it? How will they react? What if they get angry? What if… what if…

It doesn't get any easier as a small business owner. With your customer's satisfaction and the revenue they generate at risk, delivering bad news can be downright stressful.

If you've never had to deliver bad news to a customer, congratulations. This post is for you. Because inevitably, you will.

If you have had to deliver bad news to a customer, I feel for you. This post is for you as well. Because I've been there a few times before. So many times, actually, my business finally figured out how to do it well. In fact, after delivering the worst news in our company's history, the customer literally called us back to thank us for it.

I’d like to tell you that story, and help you craft a “bad news message” for the next time you need to do the same.

How Not to Deliver Bad News

In the first small business I ever worked, we developed and delivered complex software security products. As with all software products, ours had defects (or bugs). Most of the time, our customers wouldn’t have any issues, but occasionally we would introduce a new feature with problems that needed fixing.

Luckily, when it comes to bugs in software products, customers are mostly understanding. They know that with new features come new problems and they were willing to put up with those problems as long as we were supportive. But there were a few times when those problems so bad, we had to warn them.  

In most cases, we delivered this “bad news” in the form of an email, spinning the message like a politician running for office.

“Dear Mr. Customer, we are sorry to inform you that, under certain unlikely circumstances, your software will break in the XYZ way. We are working on a fix and will send you the update as soon as possible. Please don’t use feature ABC until you receive our update.”

How often have you had to deliver such a message to your customers? How often have you heard it yourself? I know I’ve heard it dozens of times from products I personally buy:

“Sorry to inform you, due to maintenance issues, your flight is not going to take off on time.”

“Your furniture isn’t ready and will be delivered late.”

“We need to recall your vehicle because of an issue with the gas cap.”

Etc. etc.

These messages are meaningless. Your customers are left with a broken promise and an unspecific statement that it will be fixed “as soon as possible.”

This is not the way to deliver bad news.

It doesn’t actually solve your customer’s problem; it just informs them. They end up having to do something completely different, out of their comfort zone, and inconvenient to work with you. They’ve parted with their hard earned money for a disappointing, heartless message that draws attention to why they shouldn’t trust or expect much from your company in the first place.

So what’s the right way to deliver bad news? Well, you can start by…

Planning for the Worst and Hoping for the Best

For two days we deliberated… Should we tell anybody? What will our customers say? What if they get angry and drop our product?

We had discovered a nasty bug; one that, even though it would only show up in rare circumstances, if found, would be catastrophic.

Since the fix was going to take weeks to deliver, we finally decided it was important to tell our customers about it. But this was the worst news we’d ever delivered, so it took some time to develop a plan for how we’d let our customer know.

In scenarios like these, when customer satisfaction and future revenue is at stake, you can’t just hope for the best without planning for the worst. You’ve got to realize that your customers, even with tactfully and skillfully delivered bad news, may be angry, react poorly, and leave. They may be irrational, demanding, and downright mean.

And while you should hope that this won’t be the case, you’ve got to create a plan for what to do when they react. And this plan needs to include how to deliver bad news in such a way that they are unlikely to react poorly.

Crafting a Helpful Message

When you’ve got bad news to give, and time to think about how to deliver it, take the time to think through exactly what you’ll say and how you’ll say it. A mentor once told me, “people don’t remember what you say, but they’ll never forget how you made them feel.”

Receiving bad news isn’t going to feel good, so thinking through things from your customer’s perspective will minimize the negative impact. Our goal here is to, if possible, have them come away feeling positive, appreciated, supported, etc.

So let’s use a simple framework to help create a message that does that. And let’s start by…

In  What Is Effective Strategic Planning for Small Businesses , we discussed the importance of creating a company purpose for your small business and 4 steps you can use to develop a purpose statement that informs your ever business move.

In What Is Effective Strategic Planning for Small Businesses, we discussed the importance of creating a company purpose for your small business and 4 steps you can use to develop a purpose statement that informs your ever business move.

1. Reminding Your Customers of Your Purpose

We’ve said it before on Modern da Vinci, and we’ll say it again: The importance of understanding your purpose as a small business cannot be understated. Purpose drives every decision as a leader, every move as a team, every product and service you build, and every message you relay to your customers.

In this case, your message, though it’s bad news, is no different.

The first thing you must do is remind your customers what you, one small business in a sea of companies, is here on this planet to do. Help remind them of why they started working with you in the first place. You are in a relationship with your customers, and reminding them why lays a foundation of trust that will allow you deliver bad news more effectively.

2. Be Specific. Extremely Specific

When we get to the bad news itself, we cannot be vague or beat around the bush. You need to understand the problem your customers will face inside and out, then describe it to them in such detail that it leaves no question in their mind what is going on.

3. Take Responsibility

Guess what? Your customers won’t care how hard it is for you to deliver bad news or whose fault it really was. They need someone to take responsibility for this news, and that has to be you.

And I don’t mean the “royal you.” I mean you, personally.

Your customers need to know who to turn to with questions, complaints, and similar future problems. If you are vague about who that is, it will erode trust with them. But if you make yourself the directly responsible individual, they’ll have someone to go to and a face to remember.

4. Leave No Stone Unturned

Your customers will immediately react in the middle of your delivery. Whether they respond or not will vary from case to case. What you don’t want to do is plan on a one-way conversation. You’ll need to spend considerable time thinking through all the questions they might ask, and preparing answers for each.

Leave no stone unturned. Put yourselves in your customer’s shoes and think about what questions you would ask of your small business. For every sentence you write in your message, throw five different questions at it and come up with good answers.

It’s easy to skip this step and tell yourself that you’ll just “handle questions as they come up.” But preparation will go a long way to relaxing customers who are finding themselves in the middle of a problem and feeling a lack of control.  

5. Why Won’t This Happen Again?

Finally, wrap up your bad news with a reminder that your purpose hasn’t changed and that you are still committed to doing what you do best. The question your customers will have on their mind after your conversation is, “will this happen again?”

In the previous step, you described exactly why you’re having to deliver bad news. In this step, you need to tell them exactly why they won’t be having a similar conversation with you on the same topic in the future.

What Does This Sound Like?

So that’s it. Five simple steps to taking bad news and creating a message that will help your customers listen to, understand, and ultimately accept it.

After careful deliberation and following these five steps ourselves, we brought our customer on the phone (with little information on why we wanted to meet) and delivered a message that sounded something like this:

“I know you don’t understand why you are here. If you suspect there may be a problem with our product and we need to tell you about it, you’d be right. We want to let you know, before we begin, that our purpose as a company is to help you secure your products in such a way that protects your critical intellectual property against all the malicious, the bad actors out there. And we are still committed to that goal. Because of that, we have discovered a problem that we feel obligated to tell you about. It’s a deep-rooted problem, and it could manifest itself in some different ways. Number one, it could happen this way, XYZ.” And we described that. “It could happen this way, ABC.” And we described that.  

After going through the list of all the ways our problem could manifest itself, we said,

"Now we want to give you some time to ask questions, but before you do let me just remind you that our purpose is to help you secure your software and we are standing by that promise and that purpose and we are going to help you do that in any way, shape, or form that we can. Whether we continue to use our software product to do that, or we find somebody else's, or we put our people on solving this problem, your software is going to be secure regardless of this bug that we found. I am the one that will help you do this, and I am the one you can direct your questions, problems, and concerns to.”
“Furthermore, let me explain to you exactly why this will never happen again.” And we described exactly the steps we were taking to solve the problem such that we would never be on the phone discussing this matter again.

Finally, when we fully delivered the message, we opened it up for question and comments… and they were upset. Really upset.

They were upset because they knew that this issue was going to come up for them, and it was going to grind their product sales and their product development to a halt until we fixed it.

So Did They Really Thank Us? Will They Thank You?

The answer to these two questions is, “yes,” and, “not always.” But this is the best shot you have at turning rotten apples into sweet applesauce.

It’s one thing to tell your customer “hey, here’s some bad news,” leaving them to figure out how it affects them. It’s another to be able to deliver that bad news along with a solution, answers to every question they have, a timeline for when things will be fixed, a message for why this won’t happen again, and a commitment to keeping a relationship with them built on the purpose your business serves.

If you can do that, your customers may still feel the pain of that news, but by and large, they will appreciate your professionalism and commitment to your purpose and their goals.

When we delivered our bad news, the customer was immediately upset. They could only think of all the problems we’d created for them, and the trauma this would cause in their team, their management, and their company as a whole. We calmly answered every question they had and wrapped our entire message into the framework described above.

Three days later, they called back. But it wasn’t to ask more questions, complain, or fire us. It was to apologize for the way they reacted to our news and to thank us for being a good vendor. I don’t remember the exact words, but it sounded something like:

"We’re sorry for the way that we reacted on the phone call, and we would like to thank you for bringing this to our attention. We also wanted to let you know that we are sticking with you as a vendor, and we appreciate all the help that you're going to provide in making our product work again."

That was a huge day for us.

It cemented this process for delivering bad news which we would use many times again in the future. It cemented in our minds how our purpose connects with our message, even if the message is a bad one. Most importantly, it cemented the relationship we had with our customer forever.

It was just about remembering our purpose, taking responsibility, and then committing to make good on our promises in the future.  

Tell us in the comments below, what bad news have you had to deliver to your customers in the past? How did they respond? What bad news are you struggling to deliver now? Leave a comment… We’d love to help!

PS. I’d like to leave you with one final thought. Take the time to craft your bad news using the process described herein, but be certain to deliver it as soon as possible. After all, bad news doesn’t get better with time.

Research drawn from the medical field outlines the qualities most valued in doctors and nurses who communicate bad news:   The news-giver’s attitude  The clarity of the message  Privacy   The person’s ability to answer questions

Research drawn from the medical field outlines the qualities most valued in doctors and nurses who communicate bad news:

  • The news-giver’s attitude
  • The clarity of the message
  • Privacy
  • The person’s ability to answer questions