Sometimes, it’s necessary to deliver bad news to a customer or end user. For example, an order might not be ready when it was promised, a project might end up costing more than was projected, or a software application might not be ready for installation according to schedule.

Regardless of the nature of the bad news or who is at fault, there are both good and bad ways to deliver bad news. Our ability to handle the delivery of bad news in a professional manner can make the difference between a satisfied customer or end user and one who is deeply dissatisfied.

Here’s a video I created as a companion to this blog post:

While I was doing the research for this blog post, I found several articles that recommended techniques whose methods were ethically questionable. As with all human relations events, avoid anything that even hints of deception or impropriety. You might be able to get away with it temporarily, but people have long memories and you’ll undermine your credibility by being anything less than honest and forthright, as painful as it might be at the time.

So, here are five rules for delivering bad news:

  1. Earlier is better. Deliver the bad news as early as possible. Even a warning that bad news is coming can be helpful. Bad news should never come as a surprise. Whatever you do, don’t make jokes about the bad news or treat it lightly. Also, be as clear as possible and get right to the point. Avoid hemming and hawing and don’t use euphemisms or metaphors when delivering bad news.
  2. Be candid about the facts. Don’t try to gloss over anything and under no circumstances should you lie.
  3. Justify and explain. Explain what happened, why it happened, and any remediation steps that have been taken.
  4. Look for any positives. This is not about creating spin, it’s about providing an honest appraisal of the situation, including any positive aspects. For example, suppose a software deployment cost more than projected because an older version of the software was no longer available and the newer version was more expensive. Be sure to mention any valuable new benefits achieved by migrating to the newer version.
  5. Always treat people with compassion, empathy, dignity, and respect. Try to put yourself in the other person’s position. Imagine how he or she might be feeling. Imagine how you would react if the same thing happened to you. Try to see the situation from the other person’s perspective. If the bad news is going to cause the other person considerable pain or discomfort, think of ways you might be able to minimize or alleviate the pain.

It’s never enjoyable delivering or hearing bad news, obviously. With some forethought, sensitivity, and empathy, we can minimize its negative impact on our relationships, both business and personal

For More Ideas on How to Improve Communication and Customer Service Skills

Bring my one-day IT customer service training seminar onsite to your location for your group, small or large. Click here for the course description and outline.

Customer service book for IT staffPick up a copy of my IT customer service book The Compassionate Geek: How Engineers, IT Pros, and Other Tech Specialists Can Master Human Relations Skills to Deliver Outstanding Customer Service, available through Amazon and other resellers.

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