Delivering Bad News to the Customer

Whether your business is building wooden pallets or designing nuclear power plants (or anything in between), it’s safe to say that you’ve had to share bad news with some of your customers at one point or another. And who likes to do that?!? Human nature is generally to avoid these negative situations as long as possible, and consequently the problem only continues to get worse. In my experience, if you follow a few simple guidelines in delivering bad news, you can make life more manageable for yourself, your company, and particularly your customer. The news itself can be anything from a schedule slip to budget overrun to a technical catastrophe, but the rules for handling the news really do not change much.

Here are some of the guidelines that I have adopted over the years to help deliver ‘less than stellar’ news to my customers:

  1. Bad news never gets better with time!  If you only retain one single fact from this reading, make it this one! Don’t waste valuable minutes, hours, days or weeks hoping that the problem will all go away or get better on its own. The harsh reality is, these things seldom solve themselves. Be prepared to share the news with your customer as soon as you validate it. Remember that they too have made commitments based on YOUR performance, so keeping facts from them is going to make things even worse on their end when the truth eventually comes out. And it ALWAYS comes out, eventually. The sooner everyone knows the problem, the easier it is make arrangements to deal with it. I always try to put myself in my customer’s shoes when I need to be the bearer of unfortunate news. This helps to keep a balanced perspective, and in the end you will be able to serve your customer’s needs better. Another crucial point to remember: It’s not at all uncommon for the customer to be able to help craft out the solutions. It’s possible that they have run into similar issues on other efforts, so the sooner they are engaged, the better. Don’t forget about this valuable resource for resolution plans, especially if you’re stumped about what to do next.

  2. Ok, so now you’re prepared to break the news……Make sure you have all your facts straight first! Understanding the root cause of the issue is the first step to dealing with it, so make sure you can identify it clearly in your discussion. Spend ample time getting all of the info relative to the issue at hand gathered and sorted before your discussion. Before you make that dreaded customer call, bring together as many of your team members that are involved in the project as you can and have a brief rundown of the what/how/why questions with the group, and take detailed notes of this meeting. In my personal experiences, these meetings have saved me from many embarrassing “well, I don’t really know……” statements during the delivery of the bad news. Try to anticipate as many of their questions as you can, and make sure you have as many of those answers as possible available to you before you have the unpleasant discussion with the customer.

  3. Don’t EVER pass off the dreaded task of delivering the negative news to someone else. Many times middle-management personnel will bring in the ‘big gun’ VP or Director to break the news to the customer. This happens for a variety of reasons (don’t want to be the ‘bad guy’, execs may feel more comfortable spinning the bad news than allowing a subordinate to do it, etc.), but seldom are the reasons valid. When I’m the customer and my everyday contact brings in someone I hardly know (or don’t know at all) to break bad news to me, I have a hard time trusting and respecting either one of them. If you need some backup in the room, that’s another story. It never hurts (and in fact is usually a good idea) to have moral support or ‘color commentary’ from another member of your team during the discussion, but you need to be the bearer of the bad news. Period. Your hard-fought reputation and relationship with your customer may hang in the balance on this one if you choose the seemingly easier path of “let someone else deliver the bad news”.

  4. If at all possible, try to have at least some general ideas close at hand of how to you may be able to mitigate the problem. Even better if you already have a firm plan of action figured out and in process when you break the news to the customer. However, don’t spend days or weeks working on your plan before you break the news. You have to be quick on this one (see rule #1).

  5. If your team is directly to blame for the bad news, own up to it candidly. Nothing makes a customer lose faith in you quicker than trying to shift blame to some other entity. Own up to the culpability, take whatever whipping that’s dished out, and then move on to the solution phase. It’s hard for anyone to put much energy into mercilessly flogging you if you’ve already done it yourself in their presence.

  6. Move your customer communications to “crisis-mode” during the recovery phase of the problem. Provide daily (sometimes multiple daily) updates to your customer contact with the progress and the direction that corrections are taking. This will make the customer a true partner in the effort, and it also makes it a lot easier for them to be able to deliver updates to their stakeholders. Remember: Once the bad news is out in the wild, everyone along the chain will be constantly tuned into hearing the solution progress. If your customer is getting hammered every hour by his boss about what’s going on and he doesn’t have the answers, the pressure ramps up unnecessarily for all involved, particularly you!

  7. If your correction plan takes a drastic turn from your published course for any reason (plan A didn’t work, the team came up with a better plan, etc.), be sure and let your customer contact know immediately (see rule #1). This bullet point probably should really be 6B, as it ties in directly with standard crisis-mode communication.

I’m sure there are dozens of other rules and guidelines that could apply to this list, but these are the mainstays that I use to try and keep problematic project issues from becoming business-killers. If you are able to utilize some or all of these methods the next time you’re faced with explaining a catastrophic setback to your customer, I think you’ll find the situation can not only be more manageable, but your customer ties will only get stronger. True partnership demands the whole truth be shared in a timely manner, and anything less will only complicate your problem. And one last point to remember: In our modern world they seldom execute the bearer of bad tidings anymore like the old Roman custom, so you have that going for you, which is nice! 

If you have some additional rules or guidelines of your own that you’ve refined over the years for delivering bad news to your customers, please share them here! We can all use all the help we can get when we have to be that bearer of the dreaded news.