7 simple steps on how to deliver bad news to a client

7 simple steps on how to deliver ‘bad news’ to clients

Here’s some simple advice on delivering “Bad News” to clients and turning it into a good news day.

I work as a Sales Director in a fantastic Field Marketing business that I am truly proud of; we do what we say and our clients love what we do.

“delivering service excellence, first time…every time”

It’s a Retail Support Business providing a diverse range of services including compliance audits, retail intelligence, product merchandising, promotional set-ups, relays and refits, ordering, stocktaking and product returns. It’s a very busy environment with sometimes up to 5,000 calls scheduled in one day.  We have over 1,500 colleagues spread across the UK and Ireland, with a central office in Bristol.

Our company strap line is “delivering service excellence, first time… every time“, a brilliant strap-line that most of our clients would absolutely agree we deliver 99% of the time, regrettably utopia doesn’t exist!

In my career in Retail I have witnessed client relations breaking down and even ending over the simplest “bad news” situations getting out of control.  Here is some advice that I have learned along the way to avoid such situations.

1. Bad news should never be a surprise. Failure to warn a client that there could be a risk of under delivery on a project is a sin.  Regular, frequent communication and updates help avoid bad situations ballooning out of control into major disputes.  Give early insight, report regularly and keep your client informed.

2. Never delay. Delivering bad news with speed, is critically important. Many people sit on bad news, hoping that things will improve; in my experience they rarely do.

3. Carefully choose your communication method. Delivering bad news is never easy; always prepare, make copious notes in advance of the communication and gather any facts, figures and contributing factors that caused the failure.  Bad news should always be delivered in the following communication method order of priority.

  • Face to face –  if possible take the trouble to arrange an immediate face to face meeting. In my career I have rarely encountered anyone that is unpleasant in a face to face delivery of “bad news”. In a face to face meeting you benefit from body language. We tend to forget that body language plays a major part in our communication. It is not just how you said something, but also your facial expressions and body posture.
  • Video conference or Skype – due to distance or if there are other reasons face to face is not possible, opt for video conferencing or skype; you still benefit from body language and facial expression and will deliver a much more meaningful discussion that will reassure your client.
  • Phone – the next best option, however make sure the environment is right choosing a quiet area where you can hear your client and they can clearly hear you.  Be honest, don’t shy away from the facts and be direct, but also reassure.
  • Email – the final option and should always be avoided if possible.  If you are forced to do this, keep it simple and consider the following points in your communication. I would always offer an option of an immediate face to face meeting or phone call in the final line of your email.

4. Never hide the facts. In bad news situations people withhold information out of fear, or to save face. Whilst this may be a natural reaction, when the hidden facts become public—and they always do – you will look a lot worse than if facts were initially disclosed.

5. Look for positives. Find positives associated with the bad news. This could be criticized as spin, however positives give your client hope that the situation can improve.  However a warning here, it must be realistic, timely and deliverable.  There is nothing worse than failing a client, promising to fix it and then failing again. Perhaps consider presenting the poor delivery in another way; 20 failed implementations always sounds worse than a 2% failure rate, or even better, flip it to 98% compliance rate.

6. Always bring solutions. When delivering bad news, present solutions or an action plan to solve the problems that led to the bad news. However bad, is shows that it’s being addressed in a problem‐solving way. Bad news without solutions is “really” bad news.

7. Always follow up and follow through. After the bad news is delivered and solutions are identified, track any progress made in solving the problems. Make an offer of daily updates and feedback on how the solution is working. Bad news involves cleaning up a mess. After cleaning, let everyone know. Now the news is no longer bad; it is good, you did a great job!

If you follow these simple steps, delivering bad news will become easier.  It is human nature to avoid conflict but if you follow these simple steps you will find such situations much easier to deal with, keeping your clients happy and maintaining trust.

Most importantly you will keep your clients and they will celebrate your fantastic, honest communication.

Alan Horton

Sales Director UK and Ireland