What Customer Service Representatives Can Learn From Doctors About Delivering Bad News

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Two years ago my dad needed a quadruple bypass and to have 3 heart valves replaced. The surgery came with risks. There was a 10 – 15% risk of death during or shortly after surgery. My family arranged a meeting with my dad’s surgeon where the entire family could ask questions about the operation.

The surgeon walked into the simple exam room to meet with us. He greeted us, shook our hands and took a seat across from my dad. I was the first to ask a question. “If my dad doesn’t have this surgery, what are we looking at doctor?”

The surgeon expertly handled my question, all of our questions. I noticed how calm we were as we took in the bad news the doctor was delivering. There’s a lot customer service professionals can learn from doctors when it comes to delivering bad news.

Doctors, surgeons and trauma teams are strategically trained and highly skilled in delivering bad news. In fact, doctors who give bad news best have mastered 3 things: Attitude, Clarity, and Openness to Questions.

Watch this short YouTube video where I explain The 3 Keys Doctors Use to Deliver Bad News

1. Attitude of the News-Giver

My dad’s surgeon was fully present with us. He spoke warmly with appropriate empathy. Not too much empathy, just enough and he was direct. He faced me squarely and responded.

“If your dad does not have this surgery, he’s looking at one of 3 outcomes. He will be dead in less than two years. Or, he will be confined to a wheelchair because his body will be so frail and weak. Another possible outcome is he will be bedridden.”

While the news is certainly not what any of us wanted to hear, I noticed how well we took in the news. My dad and mom had, of course, listened to the news before. But this was my first time hearing the news from the surgeon.

The takeaway

The surgeon’s attitude, an attitude of full presence, confidence, directness, and empathy, helped prepare us to receive the news.


2. Clarity of the Message

I followed up my first question with, “What are the risks of this surgery?” The surgeon explained that there was, in fact, a risk of death during or after surgery, a 10-15% risk of mortality. “But if my dad should suffer a stroke or heart attack in surgery, he’s in the best place for this to happen, right? He’s with a team of doctors and surgeons.”

This is where the clarity really came in. The surgeon said, “I’m telling you that the risks are there. If your dad were to experience a stroke, heart attack or other complication while in surgery, we’ll do all we can. I cannot guarantee your father will make it through this surgery.”

The takeaway

The surgeon was clear. He didn’t waste words, and he didn’t sugarcoat the news. He gave it to us straight, which is what we needed.


3. Openness to Questions

I had more questions, lots, and so did my family. The surgeon confidently responded to each of our questions and encouraged us to ask all that we needed.

The takeaway

He was patient and knowledgeable, backing up everything he stated with facts. We felt comfortable asking questions, and none of us felt that our questions were too much or dumb.

The bottom line

Arm your employees with doctor’s skills for delivering bad news. Help them cultivate an attitude of empathy, walk them through how to be clear, direct and concise and make sure they make customers feel entirely comfortable asking questions. When you do these things, your employees will deliver bad news with ease and without backlash.

Now you can give your representatives even more great skills for delivering the best customer experience and for handling difficult customer situations. Sign up for my email list and learn specific tips, approaches, and phrases to help your employees help your customers.



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Myra is a favorite training partner to Fortune 500 companies with her customized, engaging, behavior-changing (and fun) customer service workshops, working with McDonald’s, Coca-Cola, Frito-Lay, Michelin, Vera Bradley and other brands.

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