What You Can Learn From Doctors About Delivering Bad News to Your Customers

African American Doctor

Five years ago my dad needed to have a quadruple bypass, and he needed to have 3 of his heart valves replaced. The surgery came with significant risks. There was a 10 – 15% chance of death during or shortly after surgery.

There was a risk of stroke or heart attack during the operation. My father didn’t want to have the surgery – because of the risks, and based on things he was hearing from other people.

My sister arranged a meeting with my Dad’s surgeon and our whole family, where we could ask questions about the surgery so that my Dad could make the best decision.

The surgeon walked into the 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?”

Here’s what I want you to hear; the way the surgeon answered my question. He turned to face me, and he said,

“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 so weak. Another possible outcome is he will be bedridden.”

The doctor was crystal clear in what we were looking at. The news was bad.  But I noticed how calm we all were as we listened to the surgeon. I think we all appreciated his directness and his clarity. It was this approach, direct and clear, that helped us to take in the bad news.

Doctors are highly skilled on how to deliver bad news; they have to be. Doctors have mastered four things when it comes to giving bad news – 4 keys that you can take, adapt and use when you have to deliver bad news to customers.

Key 1: Be Clear

When my Dad’s surgeon said to us, If your dad does not have this surgery, he’s looking at one of 3 outcomes, and then gave us the three results in plain English, he was clear and left no room misunderstanding.

When you have to deliver bad news to a customer, say what you have to say. Say it, directly, and without leaving any doubt.

Key 2: Acknowledge Concern

One of my Dad’s most significant concerns was the risk of death. One of us asked about the 10-15% risk of death during or immediately after surgery, and the surgeon said, “Certainly there are risks; there are risks with any surgery. I have never lost a patient in or immediately after this surgery.”

This response acknowledged our fear of the risk of death, and at the same time, it offered a sense of reassurance.

Key 3: Manage Expectations

The best way to manage expectations is to be direct and honest. The doctor did that when he said to us at one point, “If your father experiences a heart attack or a stroke happens in surgery, he’s in the best place – in our hands. We’ll do all we can, but your dad can still experience a heart attack, stroke, or even death.

Key 4: Offer Options

It’s always good, when you can, to give customers a choice when you have to provide them with bad news – even when the option is not the ideal situation. My Dad had an alternative to the risky surgery: Do nothing and risk being bedridden and dying earlier than he had to. Giving customers a choice makes them feel like they have some control over the situation.

You can give your customers lousy news just as easily, and as efficiently, as my dad’s surgeon did using these keys.

Was This Helpful?

I’m asking you because my newsletter offers ideas like this all the time. If you’re not yet subscribed, sign up here.