4 Keys to Delivering Lousy News to Customers


I’m sipping black tea and listening to classical music while I custom design a customer service workshop for a utility on the east coast. One of my deliverables for this training is to equip employees with the skill of giving lousy news to customers in such a way that the customer accepts the employees’ answer as the final word.

You’re in for a professional development treat today, because I’m sharing with you what I’ll facilitate in Philadelphia next month. You’re about to learn how to deliver bad news with confidence and in such a way that you minimize backlash from customers.

You can give a customer bad news easily and without fear of how your customer might respond when you use 4 Keys. When you have to deliver bad news to your customer, you need to:

Say what you have to say Assertively

Acknowledge how hard this is for the customer

Manage Expectations

Offer Options, when it makes sense


Let’s look at each key.

Key 1: Say What You Have to Say Assertively

I believe you can say anything to anyone if you say it the right way. My definition of assertive is, say what you mean, mean what you say, without being mean when you say it.

So, give news in a straightforward way that is also gentle. Here are some ways I’m going to help my utility client provide lousy news assertively. Look at these examples and think of how you can adapt the concept to provide your customers with horrible news.

“So, the previous owner has an unpaid balance. What this means is, for you to have your services connected, the balance has to be paid first. We are not able to turn the water on until the balance is paid.”

“It’s possible to have a second meter placed on the property. But this can only be requested by the property owner. Even if your landlord calls us to make the request, a few things have to happen. A new water line needs to be put in, and a plumber must confirm that the property can indeed support an additional water line. The property owner will take on the expense of installing the new water line, if it can, in fact, be installed.”

These are examples of saying what needs to be said, meaning what you say, without being mean when you say it. How might you adapt these statements to fit your interactions with customers?

Key 2: Acknowledge How Hard This Is For the Customer

Another way to look at this is, empathize with the customer’s situation. A little empathy from you can make it easier to accept the bad news, and it sets your company up as an entity that cares about its customers. Acknowledge how hard it is, like this.

“I realize this is not what you want to hear.”

“I’d be upset, too.”

“I understand why you feel that way. We’ve had other customers in this situation, and here’s what we found worked best.”

“I realize this whole thing has been frustrating for you.”

After statements like these, you’ll need to go into advising the customer on any next steps. Here’s one way to acknowledge how hard things are and immediately go into next steps, “I realize you’re upset. I’ll give you guidance on what you can do to get this charge removed.”

Key 3: Manage Expectations

Managing expectations is for you to be transparent, fully disclosing everything your customer needs to know. Never hold back on details, like a potential fee to be incurred, because your customer needs all the information so that they can make the right decision. Managing expectations might look like this:

“We can send someone out to inspect the meter. If we find the meter is working properly, you will be charged $195.”

Be upfront and disclose everything your customer needs to know.

Key 4: Offer Options

When you can give customers options, they feel like you’re on their side, that you’re trying to help. Telling a customer, “You might call your landlord to see how they want to handle the past balance.” or “You always have the option of hiring your plumber” is what I mean by offering options.

Put the four keys together, and it might sound like this,

“So, the previous owner has an unpaid balance. I realize hearing this must be frustrating for you. For you to have your services connected, the balance has to be paid first. We are not able to turn the water on until the balance is paid.”

When you deliver bad news to your customers using these four keys, you come across as concerned and helpful. While your customers still won’t like what they’re hearing, it will be easier for them to accept what you’re saying.

My course, “Delivering Bad News to a Customer” for Lynda.com and LinkedIn Learning is now live! If you struggle with how to deliver bad news to customers, you’ll want to take this class.

Here’s a description of the course:

Customer service is about providing the best experience to a customer—yet, a lot of the time customer service reps find that their hands are tied and that what the customer wants is not something the rep can deliver. How can CSRs work to keep the relationship with the company strong and intact? This course outlines a simple four-step approach that can be used in a variety of customer service settings. Learn about communication styles, methods, and approaches that can be applied to challenging situations like delivering bad news, handling concerns, and more.

Topics Include:

  • Communicating clearly
  • Acknowledging the customer’s concerns
  • Being open to additional questions
  • Offering alternatives
  • Reviewing customer service policies
  • Communicating on the phone or via email
  • Interacting with customers in person

Duration: 48m 13s

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Watch Delivering Bad News to a Customer on LinkedIn and on Lynda.com Or, bring this training to your company.