How Most People Get It Wrong When Giving Customers Bad News

My husband and I were sitting at the big boardroom table at the closing office. We’d just sold  our first home, and we were now closing on our new home. We thought we were in great shape, but, something went wrong. The bank didn’t transfer the money for the purchase of our new home.

I called our mortgage broker, who had handled every detail up to this point. I got the Office Manager.“You’re approved. I don’t know why the money wasn’t transferred. It’s now after hours on the East Coast on a holiday weekend.” It was New Year’s eve. “We can’t talk to anybody until after the first of the year.”

Devastated doesn’t even begin to describe how I felt right then. I was in all-out panic mode. I was afraid we wouldn’t be able to move into our home. I asked to speak to my Broker, and the Office Manager said, “He’s just going to tell you the same thing I’ve told you. As I said, there’s nothing we can do until after the first of the year.” 

There was no explanation; no concern for our very serious problem, no offer to help – nothing. She just said what she said. And we were left helpless.

By the way, after the first of the year, we found that the bank account number for the wire transfer was incorrect. It was one number off. That’s all it was. And we were able to move into our new home. But not after a long holiday weekend of complete fear! This is a good example of how not to deliver bad news to a customer.  

Things will go wrong and there will be times when there is nothing you can do to help the customer. You can’t control the fact that you have to be the bearer of bad news, but you can control how you deliver the news. 

My former mortgage broker got it wrong, as a lot of people do. Here’s how most people get it wrong when they deliver bad news to a customer:

One. Causing a sense of helplessness.

More than anything else, customers want help. That’s why they call customer service. When your response is, “There’s nothing I can do” that causes a feeling of helplessness. This feeling of helplessness can lead to customers getting more frustrated or angry, and this makes it harder for you to deal with. It’s also one of the main reasons customers will give up on working with you, and ask to talk to a supervisor. So what can you do? offer alternatives. Make the customer feel that you’re doing all you possibly can to help them.

Two. Indifference.

It’s hard enough to deliver bad news to a customer. But, if a customer thinks you don’t care about their problem; that you are dismissing them, it becomes so much harder for you to work with them. In my example, I felt the office manager was indifferent. The problem was catastrophic for us, but I didn’t feel she cared. If your customer thinks you don’t care, they tend to talk or rant more, become more difficult, and escalation is likely. Show genuine concern with a response like, “I realize this whole thing has been frustrating for you.”

Three. Belaboring the point.

I hear this a lot when I’m listening to customer service calls for clients. I think the intent is to get the customer to calm down or to accept the bad news, but it usually is perceived negatively. When you make your point repeatedly, “Ma’am, you have to open a claim online. I cannot open a claim over the phone for you. You have to do this online” you tend to make the customer more upset. Make your point once, like this. “I know this is an extra step you don’t want to have to take, but we have to have an online form completed and signed in order to open a claim for you.”

The Bottom Line

If you make one or more of these common mistakes when you deliver bad news to a customer, you’re at risk for losing customer trust or losing the customer completely. You’re more likely to get a difficult-to-handle response, or the customer may ask to speak to your supervisor. 

Avoid these three mistakes when you deliver bad news and you’ll instantly be better positioned to deliver bad news in such a way that it’s easier for customers to hear and accept. 

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How Most People Get It Wrong When Giving Customers Bad News

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In my Delivering Bad News LinkedIn Learning course I’m sharing 4 keys for how to deliver bad news, whether that’s over the phone, chat, or in person. You’ll hear my own stories and examples that will help you use these keys when you deliver bad news.

At the end of the day, delivering bad news doesn’t have to be hard for you or your customer. It just takes a few easy steps and you’ll be able to say what needs to be said without fearing backlash.