Breaking Bad News


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7-24-2015 3-17-15 PMIt happens. You make a mistake in describing a specification or capability. You lose an important account to a competitor. A scathing report circulates about problems with your company’s product or service. You’re going over budget on a project. Or you just have to apologize.

Now you have to tell your customer.

You may feel the urge to avoid that discussion, or to wait and improvise if the topic comes up.  Either is a big mistake. Your customer will hear the bad news somehow—shouldn’t you control that message? This is especially important in competitive situations where your opponent knows what happened. If they get to your customer and spin the news, you’ve missed an opportunity to defend yourself. In the words of Andrew Mason, “Admit your errors before someone else exaggerates them.”

An adverse situation is an opportunity to build credibility and trust. When bad news hits, you can take the following steps to strengthen your relationship with your customer:

  1. Assess the situation.
    • How will the news impact your customer?
    • Who should receive the news you’re delivering?
    • What might be their reaction?
    • In what position will this leave you? Your company?
    • Who will be embarrassed or hurt?
    • Do you have resources get the situation under control?
    • How might you help your supporters within your customer’s company save face?
    • Who from your team should be present for the meeting?
  2. Communicate the purpose of your call or visit. “I have some information to share that you might not be anticipating.” “I want you to hear this from me. I’m going to give it to you straight.” This positions you as having courage and integrity.
  3. Confess. “The information I provided you was inaccurate. We don’t offer a standard interface for your existing system. You should understand the details right now from me.”
  4. Empathize.  “I know how you must feel.  If I were in your situation, after choosing us as your supplier, I’d feel angry and exposed.”
  5. Apologize and take the heat:  “I am truly sorry this happened.” Don’t dilute the importance of your statement by adding to it. Allow your customer to absorb your sincerity.
  6. Explain the impact. “This may push project completion back a month. It won’t impact your total cost, although initial expenses will be higher. Even with this setback, we’re still the right choice for you, based upon your requirements.” “We’ll have to work harder now than ever, but we’ll do whatever it takes to make this right.” “I know your IT manager is going to be angry, but I’ve figured out how to make it easier on him.”
  1. Provide the reason.“I didn’t double-check the release dates on what I thought was the latest development schedule. I was looking at an outdated copy.”
  2. Explain why it won’t happen again. “We’ve instituted a new communication mechanism to ensure that scheduling changes are distributed to every department and confirmed by return receipt.”
  3. Conciliate and describe what you will to do. “I have authorization from our VP to prioritize your project. It was our mistake, so he insists that we absorb the costs for the resolution. When the standard interface is released in June, we’ll provide it at no charge, because you will have already paid for that capability.” Also, be proactive about giving your customer a way to position the news within their organization.
  4. Encourage feedback and questions. “Did I overlook any issues? Do you have questions or concerns?” Answer what you can, or assure your contact that you’ll get the answers promptly. If the VP isn’t present, he or she should be on standby to answer additional questions, or support your statements.
  5. Close for support. (An often-neglected step.)  “Can I count on you to accept my apology and keep us moving forward together?” Be patient and wait for their answer.

Additional points and reminders:

  • Look at the issue through your customer’s eyes, not your own.
  • Stifle any urge to spin. Be straightforward and forthcoming.
  • If your company is public, timing is vital. It’s illegal to disclose anything material that hasn’t been announced publicly. But waiting too long after the public announcement gives your competitor time to act.
  • Don’t waste time. Take action now. When you discover bad news, start your assessment. Be the first person to tell your client, if you can.
  • Apologize, accept responsibility, and go forward. Beating yourself up will dilute your efforts to build credibility.
  • Don’t forget to ask for your contact’s support. Guessing where you stand is a waste of time
  • Consider offering your customer something else of value, such as forgoing the first year’s maintenance fees.

Delivering bad news is clearly unpleasant, but it could be just what you need to highlight and stand behind the most valuable component of your corporate (and personal) brand: your word.

I wrote this post for Top Sales World Magazine.


Republished with author's permission from original post.

Dave Stein
Dave specializes in helping his clients win critical B2B sales opportunities as well as helping them hire the best sales talent.Dave is co-author of Beyond the Sales Process. He wrote the best-selling How Winners Sell in 2004.


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