Here's Exactly What to Say When Breaking Bad News to Customers

Linda Formichelli

You already know the basics of breaking bad news to customers: Take responsibility. Apologise. Offer compensation. But what do you actually say to a customer when a project is running behind, a fix will cost more than expected, or your field service engineer forgot to order a key part?

Training office employees and field service engineers in how to break bad news to customers will not only keep them from committing faux pas that will cause customers to drop your company—it can also make your customers love you even more than before.

We talked with Anne Miller, a business communication expert, seminar leader, and author of the books Make What You Say Pay! and Metaphorically Selling, on the DOs and DON'Ts of delivering bad news. Need more? We created a cheat-sheet of expert-approved scripts for handing the most common (and most awkward) customer scenarios. Download it for free now!

No matter how loyal their customer base is, every business will occasionally make mistakes that impact them, so share these tips with your employees and your customer satisfaction rating will probably go up instead of down.

DO give customers a warning.

Here's one tip that can help head off problems before they start: Warn the customer ahead of time if you foresee a potential problem. Your customer will appreciate it if you mention early on in the project that it may take extra time to order an obscure part, or that the HVAC system the customer wants might require extra man-hours to install.

If you're a Commusoft client, don't forget that the app can help you keep track of projects so you'll know right off if there's a potential issue you'll need to warn your customer about.

DON'T use the word 'I'.

We're not saying you can't ever refer to yourself in a conversation with the customer, but that you need to focus on them instead of on yourself. 'The first thing employees do wrong is to see the issue from only their point of view,' says Miller. 'If you say, "I need more time", that makes it about "me, the plumber" or "me, the office worker"'.

Phrase the bad news in a way that shows the customer they're number one. For example, try this: 'This will take more time than we anticipated; however, it means you know the job will be done correctly/you'll have more capabilities/you'll be getting a more robust system.'

DO give your customers a sandwich.

While most customers would love you to offer them a juicy, delicious sandwich at lunchtime, what we're talking about here is the 'sandwich approach' to breaking bad news to customers. With this approach, you start and end with good news, and 'sandwich' the bad news in the middle. People tend to focus on the first and last things they hear, so this helps the customer leave the conversation feeling pretty good, even when you've just hit them with a piece of bad news.

For example, when a field service engineer is running late to a call, don't just call the customer and dump this fact on them. Instead, say something like, 'We have our most experienced electrician on the way to fix that faulty wiring. [Good news!] Unfortunately, he's running a couple hours behind because an emergency situation came up [Oops...bad news.], but we'd like to offer you a discount on the service hours to make it up to you and thank you for being a loyal customer. [Hooray, more good news!]'

Of course, what two slices of good news you'd present depends on your field and the situation—but if you think creatively, you can often come up with something that will make the bad news sting a little less.

Breaking bad news to customers with the sandwich approach.

DON'T say 'I know how you feel.'

Your customer needed to have that patio built before her backyard wedding, and she just found out that it's not going to happen. Many field service employees would be tempted to say 'I know how you feel' to make the customer feel better, but nothing could be worse. Unless you're a bride who's had her wedding plans destroyed by an unfinished patio, you don't know how she feels, and the statement comes off as a disingenuous tactic to pacify her.

Instead, mirror back what you hear the customer saying. For example, you could say, 'You're right...this shouldn't have happened, and you must be so frustrated.' This validates the customer's feelings and helps them get the initial anger out of their systems so you can come up with a solution—like laying the patio pavers and installing the fire pit in time for the wedding so guests have somewhere to sit and the bride has the ambiance she wanted, but leaving the outdoor kitchen for later. (Of course, this would also be a good time to offer some compensation, like a discount or six months of free upkeep.)

DO bring the customer solutions instead of problems.

If you want to make your customer happy instead of grudgingly accepting when you break bad news to them, come prepared with a set of potential fixes for the issue.

For example, say your gutter installation company has been hired to install gutter helmets. The customer insists their gutters are five inches wide. You order the helmets, but when you arrive at the home you discover the gutters are actually four-and-a-half inches wide—and you have to break the bad news that if the customer wants to have gutter helmets, they're going to need all new gutters.

Miller suggests offering a set of solutions like this: 'They don't make helmets that fit your gutters, so if you want them you'll need all new gutters. If you don't want to get new gutters and still want to keep them clean without the helmets, what we can do is clean the gutters out for you now, and come out every six months after this to keep them clear. Here are the costs associated with both. Which would you like to do?' Says Miller, 'That way you're moving them toward a solution.'

Breaking bad news to customers...bring them solutions, not problems.

DON'T make the customer feel like an idiot (even if it was their fault).

In scenarios like the one above, it's incredibly tempting to remind the customer that the problem is entirely their fault. However, this would make the customer feel stupid—which would probably not result in a happy outcome for your company.

You don't have to take the fall by claiming responsibility for a problem the customer caused, but your office employee or field service engineer can soften their language when breaking the bad news to make the customer feel better about the mistake. For example, Miller says, 'You can say, "I know you’re upset. It's totally understandable that you thought the gutters were five inches because people think that all the time. Let's look at how we can solve this."'

Letting the customer know they made a common error or that you can easily understand why they would make such a mistake is the 'out' that helps them shore up their self-esteem and move on to solutions.

Now you have some tools for breaking bad news to customers in a way that will keep them happy and loyal. Keep an eye out for the next two posts in this series: one on developing soft skills in your engineers, and one on how to handle negative online reviews.

And there's more! Sign up for our newsletter today, and we'll send you a free employee 'cheat sheet' you can share with your office workers and field service engineers. Our cheat sheet includes bonus tips, plus actual scripts that show employees exactly what to say when breaking bad news and responding to negative reviews.

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