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

Rhys Pattimore
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Note: This article, originally from Linda Formichelli, has been updated with even more great advice!

First and foremost: definitely don't do what's in the photo above!

You already know the basics of breaking bad news to customers: it's about taking responsibility.

That's especially if a project is running behind, expenses are increasing, or your engineer forgot to order a key part... but what do you actually say?

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. We've covered a wide variety of the points discussed below!

Training office employees and field service engineers in how to break bad news is always going to be a good thing. You don't want angry customers and if you poorly handle the situation, it can cause customers to stop hiring your company. If handled well though, delivering bad news in a good way can make customers love you more than they did before.

In addition to the great advice below, we've also created a cheat sheet of expert-approved scripts that are designed to help you handle the most common (and most awkward) customer scenarios. Download it for free now!

On the other hand, you can take a look at The Customer Communication Toolkit:
your free guide to improving the comms you send every day! ⬇️

Does the perfect email template exist? Here are 10 you can use to improve your comms; download here!

Dealing with bad news

frustrated and angry customer on the phone

No matter how loyal their customer base, sooner or later every business will face upset or even angry customers. While that can be a problem, it's also tricky because every business will make mistakes; the aim (of course) is to not make a bad situation even worse!

How would you handle an angry customer?

We've listed the essential Do's and Don'ts: click to skip to the ones that intrigue you the most. And don't forget: we've got more information in our free resource at the end of the article, too!

Together with your employees—at home, in the office, or out in the field—you can help generate rave reviews and get your customer satisfaction ratings going up instead of down.

What to DO when breaking bad news to customers:

What you DON'T do when breaking bad news to customers:

DO give customers a warning.

Here's one tip for conveying bad news that can help head off problems before they start:

spotting the warning signs to prevent an angry customer

Warn the customer ahead of time if you foresee a potential problem. A heads-up can go a long way to preventing angry customers from becoming a common 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 all the assets you take care of at a customer's property, including type, model, and service history, so it can be easy to assess and make informed decisions about any necessary action that needs to be taken, before any major problems arise!

If you're unfamiliar, take a look at the Commusoft Asset Management feature, here.

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 make sure the focus is 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'".

Instead, you need to phrase the bad news in a way that shows the customer they're number one: it's a simple but effective way of showing customers that you care. As an example of what you could say, you could try something along the lines of:

"This job will take more time than we anticipated; while we understand you may be disappointment, we've noticed this early and it means [you know the job will be done correctly / you'll have more capabilities / you'll be getting a more robust system.] We'll take care of this for you as quickly as possible!"an angry customer likely won't shake hands - come to an agreement when breaking bad news

DO give your customers a compliment 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.

happy customer shaking hands coming to an agreementPeople 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 aloyal 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.

Delighting customers give them a great reason to leave you an awesome review!

However, it's often the case that if you don't ask, you don't get!

To help you generate more reviews, use our email templates, and make asking easy!

want to ask for a review, but don't know where to begin? Download our email template to help!

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

Let's say your customer is throwing a party to celebrate their engagement and needed their patio rebuilt before the wedding. Now, however, due to delays and emergencies causing a few hiccups, she's just found out that it's not going to happen.

Many field service employees would be tempted to say: "I know how you feel" in an effort to make the customer feel better...but nothing could be worse.

Not only have you said "I", our first big don't, but unless you are actually a bride who's had their wedding plans destroyed by an unfinished patio, you don't know how she feels. As a result, the statement can come off as a disingenuous tactic to pacify her, or even seem a bit patronising, which only adds to making a customer angry.a confused and angry customer who can't solve their problem

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, but we're going to fix this..."

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. For instance, you could lay the patio pavers and install the fire pit in time for the reception—thus giving her guests somewhere to sit, as well as the ambiance she wanted—but agree to leave the BBQ area for a later date.

Of course, this would also be a good time to offer some compensation, like a discount off the final price, or perhaps six months of free upkeep to keep them sweet. That's up to you!

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:

Let's 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:

You could explain that: "'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.'"

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DON'T make the customer feel like a fool (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 foolish—which would probably not result in a happy outcome for your company.

five stars and thumbs up from someone who definitely isn't an angry customer

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, as well as pointing out that "we can solve this" aligns you closely together. Altogether, it works as a useful way to help the customer shore up their self-esteem and move on to solutions, rather than feel foolish or talked down to.

What to take away to best prepare how you break bad news to customers

And there you have it! A great selection of simple—but effective—Do's and Don'ts 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! Take a look and sign up for our weekly newsletter, and we'll keep you in-the-know with all sorts of content and resources. 

Not only that, but below, Rhys explains a little more about our Customer Service Cheat Sheet; you can take a look at bonus tips, plus scripts that show employees exactly what to say when breaking bad news, all to help you deal with negative reviews!

Download now!

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