How to break bad news to clients
No-one likes breaking bad news to clients. I'm not going to lie to you it can be tough, especially when your client doesn't see it coming. Here's how to make sure they don't shoot the messenger.
Two types of bad news
- Mistakes. Usually other peoples, but a major enough stuff up that only the silky-smooth stylings of the Account Manager will save this mess.
- Company changes. Your company has decided to hike prices, reduce services or change products or generally try to fix stuff that's not broken.
It doesn't matter whether you are for or against whatever decisions your company has made, or you're pissed off that the same mistakes keep happening over and over.
Your job as a key account manager is to deliver the bad news to your client. Let's just hope they don't shoot the messenger.
There are some tactics to delivering bad news effectively to your clients that will put the situation into context and ensure your reputation and relationship remain intact.
How to deliver bad news to clients
1. Don’t delay
Rip the band-aid off and tell your client as soon as possible. The longer you leave it the more chance they're going to find out from someone else. Bad news only gets worse when it becomes second-hand bad news.
Do your homework and get the background to the situation. Understand what happened and what immediate steps will be taken in response.
Think about how your client will react to the bad news.
- Will they be angry?
- Are they likely to escalate to someone senior in their business?
- Will they reach out to someone senior in your business and go above your head?
- Will they make threats or ultimatums?
- Or will they be entirely reasonable and accept it as "just one of those things". How will you react in each of those scenarios?
The more you prepare for these scenarios the less likely you'll be to have an emotional response when your client responds.
3. Come clean
It's far better, to tell the truth than hide the facts. Do not make up a story or whitewash what happened.
4. Phone first, then email
If possible, deliver bad news over the phone first. It’s easier to explain what happened and you can say things over the phone that you might not want to commit in writing. It’s also courteous and shows respect for your client.
I've had many issues that escalated way out of proportion just because my client was offended a letter was sent instead of calling.
If it's an announcement that's going to all your clients, then a phone call won't be possible to everyone.
Choose those clients that are your priority (however you define them) or the ones you know are going to react badly, are control freaks or micro-managers.
You'll still want to follow up in writing with a summary email (you already explained the details on the phone already).
I begin those emails with “further to our conversation”.
Make sure you record details of the incident and subsequent conversations and emails in your case management tool and/or CRM. If you don't have either, then at the very least you should archive the email.
5. Explain yourself
When you're breaking bad news to clients be prepared to provide details.
If it’s unavoidable (e.g. a price hike, product downgrade etc) – you need to justify what has led to the situation and the options they have (if any).
If the bad news is a mistake, let your client know what happened and what solutions you’ve put in place. I'm not suggesting you reveal every gory detail, but you will need to give some insights.
Be tactful but direct. If you soften the blow your client may not understand the impact of what you're discussing. You are breaking bad news after all - they kind of need to know it's bad news.
6. Don't blame the client
Even if it's their fault, avoid pointing the finger at your client. You want to deliver bad news in a positive way, not start the blame game. Focus only on the issue and what you can do to minimise the impact and support your client through the situation.
Of course, your client might come for you, so if they do, don't take it lying down either. If you need to defend yourself, then do so - just be prepared (see step 2). be rational and don't shoot from the hip with an emotional response you might later regret.
Let your client say what they feel and don't interrupt or get defensive. When they're finished, acknowledge their reaction and be sympathetic to any disappointment. Invite your client to take some time to think about what you've discussed. They may need to process the bad news or speak to other stakeholders for clarity. They may wish to formally respond and I'd encourage you to let them do so if they feel the need.
8. Follow up
Just because your client said they understand the bad news doesn’t mean they’re fine with it. Keep in touch and monitor any solutions you've implemented to address the problems that led to the bad news to make sure they’re actually working. Reassure your customer that things are back on track and despite the occasional speed bump, your partnership is delivering value.