How to Deliver Bad News to Customers

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You have to tell the customer something he doesn't want to hear. Here are the best e-strategies for doing this, including "flammable phrases" to avoid when interacting with a customer over the Web.


An example of how bad news is usually delivered to customers. Angela Dykstra ordered a dining room table from an online retailer. When the table arrived, one leg was badly scratched. Angela e-mailed the company and requested that it send her a new table leg to replace the damaged one. But company policy dictated that Angela return the entire table, and then the company would send her another table.


Angela was befuddled by this, so she sent this e-mail to the company's online customer care associate:


"Why can't you just send me a new table leg? It would be a lot less expensive for your company to ship one leg than it would be for a whole table. If you would like me to send the damaged leg back to you before you send out a new leg, that's OK with me."


Here is the response e-mail from the online customer care associate:


"Because our company policy dictates that customers must first ship back the entire product -- not just a portion of the product -- you'll need to send the entire table back to us before we can send you another one. We will pay for all of your shipping expenses."


Understandably, Angela was upset.


What went wrong? Common mistakes made by e-care associates. This customer care associate made two big mistakes when delivering bad news to a customer:


• He gave the customer no benefit for returning the entire table. He merely stated that she had to do it because of company policy. Customers don't care what your policy is; all they care about is how they will benefit from the action you are asking them to take.


• The second mistake was writing the phrase "you'll need to". Customers don't "need' to do anything. According to our research on customer preferences, most people get aggravated when they are told they "have to" or "need to" do something.


The following is a four-step process for delivering bad news in a positive way to customers via e-mail or chat:


• Show concern and empathy for what the customer is going through.


• Explain the reason for the bad news -- including a benefit to the customer.


• Tell the customer what you can do, not what you can't or won't do.


• Get the customer's buy-in. Asking whether something is OK with the customer is often all it takes to de-escalate an upset customer and take the edge off the bad news. If you involve the customer by getting his buy-in, then he at least feels as though he has some say in the matter.


The four-step model in action. Let's apply the four-step model to the e-tail furniture example. The customer care associate could have responded with the following:


"It does seem as though it would be more cost-effective to just exchange the legs rather than the entire table, doesn't it? I know it can be a hassle to pack up the entire table again. (Show empathy or concern.) What we have found is that color lots vary greatly from one piece of furniture to the other. If you exchanged only one leg, there is a very high chance that the wood grain and color on the new leg would not match the rest of your table. (Explain the benefit to the customer.) What I can do is go ahead and ship out the new table to you and just have the delivery person pick up the old table when the new one is delivered. That way, you won't have to wait as long for the replacement. How does that sound? (Get the customer buy-in)."


Avoid flammable phrases. Even if you follow the above four-step process, you still run the risk of escalating the customer's anger if you use a "flammable phrase." These are phrases that have been proved to provoke peevishness from even the most passive customers. For each flammable phrase, there is a more agreeable substitute phrase:


• "I can't." Example: "I can't process your order now because our data entry system is down." Customers don't want to hear what you can't do; they only care about what you can or will do. A better phrase: "What I can do is take down your information and have your order processed by noon tomorrow."


• "You'll have to." Example: "You'll have to send us a faxed copy of your new contract by 3 p.m. tomorrow." OK. I'll admit, the you'll have to phrase is the one that sends me into an angry fit. I'm the customer, and I don't have to do anything!


Rather than giving the customer a nasty directive, it is better to write: "In order for us to process your order as quickly and accurately as possible, it would be helpful if you could fax us a copy of your new contract by 3 p.m. tomorrow. Please let me know whether you are able to meet this time frame." The key here is to always include a benefit to the customer for the action you are asking him to take.


• "It's not our policy." Customers feel manhandled if you force a company policy on them. An approach is to give the customer two options within your company policy: "Here are a couple of options that may work."


• "I don't know." It's OK to admit you don't know something. But many customer care associates leave it at that. If you do write that you don't know something, follow it up with, "I'll find out and get back to you by ..."


Customers never like to receive bad news. But if you can deliver it with a positive spin -- letting customers know what you can do and how it would benefit them -- they will be able to swallow the bad news a little more easily.


• Vicki Kunkel is president of customer service training firm VK Seminars & Training, Aurora, IL. Reach her at vicki@vkseminars.com.

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