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Saying No: How to Deliver Bad News to a Customer

Kristin Robertson, KR Consulting, Inc.
April, 2004

As service providers, we sometimes find ourselves in the position of being the bearers of bad news to our customers.  Often, news is bad only if the customer perceives that he or she has no control over it.  Sometimes, what you consider neutral news may surprise you and be bad news for a customer, again because of a perception of no or little control on the customer’s part.  And let’s face it, there may be times that the way you phrase your communication turns the message into bad news for the customer.  It’s important to understand what bad news is from a customer’s perspective, and what we can do to influence the perception of what is bad news vs. what is good news.

Let’s start by anticipating what might be perceived as bad news from a customer’s perspective.  Then, we are able to rehearse our communication skills to prevent a problem situation.  Here are some instances of having to deliver bad news:

  • The customer has experienced a known error in the software, and it won’t be fixed until the next update of the software package – due out next year.
  • The customer has experienced a known error in the software or your configuration of it and because there is a work-around available, the programmers have no plans to fix it.
  • The customer’s shipment is delayed.  Again.
  • The feature that the customer is seeking is not available in the software.

Fortunately, there are ways to communicate news in a way that a customer can see it as good news, or at least see that they have choices.  Generally, honesty is the best policy, but you must think through how you are going to present the honest truth that will make it easier to swallow.

Here are some guidelines for communicating information with your customer:

Bad news early is good news.

The sooner you can communicate what might be bad news to a customer, the more control the customer has over the outcome.  Therefore, procrastination is not advisable in delivering bad news.  For example, if you tell a customer in November that a certain tax feature is not going to be in the software, they can make plans in time to work around the problem and still submit their tax return on April 15.

Confirm your understanding of the problem and identify the underlying need

If a customer is asking for something that you think is going to be a problem, the last thing you want to do is jump in with an explanation without confirming their issue.  “Before I address your concern, let me make sure I understand exactly what you are saying, Mrs. Jones.  I’m hearing that the software doesn’t print the report correctly when you do this… Is that correct?”

Ask probing questions to get to the heart of the customer’s need.  Be sure you understand any deadlines involved, who might be pressuring them about this situation, or if they perceive a threat due to the issue.

Choose neutral words

There are certain trigger words that are almost certain to anger a customer.  Trigger words are those phrases that turn calm customers into raving maniacs.  And having an angry, fightin’ customer on your hands is no fun for you, besides reflecting poorly on your company.

Here is a list of trigger words, with their preferred alternatives:

Trigger Words (to avoid): Collaborative words (more effective):
“You should” “We can do this together”
“You can’t” “One alternative for you could be…”
“I can’t” “What I can do is”
“No” “I’m sorry, that is not possible, because…”
“If only” “Let me show you what to do in the future…”
“But” “And”
“Bug” or “glitch” “issue” or “situation”
“That’s our policy” “In order to provide you with great service…” (see below)

In fact, any declarative sentence starting with “You” when talking to a customer is best avoided – it comes across as shaking your finger at the customer, and no one wants to feel like we’re talking to our mother!  Better choices are “We can” or “Let’s do this together” or “What I could suggest is”.

Additionally, the calmer you can deliver the news, the calmer it will be received.  Use your most confident but soothing tone of voice, and deliver the news in a moderated pace – that is, don’t speak too fast in order to get the news out quickly!  The customer will sense your assurance and will react positively to it.

Provide background

Give the history of the request, and briefly explain the process that you use to make decisions on this type of issue.  You could say something like, “Our programmers have a very tight schedule and so we must prioritize the changes that they make.  The Change Advisory Board, which is composed of members of both IT and the business units, meets weekly to prioritize Request for Changes.  If the Change Request affects only a few users and there is a reasonable work-around available, it’s likely that the request will be deferred to another time.”

Explain first what you can do and then explain the policy

It is never advisable to start with what you cannot do for a customer.  This puts the customer on the defensive and creates an antagonist environment.  Instead, tell the customer first what you can do for them and offer options.  For example, “I’d like to walk you through the process of logging your request for change over our internet site. Alternatively, you can speak to your business representative yourself.”  Or, “What I can do for you is either create a parts order for you right now on the phone or send you to the website where you can purchase that part yourself.”

Follow up immediately with an explanation of the policy you are invoking, but explain it in a way that shows the customer the WIIFM – What’s In It For Me – principal.  All policies were made at one point with some logic in mind, so seek out that information first.  Then find a way to explain the policy with the customer’s best interest in mind.  Using the phrase “That’s our policy” is never advisable.

Here are some alternative phrases to “That’s our policy” that use the WIIFM principal:

In order to be fair to all our customers and provide consistent service, we need to prorate your original fee after the 90 day window is passed.


In order to help you comply with Sarbanes-Oxley act, we …


So we can continue to provide you with the lowest cost products with the highest quality, we need to…


Because we always want to provide the highest quality service to you, we can do this…

If applicable, offer resources or work-arounds and present them in a positive light

If you know of a work-around, offer to explain that to the customer in a positive manner.  For example, “The good news is that we have identified a work around for those few customers that might experience this problem.  Can I walk you through that?”

You may offer to be the customer’s advocate back to the company on their issue.  For example, “Would you like me to record your thoughts on this issue?  Periodically, we compile those requests and present them to the Change Advisory Board.  Additionally, you can approach your Advisory Board representative, who is __________.”  Obviously, you will look up their business unit representative and give them that person’s contact information.

Wait for a response, using your best listening skills

This is a good time to employ your best active listening skills by focusing on what the customer is saying, taking notes, and paraphrasing their concerns to confirm your understanding of what they are saying.

Correct any misunderstandings

If there have been any misunderstandings, correct them, using the neutral words you learned above.  Remember to phrase them in the most positive light.

If the customer gets angry, you’ll need to employ your LEAF Plus One skills (see our article on “How to Handle an Angry Customer”).

Make a follow-up plan, if needed

Take care of yourself

Delivering bad news can be stressful.  Take time to care for yourself if needed.  Take a break and walk around the building.  Take several deep breaths and stretch.  Congratulate yourself for handling a tricky situation like the true professional you are!

To most effectively employ these techniques, you and your team might like to anticipate instances in which you have to deliver bad news to your customers.  Assign a small group of analysts to list possible sticky situations, brainstorm their best responses to them using the guidelines, above, and document their results.  Ask them to create scenarios, skits or role-plays to present to the entire team.  Make practicing these situations a fun game for the group.  The more you can practice these techniques before you need them, the easier it will be to invoke them when the heat is on!

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