How to Inform Customers of Bad News

Unfortunate events occur such as flight delays, data breaches and negative press about companies. How you break bad news to customers can save or destroy the relationship. Here are some tips for navigating this delicate dance.

Speak quickly and clearly

Giving bad news to customers requires extra care. “Improper handling could worsen a situation,” said Mary York, CEO of York Public Relations, a financial services and crisis communications firm.

Data breaches require specific details and timeliness, York adds. “Mainly, be quick and clear. Regardless, all communication should follow these rules.”

According to Eric Fischgrund, CEO of FischTank PR, telling customers the bad news quickly is the best policy. “An email distribution should always be one of the first steps. This email should come from a named individual, not the company as a whole. The message should focus on a) what happened and why; b) how the customer is impacted; c) immediate and long-term solutions; and d) when the individual or brand will follow up with the customer.

According to Gregory Ng, CEO of Brooks Bell, transparency is essential when communicating bad news. In the travel industry, this is done by explaining the bad news.

“Don’t just tell the passenger their direct flight to Paris is now a two-leg connection through Atlanta,” Ng advised. “Explain why they had to make the change and what they are doing to prevent future ones. “Passengers are more forgiving when they understand the why, not just the what.”

Take the Blame

Even if it isn’t your fault, don’t blame others, says York. Occasionally, a problem arises that isn’t the organization’s fault. Following the 1982 Tylenol poisonings, this was the case. Instead of blaming, Johnson & Johnson took charge and communicated the bad news in a way that benefited its brand. It recalled products and issued national alerts. So Johnson & Johnson became a drug company that prioritized public health over profit.

Disclose Next Steps

Don’t forget to state your next steps, says York. Notifying a data breach or discrimination claim is difficult. You must address numerous customer queries. But they aren’t all urgent. Customers want to know what you’ll do to avoid this in the future. When communicating, organizations should outline next steps, reassuring customers that real action is being taken.

Trust your customers by avoiding spin

“No one likes to admit mistakes, but failing to share bad news with customers erodes trust,” said Ali Cudby, adjunct professor of entrepreneurship at Purdue and managing director of Alignmint Growth Strategies. “Betraying trust harms customer relationships. Because customer interactions reveal how customers feel. A McKinsey study found that 70% of customers buy based on how they feel treated.

Cudby adds that when customers doubt their relationship, a company loses long-term value. Relationships are vital to your company’s growth.

Transparency and honesty are the best ways to communicate bad news to customers, according to Fischgrund. The customer is used to spin, but with more information available than ever, it usually digs a corporate hole deeper. A company’s content should always be informative, genuine in its steps to correct or make it right, and consistent in its follow-up to reinforce both aspects. However, poorly spun bad news tells a customer you don’t care about them or anything else besides your own corporate goals.”

Customer service isn’t perfect. It happens,” Cudby said. “Communication is your best chance to fix mistakes quickly. In fact, when companies effectively resolve issues, customers often become more loyal.

Cudby echoed some of York’s communications advice:

  • Be quick. Generally, you should be aware of a problem before your customers, allowing you to manage expectations and the narrative. Instead, companies tend to procrastinate to solve problems before customers see them. Customers will discover problems on their own if you wait too long, so they define the story, not you.
  • Be clear. Explain the issue and its potential impact so customers know their options. Provide solutions when you can so customers know what to do next if they are affected. Not all bad news necessitates apologies. Having a designated area for customers to self-diagnose can be beneficial.
  • Empathize. Empathy calms customer rage. While situations vary, including legal liability, a sincere apology for a customer’s inconvenience goes a long way. To keep a relationship going, you need to make customers feel valued as people.

Recognize the Media Need

The media may use sentences or fragments of messaging to support or position their journalism,” says Fischgrund. “This is part of running a business, but it should serve as a reminder to analyze each sentence out of context to get the most accurate representation. Remember that consumers have a short memory for incidents, but a long memory for individuals and organizations who have wronged them.”