How to Communicate Bad News to Customers

When I worked at Samsung, I had to call Walmart and tell them a huge shipment was going to be late. Fun, huh? I actually had to make that kind of call all the time, because, let’s face it, bad stuff happens (and it happens by the ton for a huge global business like I was running). So I want to share five secrets to communicate bad news in the best possible way.

[download_box](Read to the end to download word-for-word scripts for communicating bad news)[/download_box]

“Oh Crap”

Even though we bust our butts to please our customers, things go wrong. Now there’s nothing you can do, and your customer is going to be very upset. I’ll bet you can relate with some (or all!) of these things:

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  • Something bad happened externally (delay from a subcontractor, price increase from a supplier, natural disaster, etc.)
  • Something bad happened internally (an employee screwed up, critical information got lost, scheduling mistake, etc.)
  • Saying no to a special request (can’t get that product, can’t meet that timeline, etc.)
  • Negative policy changes you’re making (price increase, tightened return policy, instituting a no-show penalty, etc.)


Telling the customer can be really scary! Especially if it’s a big customer, or a big opportunity. Or if it affects lots of your customers.

I’ve had hundreds of these conversations, and seen what helps everyone stay constructive, and what leads to explosions of panic and anger.
Here’s how I recommend you handle this “bad news” conversation.

1. Start By Focusing on the Result the Customer Wants

Before you get into the bad news, show your customer that you know what they want and are working to get it for them. This powerfully frames the conversation with you on THEIR side, understanding their needs and going to bat for them. Otherwise, it will quickly become adversarial, with you as an obstacle to what they want. If you’ve gone above and beyond in any way, this is a good time to mention that.

For example, if a special order got delayed, start with: “That gorgeous dress you wanted is on its way. I had to make a few extra calls to get your size, but I found it.” Outdoor-equipment retailer REI recently reduced the time customers have to make returns, and the subject of their email was “100% Satisfaction,” to remind you that’s what they’re committed to.

2. Be Clear & Upfront with the Bad News

The temptation is strong to sugarcoat or be a bit vague, or wait till the end of a long explanation to share the bad news. Just get it out on the table right away. People appreciate knowing exactly what they’re dealing with.

Recently one of my vendors emailed me saying they had reevaluated their services and their client base and were focusing on XYZ. I replied saying “does this mean you’re not working with me any more?” and they said “that’s correct.” I was annoyed because it wasn’t clear from their first email! Their attempts to “soften the blow” just made it worse.

3. Take Full Responsibility, and Don’t Air Dirty Laundry

It’s a natural impulse to show the customer that it’s not our fault! Don’t do it. Blaming suppliers/partners/employees not only shows an inability to manage your business, but an unwillingness to take responsibility for satisfying your customer. People buy from companies that take responsibility for satisfying them.

Also resist the temptation to get into the details of how the issue happened, and how complicated it is. This invites your customer to second-guess you at every step along the way.

The best explanation is short, takes full responsibility, and focuses on next steps, rather than rehashing the past.

4. Be Clear on What They Can Expect Next, and When

OK, so there’s a problem. What your customer really wants to know is, what’s going to happen now? So lay it out for them, and be clear. A common mistake is, in an effort to avoid messing up again, we’ll give ourselves wiggle room by being vague about our new commitment. That makes the customer even more nervous, since they don’t have a clear picture of what they can depend on. Instead, let them know exactly what they can expect, and when.

Sometimes you won’t be sure how long the fix will take. In this case, don’t be vague, give a specific date that you KNOW you can meet. Even if it’s far away. It’s much better to undercommit and then surprise them later with good news, than to risk having ANOTHER missed commitment.

5. Restate Your Commitment to the Customer

Business is ultimately just a bunch of humans doing our best together. Bring the conversation back to this human level, and people tend to be appreciative and respectful, rather than arming themselves up.

It may feel cheesy, or it may feel like just words, but a heart-felt statement explicitly telling them they’re valued goes a long way. Avoid cliches like “We value your business.” Instead, tell them WHY you value them and how you look forward to a long relationship together.


Here’s Exactly What to Say

To make it easy for you, I made a 1-pager with 3 sample scripts for delivering bad news.  You can copy this exact language! Get it here:


Share Your Thoughts

How do you break the bad news to customers? Share your tips (or battle stories) below!

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