Delivering Bad News

Poor service, crossed-communication, awful performance … these, and more, are bad news scenarios. While some prefer hearing bad news straight up, one of the more effective ways to deliver it in written form is by using the indirect approach. This approach doesn’t skirt the negatives; it simply frames them. It’s a given that most people do not want to hear bad news!

Let’s consider the following hypothetical situation: you overcharged a client for a smartphone, but didn’t notice it at the time. Company policy doesn’t allow for refunds or credits. Your task is to address the situation, in writing, while trying to retain your client.

The indirect method should begin with a descriptive but neutral subject line.

The Five Step Indirect Writing Method

Subject line. Try something like this: Your recent purchase of a Scion Bright smartphone

Step One – begin with a neutral opening. Using our scenario, you might start with something like the following.

“Thank you for coming in on Monday, December 8, 2014 to purchase the new Scion Bright. It was a pleasure to meet you, and to help you select this great smartphone.”

Nothing fancy, granted. It acts as an introduction and brief summary.

Step Two – backgrounder. This is where you can fill in other details about the transaction, situation, or issue. You should provide a fact-based account of what happened, or how the situation presently sits. Here’s an example:

“The Scion Bright is one of the best new smartphones on the market. The 4.5” super amoled screen offers superb resolution and is protected under warranty from scratches or other minor damage. Our store offers two Scion phones: the S-570, which you purchased at full price without a data plan, and the S-590. The S-590 is priced at $725.99, which is $75.99 more than the S-570. The difference between the two phones, besides price, is that the S-590 has a slightly larger screen, plus a higher resolution camera.

A backgrounder is a way of setting the stage for what’s to come. Keep it neutral and objective.

Step Three – deliver the bad news.

“When I processed your purchase at the register, I discovered I had inadvertently charged you for the more expensive Scion phone. I apologize for my error, and for any potential inconvenience this may cause you. Unfortunately, our store does not allow refunds or credits.”

You need to be straightforward in this step, but ensure you don’t overdo it. If you made a mistake, apologize. More apologies, later on, are usually not needed (or welcomed).

Step Four – offer goodwill. Saying only something like “Thanks for shopping at _____” won’t cut it. The customer is already unhappy. The question is: what can you do to make this up to the customer? In this scenario, there must be a way for the store/you to compensate for the $75.99 overpayment. Try something like the following:

“Though we don’t offer refunds or credits on our products – all sales are final – I am going to ensure the store offers you something special to more than make up for the $75.99. I am pleased to provide to you:
– a two-year extended warranty, worth $99.99
– a free carrying case of your choice, with a value of up to $50.00
– an opportunity to upgrade your phone with no activation fees.
We value your business, and I would appreciate the opportunity to serve you better in the future. Should you have any questions about how to receive your extended warranty and other offers, please phone me at your convenience at my direct number: (416) 555-2501. Thank you.”

Genuine goodwill, even if not monetary, can go a long way.

There at times can be an extra step between steps four and five. Whether such a step exists – let’s call it “Alternatives” – will depend on the situation. For example, if you as an employer needed to temporarily save some money, you might have an alternative to laying people off: reduced hours, for example.

Bad news messages run the gamut from doctors needing to tell their patients devastating news about their health, to having to lay off, fire, or discipline employees, to having to write to an irritated customer.

Here’s one last thought: if you can, deliver bad news verbally. This provides the listener with a chance to react or respond immediately.

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