Saying no to customers & delivering disappointing news

delivering bad news

Saying no to customers & delivering disappointing news

In responding to customer requests and complaints, it’s great when we can give them what they want and say ‘yes’.

But that isn’t always possible. Even when we’ve tried our best and been creative, there are still times when we have to go back with a ‘no’, or with a response that will disappoint the customer.  Prior to this point, you should have hopefully built trust and demonstrated empathy with the customer, and this will significantly increase your chances of a positive outcome, but this is still one of the most challenging parts of customer service.

Whilst three is no magic wand to make this easy, here are some tips.

  1. Be prompt and direct.  Don’t waste time procrastinating or delaying the inevitable. Talk to the customer as soon as possible. But do this face to face, or over the phone wherever possible rather, rather than simply sending an email.  Not only will many customers see it as disrespectful and/or cowardly to send an email with bad news, but speaking to them will also give you  a much better chance of managing the interaction towards a positive outcome.
  2. Explain your efforts.  It is important the customer understands that you have really really tried to get them the result they were seeking. If they trust that you have made efforts for them, it will be more difficult for them to resent you and will increase the chances of them accepting your news (in time, even if not immediately). So explain your efforts – that you’ve checked with colleagues and third parties, checked various delivery options, asked your manager, whatever.  if they don’t feel or accept that you have tried, they will either keep on demanding, or escalate the situation to a superior.
  3. Apologise – Explain – Repeat.  Next, it is time to apologise. An apology will be expected and it is worth taking some time to plan this, and make sure your apology will be seen as respectful and genuine. (See How to apologise).  An important part of this will be an explanation of either how/why something has gone wrong, and/or why you can’t give them what they want.  You may have to spend some time on this as they process their emotions: they might be going through a ‘Kubler-Ross’ change curve where they internally struggle with feelings of denial, anger and frustration before they are ready to move onto some form of acceptance. Patiently responding with subtly different apologies and explanation will help them process their emotions and move through this change curve quicker.
  4. Move forward with options and reassurance.   Try to move on from the awkward ‘no’ position, by focusing on next steps. Either tell the customer what you can do for them, or give advice on their options going forward.  Providing choice well help give them a sense of control, so provide options wherever possible. If you can offer reassurance and hope without mismanaging their expectations, that will again help to improve the customer experience.
  5. Confirm and apologise.   After any further discussions, apologise again and confirm what your commitments going forward.

Remember, the customer’s primary emotions at this point may still be disappointment and frustration. Accept this (you can’t win them all). But if  you follow the steps above, it is likely the customer will respect the way you handled the situation, accept you couldn’t have done much more, and look favourably on both you and your company.