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Delivering difficult messages to customers

Delivering difficult messages is not fun; once the conversation is over, there’s often a definite sense of relief.

It’s a surprise to no one, but customer relations are not always smooth. If you work in any kind of customer-facing role, you know that there are plenty of situations in which you have to deliver ‘bad news’ to a customer or client. Maybe their favourite product or service is being discontinued or changed; maybe prices have gone up; maybe their delivery is delayed or out of stock; maybe you’ve been hacked, and someone has obtained their data; maybe they have a complaint… the list of possible scenarios is probably endless.

In these situations, the customer might be angry, surprised, upset, or feeling hard done by… and how they’re feeling is often perfectly clear from their manner, tone and choice of words.

As the representative of the business, you don’t have that luxury of self-expression. Your job is to calm the situation, understand the facts, and agree on a solution, if possible. That can be a big ask…

Difficult situations – tips

If you’re in the position of having to give bad news, the first rule is: don’t make it worse! This often comes down to understanding their situation and why they might be feeling what they’re feeling.

Then, consider the following:

  • Keep calm – If the customer is angry or agitated, don’t join them in that state. If their mood is ‘burning hot’ you stay at room temperature and as the conversation progresses, the levels will gradually equalise. And if you feel attacked or disrespected, it’s probably the business they’re having a go at; you just happen to be the business’s representative.
  • Be factual – Facts may not be welcome, but at least they’re objective. And don’t ‘soften the blow’ by understating or omitting anything relevant. Sooner or later, the situation will be clear to the customer, who won’t appreciate you having ‘underplayed’ the truth.
  • Show some empathy – Acknowledge their feelings and their situation, and make it clear that you’re there to help them resolve the situation (within the limits of what’s possible/available, of course). Active listening skills like paraphrasing and summarising are useful to demonstrate that you have understood them, and often, when anger is acknowledged, it begins to dissipate.
  • Work towards a solution – The ideal solution is a) possible and b) acceptable to the customer. This isn’t to say that you should leap straight into ‘solve mode’; it is better to ask the customer what would work for them and then go from there.

While working through the situation, bear in mind a few guiding principles:

  1. Be honest – if there are difficulties, be open about what they are.
  2. Be equal – however unpleasant it might feel to be ‘under attack’; treat the customer as a fellow adult human being; don’t talk down to them, and don’t pander.
  3. Be solution-focused – and that means staying focused on the customer’s situation and needs; you may not be able to meet them all but they’ll feel you’re ‘on their side’.
Follow up positively

Delivering difficult messages is not fun; once the conversation is over, there’s often a definite sense of relief. However, the situation is not over. You need to follow up:

  • Do what you promised to do – whatever solution or action was agreed upon, do it!
  • Check back with the customer – be proactive about following up. Ask for feedback on how their situation was dealt with; do they have any further concerns or issues; give them the latest update on the situation.

Dealing sensitively with difficult customer conversations is one of the most important facets of customer service, if only because of the potential consequences of getting it wrong. Poorly handled conversations can damage the customer relationship, damage the business’s reputation and brand, lose your future sales and business, and even result in legal issues.

It is far better to apply your skills to the initial conversation or interaction. After all, a well-handled complaint can turn an unhappy customer into a real fan.

If you want to delve deeper into the art of handling these kinds of situations, check out our free taster webinar “Delivering difficult messages to customers” on 17 May 2024 at 10:00 a.m; sign up here. Or give us a call on 01582 463460; we’re here to help.

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