How to Deliver Bad News in Customer Service

Words bad news surrounded by paper balls
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Quick Overview

Delivering bad news in customer service isn’t easy, but there are methods agents can use to help the conversation go more smoothly, including:

  1. Adopt Behavioural Science Principles
  2. Use Data Insights to Improve Your Approach
  3. Understand How Your Customers React

This article outlines thirteen best practice tips to help agents deliver bad news in customer service.


Methods to Help Deliver Bad News in Customer Service

Ever wondered how to make those unavoidable conversations go smoothly?

Here are 13 methods your agents can use to help them deliver bad news in customer service:

1. Adopt Behavioural Science Principles

When delivering bad news to customers, it’s imperative for both businesses and customers that the communications are handled with care. But it can be difficult to know where to start, and how to achieve the best outcome for both parties.

However, implementing behavioural science principles into the customer service framework can help businesses support their customers in ways that are proven to work.

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Behavioural Science Principles to Help Deliver Bad News

Consistency

This approach begins by reminding the customer how long they’ve been choosing your company. This prompt plays back any previous behaviours, and as such, they might feel motivated to continue being a customer in order to maintain this consistency. The longer they’ve been a customer, the more effective this is.

As well as a reminder of the length of time, it’s useful to find out the reasons why they chose to be a customer with you in the first instance.

This acts as a reminder of how the customers have benefited and highlights the value of the service you’ve previously provided them with.

Finally, it would be useful to point out that by continuing to be a customer with your company, they’ll carry on making the most of these benefits that they’ve enjoying in the past.

Personalization

For the personalized approach, it’s key to begin by asking some questions to understand what aspects of the service the customer currently likes and dislikes.

Here, the agent would then tailor their response based on what the customer has shared with them. So it could be that something the customer dislikes is actually under review, and changes are being planned in order to improve this aspect of the overall customer experience.

Conversely, if the agent is aware of any upcoming changes or new services being introduced, they could tie this in with something that the customer said they enjoyed.

This helps highlight the value that you as a company are providing the customer – as a result, they’re more likely to be accepting of the bad news you’re giving them.

SPIDER Protocol

The SPIDER protocol is partly based on a framework originally created to help doctors deliver bad news to patients through six steps.

SPIDER can be used to deliver bad news in a manner that reduces emotional impact and distress, in easy-to-understand language with clear, future steps.

Spider Protocol picture
The SPIDER Protocol Explained

Set Your Scene (where possible)

It may feel nerve-wracking to deliver the news, but building rapport with the customer can help to cultivate a more positive relationship.

“Thank you for speaking with me today, as it’s really important that we discuss this matter of…”

Perspective

Understand the customer’s viewpoint.

“I want to make sure I understand your view of the situation. How are you feeling and what options are you considering?”

Invitation

Invite questions to reduce any uncertainties, allowing the customer to feel more in control.

“I’ve got some information I need to share with you. Are you able to talk this through today?”

If the customer declines the invitation, sensitively ask why – if possible, make adjustments and continue, or rearrange.

Deliver

Deliver the news. Use simple and jargon-free language to ensure the customer understands the information and doesn’t disengage. Make sure to also break the information into chunks to facilitate comprehension, and pause after each chunk to let the news ‘sink in’.

“I’m sorry, but I have some news for you which is probably going to be disappointing. We’re not going to be able to do… The reason for this is because…”

SPIDER - set your scene, perspective, invitation, deliver, empathise, recap

Empathize

Some customers may interrupt as you deliver the news, whilst others may remain quiet. Give the customer space to express their feelings while listening carefully and empathetically.

Recap

Summarize and recap what has been discussed, ensuring that the customer understands the information.

“We’ve talked about a lot of things today. I want to check in on your understanding… Are you OK to discuss the new arrangement? If not, let’s set a time for a follow-up discussion.”

With thanks to Ash Rezainia, Behavioural Architect, Letitia Leong, Junior Behavioural Consultant & Sasha Platt, Marketing Coordinator at Cowry

Anchoring

When thinking about delivering bad news to customers, we need to think about how people understand messages.

We like to think that we do this in a linear way and we give equal credence to the things that we hear, but our brains don’t really work like that.

We actually pay more attention to the first bit of information we hear. This is called ‘anchoring’.

In practice, it means we’re much more likely to remember this first piece of information compared to anything else we hear, as well as use it as a reference point to compare back with any further information.

This highlights that whatever information is given first should be a positive, as it will be disproportionately remembered compared to anything that follows.

A Study on Anchoring

Psychologists have studied the importance of the order information is presented in for decades. A study in 2018 looked at how people formed their opinions of other people based on the way they were described.

The individuals that were described as being ‘fun, witty, and vivacious’ were on average rated more favourably than individuals who were described as being ‘vivacious, witty, and fun’ (the same traits, simply in the reverse order).

This shows that even in a very short period of time, the information that we give a customer first can carry more weight than subsequent information in the same conversation.

Certainty vs. Uncertainty

Human beings disproportionately avoid uncertainty, so when delivering bad news it’s better to give a customer concrete information – rather than ambiguous statements.

This also extends to the presentation of figures, as a percentage can be less convincing than numbers. Customers crave transparency, so make sure you give it to them.

For example, “We’re increasing our prices on 1st March, so your monthly direct debit will go up by 23p per month” offers customers more concrete information compared to “We’re increasing our prices on 1st March by 10%”.

The Power of Because
Babs Crane, Behavioural Science Consultant (Consumer Psychologist) at Mind The Humans
Babs Crane

‘The power of because’ theory states that it can help to explain WHY something is happening to justify what is being said or asked.

Sometimes just giving a short reason can be enough to satisfy us, psychologically speaking.

Therefore, training your agents to take a moment to add some additional explanation as to why they are having to share this bad news with the customer can help them to get their message across and ensure it is positively received.

The level needed will depend on the level of the bad news. Of course, the bigger the blow, the more complex the needs of the customer – but having a pre-agreed line or two is a good way to help satisfy the customer’s need for an explanation, as well as stop an agent’s instinctive need to overexplain the situation.

With thanks to Babs Crane, Behavioural Science Consultant (Consumer Psychologist) at Mind The Humans

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2. Use Data Insights to Improve Your Approach

It’s never easy to deliver messages to customers that may provoke a negative reaction, such as price rises or lack of available services.

And it’s common in these scenarios that things can go wrong or unanticipated situations can arise. When they do, agents are often on the front line navigating these difficult conversations with customers by themselves.

3. Understand How Your Customers React

The most forward-thinking organizations are the ones that know these interactions, however difficult, present significant learning and training opportunities.

Frank Sherlock at CallMiner
Frank Sherlock

By understanding how agents deliver bad news, as well as how customers react to it – whether it’s behaviours, patterns, preferences or even those who are vulnerable or at risk – you can better equip frontline employees with the knowledge to communicate with empathy and deliver the appropriate message in a more personalized way.

4. Share Best Practice With Your Teams

By gaining insight into what works and what doesn’t during these interactions, you can highlight examples of success and areas of opportunity in ongoing performance improvement.

Sharing best practice with teams through peer-to-peer training and feedback can empower agents with the tools needed to more effectively handle conversations that include bad news, approach difficult conversations in general, and, in the long run, build the knowledge and expertise needed to handle any customer request.

With thanks to Frank Sherlock, VP of International at CallMiner

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In addition to the suggestions above, we have put together some of the best advice from the industry professionals in our LinkedIn Community to help you deliver bad news effectively:

5. Be Upfront

Suzanne Reay, Quality Assurance Manager at Ocado Retail Ltd
Suzanne Reay

We always strive to get things right and do our very best for our customers, but in reality, this is only sometimes the case, and things can and will go wrong.

Our customers are people too, and just like you or I, they appreciate honesty and empathy for their situation.

When delivering bad news to customers be upfront, tell them the bad news, and use positive language rather than negative. Negative language only adds to the weight of the bad news.

6. Be Genuine

Explain how sorry you are about what has happened or for the current situation.

This should always be genuine and heartfelt. “I am sorry” goes a lot further than “We do apologize.”

7. Provide Options for the Next Steps

Once you’ve delivered the bad news, follow with what you can do or provide options for the next steps to resolve or rectify what has happened.

Let the customer know you are dedicated to helping them. Ultimately show care for your customer rather than just dealing with the query at hand.

I always think of a great quote from Theodore Roosevelt that summarizes great customer care: “Nobody knows how much you know until they know how much you care.”

With thanks to Suzanne Reay, Quality Assurance Manager at Ocado Retail Ltd

8. It’s Helpful if the Conversation Is Loosely Scripted

Paul Banks, Senior Solutions Consultant at MOJO-CX
Paul Banks

Delivering bad news is contextual. It depends on the type of bad news as to how you handle it and how the customer may react.

There’s a big difference, for example, between “you can’t have that particular insurance policy” and “you have a £1,000 fine to pay” or “your delivery is significantly delayed/lost/damaged”.

That being said, for the best outcome all round, it’s helpful if the conversation is scripted – not so much word for word, but so that the customer has a consistent experience and delivery of that information – no matter who they talk to.

Essentially, you’re aiming for similar conversations across the floor – with the agents’ personality layered over the top.

9. Avoid Words Like “Obviously”

Words and phrases such as “obviously”, “basically” and “you know” should also be avoided as analysis shows close correlations between the use of these words and frustrated customers.

With thanks to Paul Banks, Senior Solutions Consultant at MOJO-CX

10. Only Rely on the More Senior Agents

Not all our agents are utilized for delivering bad news. We will use only the senior ones.

With thanks to Satheesh

11. Consider Print – Instead of Voice

I personally feel bad news ought to be delivered through print media or digital media for consistency, and opportunity for customers to digest all the facts in their own time.

With thanks to Joshua

12. Your Team MUST Be Knowledgeable

Transparency is rewarded.

Transparency is rewarded. The biggest challenge is to make sure your team is knowledgeable and ready to answer questions.

Send out mail, emails, update your self-service options, and have an update on your website.

With thanks to Marshall

13. Execute It With Empathy

If you need to break bad news, execute it with empathy.

Agents should be transparent regarding the reasons for the bad news and provide an explanation as to why it’s happening.

It also helps if they can soften the blow. For example, giving prior notice of rising costs before emails are sent to all customers.

BONUS TIP: If customers do have an emotional reaction, train agents to just listen and not interrupt.

With thanks to Christopher

If you are looking for more advice on handling difficult situations, read these articles next:

Author: Robyn Coppell

Published On: 12th Apr 2023 - Last modified: 20th Apr 2023
Read more about - Customer Service Strategy, , , , , , ,

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