Communicating bad news in business – 5 boxes to tick

- November 17, 2023 3 MIN READ
woman receiving bad news


No one likes delivering bad news. Having to do it in a business setting is even tougher because if you do it poorly, you’ll be making an unhappy client even unhappier. If you do it well, however, you can build a stronger, more trusting relationship with that client. And doing it well isn’t as hard as you might think, shares Kelly Exeter.

To soften the blow, try these 5 things

1. Be timely

Wanting to sit on bad news for as long as possible is understandable. After all, sometimes situations manage to resolve themselves without the tough conversation ever needing to be had. And sometimes, going too early with bad news can deliver as many sub-optimal outcomes as going too late.

If you’re unsure whether it’s time to be the Bad News Bear, put yourself in the shoes of the affected person and ask yourself: If I were to find this thing out later, even if all ended well, would that affect my trust? If the answer is Yes, then it’s time to get in touch. Trust is too precious in business to mess with:

Dear Fred

I just wanted to bring you up to date with the status of your order and give a heads-up that it may arrive a week later than first estimated.

2. Be direct

Once you’ve decided to deliver the news, be as straightforward as you can in your communication. Don’t overexplain (too much information muddies things). Don’t underexplain (this sounds brusque). Be concise and transparent in explaining where things are at:

Our supplier has let us know they had a machine break down this week, and it’s put them behind with production. While they are doing everything they can to catch up, they cannot guarantee we will have your widgets on the originally promised date.

3. Show empathy

When bad news is delivered, it’s important to show you understand how the receiver of the news might feel. It’s always tempting to descend into super-emotive language to show you really get where they’re at, but it’s best to restrain yourself from that. Simply acknowledge they would be disappointed/upset/frustrated/annoyed and why:

I know you need those widgets for a conference, and the prospect of them not arriving on time is cause for stress. 

4. Offer a solution (if you have one)

Not every bad situation has a solution. And if a solution exists, it will probably come at a cost to you/your business. But it’s also usually the case that any cost to you will be repaid in time by the trust you’ve built with the client in making good on a bad situation. So, if you have a solution or alternative to offer, ensure the client knows that option is on the table:

To mitigate the effects of the widgets not arriving in time for the conference, I can put through a rush order for some wadgets for you. If the widgets arrive in time, you’ll have the wadgets on hand for future events. If the widgets don’t arrive in time, you’ll be able to use the wadgets for the conference, and the widgets can be held for a future event. If the latter eventuates, I’m happy to offer a 20% discount on the widget order to acknowledge the inconvenience of this.

5. Choose the right delivery medium

What’s the best way to deliver bad news? In person? Email? Phone?

The answer is based on the situation, of course. In very urgent situations, a phone call is best to ensure the news can be delivered in the timeliest fashion. For less urgent situations, I’m a big fan of short emails that explain the situation and put potential solutions on the table, followed by an invitation to chat via phone.

Delivering bad news in writing, in a transparent and straightforward manner, gives the receiver a chance to process the news privately first. This sets them up better to respond to your news rather than react. Delivering bad news via phone calls almost always leads to a reaction rather than a considered response:

Let me know if there is a convenient time to chat through the above via phone. I want to ensure the alternative I’ve offered is the most viable one for this situation.

Kind regards

As is the case with all forms of business communication, sharing bad news effectively takes practice. You’re not always going to get it right. And even when you do, it may not lead to the outcomes you most hope for. But business is a long game. Even though bad news often results in short-term pain, communicating it well shows integrity and builds trust – two things that always deliver long-term gain.

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  • Andrew Caska

    Caska IP Patent Attorneys

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