It’s good to give your customers bad news

Illustration depicting roadsigns with a news concept. Blue sky background.I’ve got some bad news for you; in order to get the most out of this article you are going to need to devote the next five minutes of your time to reading it and then the next 15 minutes to thinking how you can apply it in your situation. As a result, this is not a quick read; you need 20 minutes.

Now, that might seem crazy to say that and make it less likely that you will continue reading. However, recent research suggests that telling people bad news first is superior to delivering it last – with one exception, which I shall come to later.

Consider for a moment if I had started out by giving you the good news first – the news that you can significantly alter the way your customers respond to you – but I had not told you the bad news that it would take you 20 minutes to get it. By the end of that 20 minutes you would be somewhat annoyed and upset; you would have thought I should have warned you.

When people go to the cinema they want to know when the film well end and how long they well be sitting in the dark. Not knowing that Titanic is three and quarter hours long would reduce your enjoyment of the film if you didn’t know it in advance. You would sit there going “how much longer is this going on for?” Knowing the bad news in advance helps you prepare.

The study which shows that giving bad news first looked at things from two perspectives – the news giver and the news receiver. On the whole, the recipients of bad news wanted to hear that before hearing the good news.

But the givers of bad news preferred to give the bad news after the good, arguing that the good news helped pave the way for the bad.

Yet it doesn’t appear to work like that. Indeed, the well-worn path of the “news sandwich” where you make a positive comment, followed by a negative one and then backed up with a further positive point, actually appears to help the news giver transmit the negative information, but fails to help the recipient who can misunderstand what the points are entirely.

The study is clear; if you have bad news to give your customers, tell them up front. Don’t hide it. For instance, if you are more expensive than your competitors, say so. If you are going to delay the work or have to cancel an appointment say so, up front. Don’t try and sweeten the pill; it doesn’t work.

But what about that exception I mentioned?

That’s when you need your customers to act on your bad news. Tell them that last, say the researchers.

So what was my bad news again? Oh yes, that’s right – you need to devote 15 minutes of your time after reading this article to act on it. So here’s that bad news again – now you need some time to think about all the bits of bad news you need to tell your customers and work out whether it is the kind of information you tell them first, or last.

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