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Maggie Harlow

It’s a Bad Idea to Avoid Giving Bad News to Clients

They want honesty and a plan for what you’re going to do about mishaps and delays.




IT’S NATURAL TO dread giving bad news to clients. We may even avoid calling until we have time to fix a situation and have good news to share.

In these tough days of staff turnover, slim pickings for hiring and supply chain woes, we have a lot of bad news for our customers. How do you keep them happy in these dark and difficult times when it comes to customer service and delivery? You give them the bad news!

The secret to keeping your customers content is not avoiding the difficult news and waiting until you have better news to announce. But while training and coaching employees, I often find out they’re dodging customers’ calls, scrolling past their unanswered emails and avoiding some customers in general because they don’t want to tell them some bad news.

Bad news can include, but is not limited to:

  • “Your sign is not ready.”
  • “Your sign must be remade.”
  • “Your install has been delayed.
  • “I don’t know when your sign will be ready.”
  • “We shipped it overnight, but now the shipping company has lost it.”
  • “The material is out of stock.”
  • “The equipment we needed broke down.”
  • “Your sign was damaged on the way to the install site and must be repaired.”
  • “Our production person/installer/designer/salesperson is sick/is overwhelmed/has resigned.”
  • Insert your own variation…

So many things can go awry in our business of custom manufacturing. The unpredictability can be maddening! And the “things that go wrong” list has only grown in the last couple years. But for me, the rule doesn’t change, no matter the circumstances: Bad news is better than no news.

Here’s why:

  • Unanswered customers begin to wonder if they’re forgotten altogether.
  • Not communicating erodes trust and builds suspicion, so by the time you do deliver the bad news, clients aren’t as apt to forgive.
  • Bad news delivery can help build trust; by exhibiting transparency customers will know they can count on you to be forthright.
  • Customers without information will “fill in the gaps” by imagining even worse scenarios than the reality of what you have to share.
  • The vast majority of people will forgive mistakes and errors (and other kinds of bad news) if you share it honestly, quickly and with a plan of what you’re doing about it.
  • Many challenges are unavoidable and expected these days — don’t assume your bad news is a reflection on you.
  • If you deliver difficult news, and a customer doesn’t forgive you or want to move on, this may not be a great customer for you.

Forget the old adage, “no news is good news.” For sign companies, no news is very bad news!

Maggie Harlow is the CEO of Signarama Downtown Louisville (Louisville, KY), one of the largest and most prestigious locations for the global sign franchise. Contact Maggie at [email protected]



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