It’s never easy to deliver bad news to your clients. Even if it’s something minor and manageable, like an audit from the Canada Revenue Agency, delivering the doom and gloom to a small business owner can be hard. It’s even worse when the news is truly bad, like when your payroll projections show the company needs to think about layoffs, or even bankruptcy. The lead up to that meeting can be excruciating. As uncomfortable as it is to deliver bad news, sometimes it has to be done. Fortunately, there are some ways to do it that make the process less difficult.
Make “No” Sound Like “Yes”
One technique, well-loved by courtiers since the beginning of time, is to couch your bad news as potentially good news. Say you’re the financial controller for a medium-sized syrup distributor in Quebec, when a sudden outbreak of maple weevils devastates the market and forces the company to pay triple what it expected for raw material. This may force cutbacks elsewhere, but you don’t have to dress in black to deliver the news to your client. Instead, try working up a preliminary restructuring plan in advance, including suggestions for a few changes you’ve been hoping to see for a while, and present that at the meeting where you tell the client it’s short on money. With this approach, you can spin bad news away from being the main focus of your briefing and into the plain, unalterable reasoning behind your innovative plan for economizing. Even if your suggestions are ultimately rejected, you’ve effectively shifted the conversation away from “what’s gone wrong” into “what’s the plan,” which is altogether a more positive place to be.
Fall Back on Professionalism
Sometimes, the news is just bad, and it resists positive interpretations. There’s no good way, for example, to tell a small business owner that half the family business has to be sold off to keep the lights on for the other half. If it’s a really small business, like a family-owned affair, you may be telling your client to lay off old friends from school and several blood relatives. That’s never good to do, and seeing the look on the owner’s face as he comes to terms with what you’re saying can be hard for anyone.
That’s where your professionalism saves the day. If you have the education and experience to know what you’re talking about, you’ve probably double- and triple-checked the figures until you’re sure there’s no other way. Then, you can console yourself with the knowledge you’re only delivering facts to the client, and you’re actually doing the company a favor by finding and reporting on the problem as soon as possible, rather than letting it fester until it’s too late. If you’ve formed a bond with your client, and “just-the-facts” is cold comfort for you, remember that you weren’t hired to lie, but to tell the hard truth, and this is the best way you can be a good friend to your unfortunate client.
Being the bearer of bad news is never easy, but it doesn’t have to be a disaster. If it’s a minor matter, try to find a way to give it a positive spin. If the hard truth has hard-to-bear consequences, trust yourself to deliver the news like a professional.