Whether it falls to you to tell customers about a price increase, an out-of-stock situation or some other problem, giving bad news from time to time comes with the territory.

Buyers understand that bad things happen. They may even forgive mistakes. What they want to see is whether you address the problem fairly, honestly and with their best interests in mind.

If you handle the situation well, you might even turn the negative to a positive. Here are six principles to remember:

1. Give advance notice whenever you can. Bad news postponed can become catastrophic news. Acting quickly gives buyers time to adjust their plans and mitigate damage. In fact, advance notice might even turn into a selling opportunity.

Example: “Joe, you are one of our most important customers and I thought it best to let you know that our fuel costs have skyrocketed and we are going to have to add a 10% surcharge to each order. I thought it best to check ahead of time to see if reordering now would save you money.”

2. Shoulder the responsibility (if warranted). Here’s a real-world example: Recently an event planner called to say, “A situation just came up, and I need to fill you in. One of my vendors made a mistake. I take responsibility and will do everything I can to fix it. Here’s what happened….”

The planner said the thing the buyer most needed to hear right then: that someone was on the case and working hard to fix the problem. People respect those who are willing to behave like grownups and take responsibility, rather than point fingers at others.

3. Keep your voice down. When you get excited or emotional, chances are your voice goes up a notch or two in pitch, and you speak faster.

Lower your tone of voice and slow your pace when you are delivering bad news. That will convey the impression that you are clear-headed, logical and reasonable – certainly not emotional or on edge. You want to be seen as the voice of reason, especially if a crisis is brewing.

4. If there’s good news, tell it first. If you have any good news, start with that. Brain scientists say that people who hear bad news tune out whatever comes next because it triggers an internal stress reaction. To make sure your customer hears and understands your complete message, start with the good stuff.

5. Show your empathy. Empathy goes a long way toward easing the impact of bad news. It is particularly effective when you can share a personal experience with clients.

Example: “My brother faced the same situation. He was upset at first, but he and his vendor worked out a solution, just like we will.”

Caveat: Empathy can backfire if you’re the one who made a mistake. It can sound like you’re minimizing the problem.

6. Don’t hide behind policy. “Sorry, it’s our policy” is a hot button. Better: Take the time to explain why a policy exists in the first place.

Instead of this: “Our policy is to suspend automatic shipments to customers that fall behind on payments more than 60 days,” say this: “The fact that you’ve fallen behind on payments is a financial concern we cannot overlook. So we can’t ship your order this time.” It’s the same message, but softer.

Source: From a posting by Jeff Mowatt. For more, visit www.jeffmowatt.com

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