How To Deliver Bad News In Sales

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I was stumped by a question I received from an old client earlier this week about how to deliver bad news:

“​I’m hearing a lot about how tough it is to regularly deliver bad news to clients.

Do you have any strategies to help Customer Success reps and Account Managers better cope with the stress of delivering bad news?”

I was caught off guard by this question because for the last three years, I’ve been focused on helping salespeople navigate the stress associated with receiving bad news from clients.

​But, as we have all experienced at some point in our lives, delivering bad news can be equally as stressful. Especially when we have to do it regularly.

Why is it stressful to deliver bad news?

Stress associated with delivering bad news is very similar to the stress we feel before making a cold call.

Rather than keeping our attention focused on what we can control like delivering our cold call pitch or bad news to the best of our ability; we get caught up worrying about things we can’t control like assuming our client will be upset upon hearing the news.

​To remedy this we need to have a plan in the form of a script.

Research has shown that having a plan is one of the most effective ways of managing stress, because planning out what you’ll say and do minimizes uncertainty surrounding the situation.

​Having a script also allows you to practice your delivery ahead of time and feel more confident delivering bad news that will be well received.

How To Deliver Bad News

If having a plan and a script is important, then what should it say?

​To answer this question, I decided the best place to start would be to reach out to my friend Dr. Bryan. He’s an old friend from high school who is now an Emergency room doctor. He has also been managing the COVID wards at his hospital for the last 18 months.

As a result of his profession, Dr. Bryan regularly has to deliver bad news, which is way worse than anything we experience within sales. I thought his expertise would be applicable here.

​Here is what he said:

“I find when trying to break bad news, there are a few things I focus on.

First I try to establish where they are in the process. Are they expecting bad news? Did they consider it to be a possibility? Understanding their expectations is important.

Second, I try not to give more information than what is necessary and focus on being as clear as possible.

Third, if there is something important to convey and could be given before the bad news, then I try to do that first. After bad news people have a tendency to stop listening and retaining new information.​

Finally, I always give time and space for silence. People process information and bad news at different speeds. Be patient and hold space for them to share what they are thinking and feeling.”

Mic drop Dr. Bryan… but let’s explore these four points further.

Step 1: Where are they in the process? Understanding their expectations is important.

Setting and managing expectations is one of the most important skills every sales rep needs to learn.

In situations where you’re responsible for delivering bad news, it’s important to be empathetic to the expectations clients may have of your company/product and how those expectations change over time.

For example, if it’s a brand new client, they’re expectations of a working product will be high. No one wants to buy a new product they’re excited to start using, which breaks a few days later.

Unfortunately this will happen from time to time, so it’s important to address it.

You also want to be mindful of what’s happening in your client’s world. For example, are they in the middle of preparing for an important meeting? Rushing to the airport? Or is this a decent time to deliver the news?

Here is a script you can try:

“I understand you just signed up for our service and were expecting X and Y…

I’m calling to let you know that Z (example: software bug) happened today, which rarely ever happens. Is this a good time to share with you the details of how it affects you and what we’re doing to fix it?”

The same type of script can work for older clients, except this time you have an opportunity to anchor them on good news first.

“I understand you’ve been using our service for almost a year now and we’ve been helping you with X and Y…

I’m calling to let you know that Z (example: software bug) happened today, but as you already know, this rarely happens. Is this a good time to share with you the details of how it affects you and what we’re doing to fix it?”

Ending each statement with a question will help you stay in control of the conversation and get you to the most important part…​

Step 2: Try not to give more information than what is necessary and focus on being as clear as possible.

Receiving bad news is uncomfortable for one primary reason.

Bad news creates uncertainty.

Uncertainty makes people feel unsafe and when people feel unsafe, their body will naturally engage its self protection system. As a result, they start to experience uncomfortable emotions like anxiety, fear, anger and frustration.

Being as clear as possible when delivering bad news will help mitigate uncertainty and prevent spiraling client emotions from taking over. We want to keep the conversation rational (remember bad news is normal and happens regularly) and not emotional.

In order to be clear, you need to ensure you have answers to the following questions before entering the conversation. I’d also recommend structuring your delivery in the following way.​

  1. What happened?
  2. Why did it happen?
  3. How does it affect them?
  4. When will it be resolved?

**”Where” and “Who” are less applicable in SaaS so cut any questions that provide unnecessary information**

The Importance Of Providing A Next Step

Reflecting on my experience with testicular cancer a few years ago, the most important question to answer is when. “When” sets expectations and creates clarity.

For a long time, I didn’t know when I’d be cured, but the hospital always ensured that I knew when I could expect more information to be available on my treatment.

They set a next step I could look forward to, which gave me a planThis made me feel in control and helped me manage the uncertainty and anxiety surrounding my diagnosis.

Same strategy can apply when delivering bad news to clients in sales. If you don’t know when the product issue or outage will be resolved, then at least give them a next step.

Create a plan and tell them:​

  1. A timeframe range of the bigger issue (if known).
  2. When they can expect to hear from you next.
  3. What you’ll be doing in the meantime.

“We’re expecting the product issue to be resolved by the end of the day, but I’ll make sure to update you with more information at 2pm this afternoon.

In the meantime, I’ll be working to support our tech team and get you back online ASAP.”

Following this script will set expectations, manage uncertainty and rebuild trust with the client by staying accountable to a next touch point.

Step 3: Be patient and hold space for them to share what they are thinking and feeling.​​

After you deliver bad news and explain the situation, the last step is to create space to help your client process the news. You want to ensure they are given the opportunity to express how they’re feeling and answer any follow up questions they may have.

Doing so will promote safety and further resolve any remaining uncertainty. You also want to reinforce yourself as a trusted point of contact they can depend on.

Here is a script you can use to wrap up the conversation:

“Now I understand that you weren’t expecting this issue today, but when similar issues have happened in the past we’ve always been able to resolve them quickly.

That being said… I know this is a lot of new information. How are you feeling? What questions can I help answer?”

Step 4: Check-In on yourself.

Even with the best frameworks and well prepared answers, delivering bad news is stressful. Especially if you’re having to deliver the news to multiple clients at once, which is often the case with a product bug.

This means it’s important to always do a quick Mental Health check-in using the HALT framework before continuing. To use this framework, simply ask yourself if you’re experiencing any of the following:

  • Hunger?
  • Anger?
  • Loneliness?
  • Tiredness?

If any of these basic needs are running on empty, pause and refill them. Take a quick walk outside, eat a snack, call a friend or do a 10 minute meditation.

Doing so will ensure you’re showing up calm, cool and collected for the next person you speak with.

You may also want to consider expanding your stress-management toolkit and learn more ways to protect your Mental Health on a daily basis.

Side Note – If there is something important to convey and could be given before the bad news, then I try to do that first​​

I chose not to include this in the four step process above, because I feel like it’s less applicable to those of us working in sales.

Updating medical records to ensure someone can receive treatment is extremely important. Updating an expired credit card on file so you can charge them less-so.

Use your best judgement here, but if there is important information to convey to the client, then listen to Dr. Bryan and share it before delivering the bad news.

Answering Your Questions

​I realize that there are probably a lot of questions people have like this one. If you’d like me to tackle them in a future article or newsletter, then please go ahead and submit your questions here.

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About The Author

mental health advocate Jeff Riseley

Jeff Riseley is currently the Founder of the Sales Health Alliance and Mental Health Advocate. With over a decade of sales experience – Jeff understands the importance of Mental Health in achieving peak sales performance.

Jeff combines his sales and Mental Health expertise to improve sales performance through mental health best practices. His strategies have helped sales teams become more motivated, resilient and better equipped to tackle stressful events within sales.

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