Thursday, June 28, 2012

How To Give Bad News To Clients

In an idealized world, you would never have problems and your plans would always work out the way you planned them.  Cars, trains, and busses would always work reliably, people wouldn't break their ankle just walking along the street, and electronics would never crash.  However, this is planet Earth, where reality means taking the good with the bad, and where success is achieved by overcoming problems- not avoiding them.  If you haven't had to give a client bad news before, than you probably haven't been in business for very long or you're extremely lucky.  When you do encounter a situation in which you need to deliver some bad news, know that you aren't the only one and that giving bad news is sometimes just part of running a business.  I've found that no matter what the bad news is, there are some key strategies for dealing with it and delivering it:

1. Put it in Perspective: 
  • Has anyone died?  If not, than you can rest assured that this is not the worst possible news you could give someone. 
  • Can the work be redone. recreated, or replaced?  If so, than you have some great options you can offer your client.
  • Will additional time give you an opportunity to correct the problem?  You may not even need to deliver bad news if you can simply take more time to solve the problem.

2. Ask Peers for Help:
  • Even if you've never had the problem before, chances are that other people in your profession have had the same problem before.  Find out what they learned from that experience.
  • Find out what solutions you might be able to provide your clients in the event that the problem can't be solved without their involvement.

3. Sleep On It & Relax:
  • Don't ever deliver bad news until you've had time to come up with some solutions, and you've had at least one night of sleep to gain perspective.
  • Being able to respond reasonably requires a healthy state of mind - so, it's also good to start your day with something that relaxes you and helps relieve your anxiety so that you don't pass any of that anxiety on to your client.
  • The one time when sleeping on it will NOT make it easier to deal with is if the issue is related to missing a deadline- in which case it's best to communicate any issue or delay before the deadline, or at the soonest possible moment.  If this is the case, skip #4 and #6 and find ways to get in touch as soon as possible.

4. Choose Good Timing:
  • If you're a wedding photographer, don't ruin a couple's honeymoon by delivering news while they're sipping Mai Tais.  Wait until they are back into reality and ready to deal with real life again.
  • Likewise, Monday morning is also probably not the best time to add another problem to someone's plate.  Consider any additional stress factors you can on the client's end in order to reduce the impact.

5. Have Good News Ready:
  • Difficult situations are much easier to deal with when they are balanced by something positive.
  • Offer alternative solutions as part of the good news, so that they are better received as possibilities.

6. Request A Phone Appointment:
  • If your client typically deals with you via email, this is the one time you really want to get them on the phone.  Likewise, if you avoid talking to clients on the phone, you're going to be much better off in the long run if they can hear your words in your own apologetic tone rather than read your words over and over again in email with whatever doomsday voice they might add in their head.
  • Request a phone appointment by email or voicemail, letting a client know that you have a few questions you'd like to task them about the work you're doing for them.  Offer three times and days that are good for you to chat on the phone and ask if there are certain days or times that are better for them- with the goal of finding a time as soon as possible when both of you are prepared to have a conversation without distractions.

7. Deliver News Without Drama:
  • Let clients know what happened without dramatizing it.  Just state it as it happened, rather than framing it as a problem.  Accept responsibility and apologize for anything you had control over, and let them know what attempts you've already made to solve the problem.  Let them know that you really care about them and would like their opinion as to what they think the best solution would be.  Provide options for possible solutions, always ending with a question as to how the client would like to proceed.
  • Give the client time to think and process the information.  Be patient and don't assume that silence is a bad thing, just let them think about the options you've presented, rather than trying to fill any gaps with apologies or excuses.  Just answer questions that are asked with facts, and always steer the conversation back toward focusing on a solution.

8. Implement Agreed Upon Solution:
  • Make solving the problem your number one priority, and hire or enlist additional help if needed to get the project done.
  • Keep clients updated more frequently on the solution in order to let them know that you aren't silently turning to other projects in the background.  Being proactive about your progress and communication means that they are never left to wonder about your dedication or efforts to serve them.

9. Be OK With Disappointment:
  • Delivering bad news also means being OK with disappointment.  Learning how to deal with disappointment without it crushing your soul or taking time away from being productive makes you stronger and more successful in the long run.
  • Some people will be unhappy no matter what solutions or options you've given them.  Know that you aren't not responsible for someone else's happiness or unhappiness.  You are only responsible for the job you were hired to do, and for doing your best to fulfill that job.  If you have done your best to solve the problem, and the client still does not seem satisfied, than there is nothing more that you can do.  Let go of any hurt, anger, or frustration, and resolve to do better in the future.

10. Remember To Be Grateful:
  • Put one job in perspective by remembering all of the other jobs that have gone well.
  • Reach out to past clients that you enjoyed working with and send them a note of gratitude for choosing to work with you.  Your gratitude to many clients will spread more good will to counterbalance any negativity you may worry about from one client.

Anne Ruthmann is a lifestyle & wedding photographer from Boston, MA. She spent 10 years practicing marketing & management in corporate and non-profit businesses before pursuing her passion for photography as an independent small business.  She loves helping others find creative and smart solutions to business problems.  Follow her on Twitter to see her daily adventures and thoughts.


  1. Hi, Just wanted to let you know that I really like your blog! It's quite entertaining to see a photo of a cat with a caption relating to your topic every time. Even though it is entertaining, it's very informative.

    Thank you.

  2. thank for the article. this will be useful when I need to tell bad news to my client. i also like the cat picture. :)