A wise friend and colleague (let's call him Dave A.) provided me good and sound advice when he would tell me, "Bad news doesn't get better with age." We are all guilty of procrastinating when we need to deliver bad news whether it is to a client, a boss or even friends or family. Probably some of the worst conversations I have had with clients are when they have been caught off guard by a problem or issue, especially when it was their boss or one of their executives who alerted them.
It is human nature to want to delay picking up the phone to tell someone about a problem. It’s really an issue of conflict avoidance. Maybe you think your client will be angry or yell at you or think poorly of you or your team. I know I have been guilty of saying to a client, “Well, I was waiting to get all the facts before I called you.” Think about how that comes across to your client:
§ Trust is diminished in your partnership as you are basically telling him or her that you do not trust their reaction to an “early warning”.
§ Your client will think you are not looking out for them by leaving them in the dark when you are aware of an issue and they are exposed if their manager becomes aware of it before they do.
§ You are basically undermining their value by not allowing them to collaborate with you on the cause, depth or even resolution of the issue and how it should be communicated within their organization.
As difficult as it may be for you to make that call (and yes, it needs to be a call and not an e-mail), get over yourself and just do it and do it as quickly as you can! Although I do not recommend delegating who makes the call to the client, have a process in place that if you are not available, there is someone who will take responsibility for the alert. It’s been my experience that clients appreciate the heads-up and their reaction has never been as bad as I expected it to be. In almost all situations, my clients have ended the call by thanking me for letting them know. It also buys you more time to gather all the facts and come up with a plan to redefine a service improvement so that same issue does not happen again. Most importantly, I have found by having even that basic knowledge of an issue, it gives your contact a defense mechanism to support you. It enables them to say, “Yes, I am aware there is an issue, my contact is working on it and will give me more information.” This demonstrates that you and your contact are connected, partners and collaborating. What great messages that sends!
On a related note, make sure your entire team practices the “Bad news doesn’t get better with age!” concept. Some of the other most difficult conversations I have with clients have been when they have called me about an issue and I was out of the loop. Thus, it is critical that there is a process in place where you are notified almost immediately about “bad news”. When a client calls, they want to know you are in charge, you are helping to craft the resolution and that you will be following up with more specifics about the scope of the issue. They will also want to know what you will be implementing to avoid making the same mistake again. So make sure you are not demonstrating actions to your team that will make them slow to let you know. Don’t shoot the messenger or make them uncomfortable coming to you. As a senior team member, try to ask probing questions that will help facilitate getting to the heart of the issue sooner or offer reasonable resolutions that will be acceptable to the client. Show your appreciation for them getting you involved and help them craft the appropriate tone of the messages and the details. Be a positive not negative force in the process.
Last but not least, make sure that it’s not the only time you talk to your client is when you are delivering information about problems. So if one of the reasons you are reluctant to pick up the phone is that the last 5 times you talked to your contact it was about an issue, then you are not talking enough. Make sure you are bringing new ideas, trends and improvements to your clients too. Try to involve them in team celebrations, team recognitions and agree that at least quarterly you can summarize and discuss all that you and your team have accomplished. It will help balance the good with the bad and strengthen your overall relationship. And client recognition means as much if not more to your team than anything you can do.
- Notify early about an issue or problem.
- Gather the facts as quickly as possible, including the cause, defining the scope of the issue and how you will improve your process to avoid making the same mistake again.
- Feed information along the way to your client (if necessary) that demonstrates you are taking the lead and are committed to keeping them informed.
- Make sure you follow-up and provide your client a full summary of the details and resolution as soon as you can.
- Make sure every individual on your team understands the escalation process so you are notified of any and all issues as quickly as possible.
- Be proactive and supportive in the resolution.
- Talk to your clients about the good and not just the bad and talk often.