Many years ago, I received a letter from my trash company. I was surprised to see the letter, since up to that time my relationship with the trash company had been limited to the occasional wave when they came by to pick up the cans. The letter almost ended up in the junk mail pile, never to be seen again, except the headline caught my eye. “Great News About Your Trash Collection!” was printed in bold across the top of the paper. What could this great news be? Would I get an extra weekly pickup? Maybe another trash can for overflow trash?

I read on, and my confusion grew.

The “great news” was the reduction of my weekly pickups from twice weekly to once weekly. In addition, instead of leaving my cans at my door for the trash collectors to retrieve, I would now be expected to wheel my cans to the curb. Were either of these changes the end of the world? Of course not. Were they frustrating? Absolutely. Were they Great News? Not even a little.

I held on to that letter for years. For a marketer, it was a great example of how not to share bad news with your audience. Finding a way to put a positive spin on a negative situation is important. Bad news happens. It’s inevitable that at some point you’ll find yourself at a computer struggling with how to explain to your customers why your prices are going up, or your hours are decreasing, or your product is backordered. And in those situations, you certainly do want to find a positive side to the problem. But, maybe, consider taking a more nuanced approach than my trash company.

To start:

It’s About More than Positivity

Ok, fine. Stay positive. But don’t be delusional.

It’s tempting to want to wave your hand in front of your customers’ faces and say “This is great news. Trust me.” However, this approach never works. Your customers aren’t stupid. They know the difference between good and bad news, and they’ll resent you for insulting their intelligence.

Forget that detail, and instead of just helping them adjust to your original bad news, you’ll also have to repair their damaged opinion of your brand. Fortunately, with a bit of effort, you can find a way to share bad news in a way that helps your customers understand why the changes are happening, while also reminding them of why they chose to do business with your company in the first place.

The Right Way to Deliver Bad News.

Let’s say, for example, that the time has come to raise prices: a situation that we recently lived through ourselves. We raised the monthly fees for our website maintenance services, and needed to communicate the price increases to our existing clients. Price increases tend to be unpopular, and you always run the risk of customers deciding that they don’t find enough value in your services to justify the higher cost. Our goal was to break the news in such a way that we could soften the blow by clearly outlining why prices were going up, making to sure to highlight the additional services our clients could look forward to receiving with the higher prices.

Deliver a Problem Alongside the Solution:

Every problem has a solution. It’s your job to figure out a solution for your customers, instead of leaving them to their own devices.

In our situation, identifying the problem was simple. Finding the solution took just a little more effort.

Problem: Raising monthly prices for existing customers may diminish the value they find in our services, causing clients to explore other website maintenance options.

Solution: Instead of dropping the news into our clients’ laps, and leaving them to figure out if the new price was worth it, we made sure to spell out exactly how much value clients could expect to find in our services. In our case, the higher prices allowed us to offer our clients additional services on top of what they were already receiving. So, although they didn’t have the option to turn those services down and continue paying the lower price, we were able to soften the blow a bit. After reading the email, and seeing a clear list of the additional value accompanying the higher prices, all our clients elected to continue utilizing our services.

Communicate Early and Often:

After you’ve determined how you will restructure your offerings in a way that still offers value to your customers, it’s time to communicate the changes to your customer base. Ideally, this process should start as early as possible. In our case, sending each customer an email and a letter explaining your restructured offerings, and how it will affect them was the way to go. You might find phone calls or good-old-fashioned mail to be a better option. No matter how you choose to communicate, reassure your customers that they won’t see any immediate changes to their services, and that you’ll remind them before the new pricing structure comes into effect. Take the time to sincerely thank them for supporting your business, and express your desire to maintain the relationship. Touch base with them again the week before you implement the new changes, and consider including some type of promotional pricing to soften the immediate blow. Even the more skeptical customers will likely give the new reality a chance if it doesn’t cost them anything, and experiencing the new service in action might be all they need to convince them to continue doing business with you.

So, What Have We Learned Today, Class?

1. Before sharing any bad news with your customers, try to see if there’s a way you can tweak it so the customer sees more than lost value. This might be as simple as including a consolation discount offer with the bad news, or as complicated as implementing tiered pricing.
2. Communicate the changes honestly and promptly. Help your customers understand how the new reality will work for them, and why you believe they’ll be happy about it.
3. Seriously. Don’t start a “bad news” letter with “GREAT NEWS!”.

How about you? What’s the most ridiculous “bad news” announcement you’ve received (or sent. I’m not judging)? Or maybe you’re gearing up to send share some “bad news” of your own, and need some advice. Let’s hear it!