Agency Tips: 7 Steps for Communicating Bad News

By Hayley Cummings | @Hanapin | Associate Director of Paid Search at Hanapin Marketing

If you are part of an agency, and tasked with communicating bad news to clients, you know it can be difficult. Bad news can mean a variety of things. Some of which include:


  • Communicating employee turnover and account team transitions
  • Poor account performance
  • Mistakes made within the account
  • Issues with scope of work
  • Communication or relationship issues
  • Invoice or agreement confusion


I’ve outlined 7 steps for dealing with these issues.


1. Organize Your Thoughts Before Speaking With The Client


You only have one chance to get it right, so make sure you are as prepared as possible. Understand all sides of the issues. This may mean having a one-on-one with each of the players involved. If appropriate, you may want to have everyone in the room together for a group discussion. The goal is to peel back the layers of the issue and uncover any pieces of information that could help you prepare for your conversation. When you feel you fully understand the situation take some notes to help guide the discussion. Have these ready for reference.


2. Don’t Sugar Coat The Issue


A quick way to loose you client’s respect is to downplay an issue that is important to them. This doesn’t mean take ownership of everything that have lead to the issue, however, leading with ‘I understand why this is a priority for you, and it is for me as well’ can help diffuse combative energy. An apology for an oversight can go a long way. Let the client know that their business is very important to the agency and that it is a top priority to get this issue resolved as soon as possible. Understanding what the agency is at fault for, prior to the conversation (in previous step), will help you prepare for what you are willing to offer in the way of correcting the issue.


3. Have Solutions Ready


It’s important to acknowledge the issue, but that transparency won’t go far with out a way to solve it. Be prepared for all of the things a client could ask for. Know what you are willing to do and what you’re not able to provide. Also, understand why you cannot provide certain things, so you can explain to the client. Continue the transparency by being frank about why you are not able to give them what they want. Particularly when it comes to scope of work or agreements. If you can not only sit in their seat, but bring them over to your side as well, you will have a better chance of coming to an agreement that works for both parties.


4. Pick Up The Phone!


If you have been in the driver’s seat during one of these conversations you know that there is a right and wrong way to handle things. The first thing you can do to ensure you protect your client’s interest is to make every attempt to handle via phone. While email is a great day-to-day means of communication and is expectable for most situations, when delivering bad news speaking directly with your client usually conveys the value you place on the relationship. It can also ensure that your intentions are received in the way you intend them to.


5. Try Turning Around The Solution As Quickly As Possible


If you cannot execute on a solution immediately, make sure that all of the necessary resources are lined up to conclude it as soon as possible. Regardless of the issue, it is important to deliver on what is promised as well as the priority level you conveyed. Speedy execution will help contain the issue and reduce the amount of time it has to affect the relationship. This may require you to take a look at other deliverables on your plate and delegate so that you can proactively remove roadblocks that would prolong the issue.


6. Put In Writing


Once you have delivered a solution and (or) provided the necessary items in order to wrap up the issue, it’s time to put the bow on top. That is the email that includes all of the details around the solution. Be sure to include any vital pieces of information that, if forgotten or not followed through on, could bring up the issue again. Getting everything in writing is also a great way to help the client organize the details and do a little bit of the work for them.


7. Check – In


After you have wrapped everything up and put a bow on top, set a calendar reminder to follow up. This follow up could be in a few days or a couple weeks, but the key is that you follow up in the appropriate amount of time for the issue. The goal is to check in after the new plan has had time to breathe and expose any opportunities for improvement. This doesn’t meant that you will have to rewrite the agreement or make any large changes to the plan, because you have likely delivered the best solution possible and it is more about giving the client the opportunity to give feedback. If they do voice concerns that are actionable, make sure to execute quickly and communicate anything important to the rest of the team as needed.


Final Thoughts


The most important part of client communication is to understand the client’s needs. What state is their business in? Are they profitable? Are there internal stresses that the client is dealing with that could create friction within the agency relationship? Asking these questions will help you sit in the seat of the client, and help add context around their concerns.


Make sure during every conversation you are giving it 110% of your attention. If you are distracted or unorganized it will be obvious and chip away at your client’s trust. Make sure the client knows their value to your agency. Do this, not just through the quality of your work, but also by actually saying the words. This will go a long way and set the stage for positive and honest communication in the future.