Early in my IT career, I was in awe of a people who could successfully deliver bad news to clients or customers. Whenever I had to deliver bad news the problem seemed to get worse rather than better. Now it is second nature and fortunately the skill is not rocket science to learn.
I was once asked by a client, at an interview, the following question. “What (AFL) football team to you barrack for?” Although I barracked for Hawthorn, I did not directly reply to the question and instead took my time and asked a few questions myself. I learnt that the client and main Stakeholder both barracked for Carlton. I finally responded with “I firmly believe in communicating openly and honestly. The answer you WANT to hear is Carlton; however the answer you NEED to hear is Hawthorn”.
How does this relate to delivering bad news? A lot! I believe all IT Consultants need the ability to communicate with clients in an open, honest and professional manner. Especially when the inevitable arises and we have to deliver bad news.
What is Bad News?
Unlike professionals in other industries (e.g. medical/health) the medical industry, our bad news is normally not personal, fatal or catastrophic. In most cases IT bad news is harmless in comparison. For Example:
· A critical deadline will not be met
· A project will be delayed one month
· An additional $50k is needed for infrastructure
In other words – how bad is IT bad news? At the time it may seem disastrous, however in the big picture is not catastrophic!
The Bad News Arrives
I find in the vast majority of cases bad news rarely sneaks up on the project or comes from left field. Therefore IT consultants normally have the luxury to see bad news coming and prepare a response. When preparing to deliver bad news I always aim to break the response down into three parts:
This ensures that I follow a consultant golden rule – “don’t offer the client a problem, offer them a solution”. Sometimes a solution may not be feasible so I at least aim for positive outcomes.
Let’s look at an example where you realise you are not going to complete a deliverable by a deadline and you have to tell your the client the bad news. Here are some examples:
1. “I can’t meet the deadline”
2. “I can meet the deadline, however the quality of the deliverable will be reduced by 25%”
3. “I can’t meet the deadline, because the system has been unavailable for the past 2 days”
4. “I can’t meet the deadline; however I can assure you it will be completed 4 days later”.
All four examples are delivering bad news, however examples 2 and 4 provide the client a solution or a positive option.
Delivering the Bad News
If you have to deliver bad news this MUST be communicated to the client as EARLY as possible or as soon as you are aware of the problem. Advising a client that you won’t meet a deadline the day before won’t cut it! When I deliver bad news I use the following points:
· Get to the point as quickly as possible (the preamble only makes you feel better and the client more apprehensive
· Deliver the message openly, honestly and professionally
· Include a solution or positive options
Ideally the bad news should be delivered in a face-to-face meeting. The full vocal and visual communication enables all parties to better understand and interpret what others are saying. If this is not possible (e.g. the client is interstate or overseas) then the news should be delivered verbally, either via teleconferencing or telephone. Under no circumstances should bad news be delivered non-verbally (i.e. email or sms). This does not allow for long conversations and you can not discuss the particulars of your message.
Don’t be afraid to take notes or dot points into the meeting you assist you staying focused in what may be an uncomfortable experience and potentially hostile setting.
The moment arrives
This is it. You’re about to deliver the “news”. You’ve analysed the problem, devised some options and formulated a solution. Take a deep breath and understand that the results will not be catastrophic and no-one will get hurt.
How easy is that?
What strategies do you use to deliver bad news? What are some of your examples of “bad news”?