How to give clients bad news

As a professional advisor, e.g an accountant, lawyer, or consultant, there are always going to be times when you need to give a client some bad news. The challenge is always how to deliver the news in a way which makes you feel confident that you can cope with any fall-out from the conversation.

In this article, I look at how to give this news in the right way, gracefully, so it gets accepted.

1. Don’t shy away from giving the bad news

I remember in my early career, training accountants on assertiveness and other communication skills, fee increases, particularly with over runs, were always one of the examples we used for the training courses. Why? Because it is probably one of the toughest scenarios you will face. When you need to tell a client that they are going to get a higher than expected bill, having the conversation sooner rather than later is always the best policy. The longer you leave giving the bad news, the worse it can get.

2. Plan for their reaction

Part of the reason we worry about giving clients bad news is because we are worried about their reaction. Particularly if we expect them to be very emotional or hard to manage. By planning for potential reactions and your response to each of them, you stay calm, grounded and in control.  Read my other article about how to deal with emotional clients.

3. Accept that you can only control your emotions not theirs

The only person who you can truly control or take responsibility for is yourself. How they react to the bad news is largely outside of your control. However, with the right plan in place, you may be able to help them take the bad news in a calm fashion.

4. Put yourself in their shoes

One of my clients is a real worrier. Therefore, when I emailed her to ask for a short conversation to go through some feedback with her boss, I stressed twice in the email that there was nothing to be worried about. I knew if I repeated that reassurance, it might allay her fears. From my conversation with her after the email, she did appreciate me telling her twice not to worry.

Before you give your client any bad news try and think about it from their point of view. How can you give the message, whilst still being understood, in a way which helps them? Whilst only your client can be in control of their emotions, you can plan the situation in advance to help make it easier for them to receive the message.

5. Accept that sometimes the messenger does get shot

Most rational people will understand when someone is just the messenger with bad news. However, there is no guarantee that when you deliver the message they will receive it in a rational way. Or that they wouldn’t shoot the messenger. If you find yourself in this situation, just stay calm and don’t take whatever is coming at you personally. Remember, the other person is annoyed with the contents of the message, not necessarily the person who is delivering it.

In summary

Giving clients bad news is a tough skill that every accountant, lawyer and consultant needs to master. Remember that the strength of their reaction to the news is often nothing to do with how they view you as a person and professional adviser.

Scroll to Top