The server was still offline. Jeffrey was doing everything he could but he’d never seen this problem before. Now it was 6am on Monday morning and customers would begin trying to access their virtual machines hosted on his server in less than two hours. He’d noticed the problem Saturday afternoon while doing some maintenance. By Sunday morning, he had exhausted himself trying to fix it. And now, two hours before the week was to begin, he was no closer to having the machine back to working correctly.

Jeffrey knew he should have emailed each client Saturday to let them know there was a server issue. Even though they wouldn’t be happy, they would most likely understand and be appreciative of the advanced notice. His company’s other server technician was out of office this week attending to a personal matter and Jeffrey was on his own. Not that it mattered; the server was not likely to be fixed by the time customers needed it to work.

Even though Jeffrey was already panicking about the problem, he didn’t do himself any favors as the morning wore on.  At first customers called to tell him they couldn’t access their files. “Really? Wow, how surprising. Let me take a look and I’ll get right back to you…” By lunchtime, each customer had called at least once and now the emails were starting to pile up. “Jeffrey, our people can’t work!” “Jeffrey, what is the status? Please advise ASAP.” “We are dead in the water without the server. What is ETA for it to be back working?” Jeffrey answered with ambiguity and uncertainty. “I’m looking into the problem.” “It should be back operational shortly.” By the end of the day, two things were clear: first, he was no closer to having the server fixed. And second, his customers were furious.

“Eat your frogs in the morning…”

The maxim above is taken to mean that the best time to communicate bad news is first thing in the morning. Getting the “bad” stuff out of the way early means you have the rest of the day to focus on positive and productive things and it gives colleagues and customers a chance to address the issue on their end. That’s a little simplistic, but the advice is well taken when it comes to customer care. Addressing challenges head-on and as quickly as possible means preventing problems from growing in significance. Furthermore, customers always prefer to hear their bad news from you than to find it out themselves.

So what’s the best way to communicate bad news to clients? In the IT sector, bad news usually impacts business operations. A corrupted database, a security intrusion, a missed deadline…all of these issues and others like them directly affect your client’s ability to work as normal, which makes it even more imperative that you have the difficult conversation with them when those issues arise. Here are five tips for effectively communicating with customers when something negative is happening.

  1. Be Proactive.  Jeffrey should have contacted his customers as soon as he realized the issue at hand might interrupt business activity. No one likes to be surprised and when his customers came to work on Monday and their systems were not working correctly, they were no doubt confused and frustrated. Waiting until the last moment (or worse) to communicate bad news will only further serve to anger your clients and customers and put you in an even worse position as you try to solve the problem. Be upfront and honest about what is going on; your clients may be frustrated at the problem but at least they won’t be frustrated with you.
  2. Be Direct.  Massaging the truth when dealing with a negative situation is a bad idea. Clients and customers will see through your attempts at obfuscation and won’t appreciate your not being candid with them. They are likely already aware that something is wrong, so don’t try to sugarcoat the truth. “The server room caught on fire and all of your data is lost” is unlikely to make the customer happy, but they are going to find out the truth eventually. Saying, “We had a slight issue in the server room,” only for them to later find out that the issue was much more severe will lose your customer’s trust in the long run.
  3. Overcommunicate.  In a crisis there is no such thing as too much communication. Clients and customers want to know as much as possible about the situation and it’s a good idea to keep them informed each step of the way. From offering an explanation of what caused the issue to sharing with them how you plan to fix it and when, giving clients as much information and as many progress reports as possible shows them that you’re fully in control of the situation.
  4. Answer their questions.  Customers are likely to ask all kinds of questions to understand what is happening and what you are doing to fix the problem. They may ask about timeline, cause, and potential consequences (“Were our files lost or stolen?”). While you may be tempted to mince words, you should go the opposite direction and answer whatever they ask. Even in a bad situation, customers are still on your side; answering their questions reinforces that you are working hard to keep them in the loop while fixing the issue.

    working in a server room

    Get the problem fixed and keep the client informed.
    Image courtesy of Reno Technology.

  5. Give an accurate timeline.  When IT infrastructure is not working correctly for a client or customer, the most common inquiry will be, “When will it be fixed?” Communicating reasonable expectations is key to managing bad news with customers. If the issue is likely to take three business days to fix, don’t tell them “three hours.” If the issue is going to be fixed in an hour, tell them, “By the end of the day.” If your client or customer is frustrated by the problem already, then you can count on that frustration boiling over into anger if the information you provide about the fix is inaccurate.

No one likes to learn that there is a problem with their network, hardware, or applications, but trying to shield your customers from reality is not going to gain you any favor with them. Quite often, not being honest and upfront has the opposite effect. You count on your customers to be honest with you about their needs and it isn’t too much that you be honest with them about how you’re addressing them. If an IT problem happens, the most important things you can do are find a way to fix it quickly and keep your customer in the loop about what is going on. Click here to learn how Mosaic NetworX can help solve IT problems that are outside of your expertise or capabilities!