Business Reporting: 4 Ways to Report Poor Performance to Your Boss or Client

Author's avatar Marketing Feb 19, 2020 36 minutes read

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    Peter Caputa

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    “Don’t sugar-coat it.”— Everyone 

    Sometimes, things don’t go according to plan. When you find yourself in the unenviable position of having to deliver bad news to a superior or a client, how you handle things is equally important to what you say.

    While we’ve all been in the hot seat from time to time, we thought we’d reach out to our panel of experts to uncover their best secrets and tips for handling these delicate conversations with aplomb, preserving the integrity of the relationship and — if you play it just right — even raising your profile in the eyes of your boss or client.

    This advice on business reporting, pulled from the responses of nearly 90 marketing and business experts, brings together some old chestnuts with some innovative approaches to being the bearer of bad news. The advice breaks down into four major areas:

    1. Honesty— and an Action Plan
    2. Data, Narrative and Contextualized Information
    3. Effective, Empathetic, Continuous Communication
    4. The Sandwich™

    1. Honesty— and an Action Plan

    It’s the advice that worked for us in grade school and continues to serve us out in the world: Honestly really is the best policy. The overwhelming majority of experts stressed the need for honest, transparent communication of the issues, followed immediately and skillfully with a plan to correct them. 

    Getting on with it is the first step, say many of our respondents. Melanie Musson of 360QuoteLLC says, “Lead with the bad news. Face it head-on and move on to the good news.”

    Jonathan Aufray of Growth Hackers says “You want to take responsibility for your actions and explain the reasons why with a data-driven approach. Don’t try to blame someone else. People will appreciate your honesty.” 

    This is the recommendation of Chris Ellis from Digital 22 Online Limited, as well. “Honesty. Front up. Take ownership and explain the results and what went wrong. Then provide an action plan of how to achieve the desired results moving forward.”

    Don’t attempt to spread the blame around. Why? “people can usually see through that. Take responsibility and offer potential solutions,” offers Tung Dao of Avada Commerce.

    Trust is the most important asset between you and your client or boss, and honesty helps preserve it at a time when things may seem delicate. 

    As Robin Rucinsky of Thrive Advertising puts it, “My philosophy in business is that you will never lose a client over a problem; you lose a client over how a problem is handled.

    Matt Desilet of says “Do not— and I repeat— do not bury the result. Don’t sugarcoat it, don’t mask it. You’re not running for President of the United States, you are expected to help the people that depend on you be successful. How can they trust you to be an asset to their success if you can’t clearly communicate the bad stuff?”

    This helps strengthen the relationship— which can have long-range value according to Liam Barnes of Directive. “There is only one effective tip for reporting bad news, and that is honesty and transparency. Client services are all about building a trustworthy relationship, and breaking that trust is the quickest way to lose business.”

    The fact of the matter is, these things happen, says Sam Olmsted of Pelicoin “Bad news happens for even the best marketers. If you’re performing digital marketing for a client and have to deliver bad news, chances are you’re stressed and looking for a way to soften the blow. My first piece of advice would be to always be as honest as possible.” Says Olmsted of the alternative, “Once you lose their trust, you’ll lose their confidence forever. Honesty is first, but a solution and path forward must come next. One effective tip for reporting bad news to a boss is to first have a solution to the problem that initiated the bad news. Not getting enough sales? Brainstorm new strategies first and present the bad news along with effective pathways to dig yourself out of the rut.”

    It’s about caring about the other party, says Jérémy Chevallier of Crash, who recommends this approach. “out of respect for their time. It also shows shat you are direct and not trying to sugarcoat. Leaders respect that.”

    This approach also creates confidence in the recipient of bad news, says Andrea Travillian of Aspirify, Inc. “The best way to approach delivering bad news is with 100% honesty. If you present everything up-front, with authenticity your boss or client won’t feel like information is being withheld. When there is complete transparency it is easier to get to a solution. No one has to worry about what has been hidden from them, which ultimately creates trust.”

    Don’t try to lessen the blow through delivery, says Rochelle Burnside of Best Company “When you’re breaking bad news, frame the situation as what it really is: bad news. If you’re truly worried, tiptoeing around serious implications could only make things worse, because it’ll give your boss or client the wrong impression about the severity of the issue; they might decide that your concern doesn’t need much attention.”

    Why not beat around the bush? Well, you’re not saving anyone from anything by doing so, says Russell Michelson of Smith and Eulo Law Firm “Be brutally honest with your clients, and they will respect you for not making light of the situation. Trying to make bad news seem better than it actually is does not help any of the parties involved, and fails to address what problems need to be fixed. Bad news should be delivered with a data-driven approach, but should also be followed by a list of potential solutions.”

    Now that you’ve tackled the hard news, get on to the solution says Nick Harley of NeverBounce “When delivering bad news on reporting to a boss or client, it’s important to be honest, not deflect blame, and offer immediate ideas for a solution or fix.”

    Dan Young of Loud Digital agrees with this approach. “Tell them straight – explaining what you have done to investigate why it happened and how to avoid similar issues in future.”

    And says “Honesty is the key. Be honest and tell them what the situation is and suggest what the solution could be.” As Dawn Dugle of StorySelling Solutions puts it, “No one wants to hear excuses or how the sausage was made – i.e. taking the long way around.” With their own instances of delivering bad news, “I will usually start with ‘Let’s jump right in. Here’s what we know right now… (bad news). Fortunately, there are three solutions that we can apply to fix this… here they are.’”

    Robert Moses The Corporate Con says, “The most effective tip is to not dance around the issue or come up with excuses for why an issue occurred.” 

    “Own it, “ says Alan Gruntz of BarkleyREI, who cautions that, “No one likes excuses or the blame game. Own the mistake and what caused it. Come to the meeting prepared with a strategy on how to fix it and/or make sure it is not repeated.”

    Patti Podnar of Podnar Consulting agrees and adds: “Don’t say, ‘It wasn’t my fault.'”

    “Next to owning the problem, the other best approach is to go into the meeting with a plan to resolve the problem. Never report bad news without having one or more solutions to present.”

    Mistakes, oversights, and missed opportunities happen. “Bad news is part of life, especially in business,” says Terrell L. Strayhorn of Signovate Technologies/Terrell Strayhorn. “It’s as ordinary as air, as I like to say to my own team. The key in my experience has been to be future-focused and to break bad news with solutions in mind. Get. To. The. Point. And be forward-facing.”

    Ronald Auerbach of Highline Public Schools and City University says: “Be honest and level with the boss or client. The reason is very simple: things don’t always go well or according to plan. Something that’s true in life and in business.” 

    Chris Wilks of BrandExtract seconds this sentiment. “Most clients understand that the path to success is rarely a straight line so don’t try to sugarcoat or spin results. Instead, own it and deliver your plan or solution for fixing the problem. This will show your client that you’re proactively working to make their project a success, which is why they hired you in the first place.”

    Breaking new ground isn’t a perfect formula, says Greg Githens of StrategicThinkingCoach “As a general project principle, use the idea of innovation, experimentation, and probes. Design safe to fail probes rather than fail-safe systems. The purpose is learning and learning creates speed, agility, and customer satisfaction. Be straightforward when reporting the results of innovation, experimentation, and probes. Don’t sugar-coat the findings. Get to the point but also get to the corrective action and the learning from any experiment.”

    Aristide Basque of SH1FT also takes a moment to remind us that “most clients or bosses just don’t want the mistake to happen again.

    How you present the issue matters. Patrick West of Be The Machine recommends adopting the right mindset before heading into the meeting. “Deliver the bad news like a doctor or general,” West says. “Get right to the bad news, keep the explanation brief, maintain an even tone, and be honest. Do not overexplain.”

    And leave the jokes at the door, says Tom Ketcham of Intensity Analytics Corporation. “Be direct about the problem. Creativity or humor in delivering bad news is almost never appreciated. Don’t just blurt it out, but don’t try to weave an elaborate narrative or introduction either.”

    Holly Green of The Human Factor gives us some good dialogue to use as a starting point: “Start with: I have some bad news I need to deliver to you and then dive in. This is what the results are/what happened, this is why and most importantly this is what I recommend we do to address it/recover/mitigate, etc.” Adds Greem “Be ready to share any underlying assumptions that were applied that turned out to be false or different.”

    Solutions, Action Plans, and Winback Methods

    Once you’ve gotten through the explanation, it’s on to the recovery, say many of our experts. 

    Melanie Hartmann of Creo Home Buyers states it simply. “Provide possible solutions for rectifying the situation moving forward.” 

    But keep it upbeat, according to Veronica De Borba of OnPoint Internet Marketing. “When reporting bad news to a boss or client during a reporting meeting I think it’s important to convey the bad news in a positive way.” 

    “What I mean by that is basically be able to present the bad news but also present a solution for the problem so you show that you are in control of the situation you don’t want your boss or client to be worried and feel insecure about the project

    Kevin D’Arcy of ThinkFuel Marketing concurs, saying,  “Don’t try to hide it. Be prepared to discuss it, explain how/why it happened, and how you are adjusting your strategy to correct it. It’s cliché, but honesty truly is the best policy.”

    Handling the how is almost as important as facing the what, says Andrea Loubier of Mailbird “When you have bad news to report, one of the best things to do is explain how things went off course, and then to immediately begin to explain how the issues will be corrected, or if a pivot will be made in the strategy. To regain your client’s trust, you’ll need to illustrate that you have identified the problem and have a game plan already in place. It can make all the difference.

    And the “what next” is even more imperative, say Jasz Joseph of SyncShow “The action plan is the key to success. If you come in reporting bad news, the best way to soften the blow is to be able to say ‘we have looked into this and we have a plan to come back from it.’ When someone gets a bad report, they are naturally going to lose a little trust in you or your team. The best way to build it back up is by showcasing expertise and professionalism via an action plan.

    Dan Moyle of Impulse Creative tells it to us straight. “It sucks giving bad news. Especially to a manager/boss or a client—who is a boss, too!” But to alleviate the issues, “My advice, based on experience, is to go in with all of the information you can so when they ask questions, you have answers. This includes having a plan ready to rectify the situation. Then, be honest, transparent and direct. Don’t sugarcoat it. If you’ve built trust and have relationship currency in reserves, you’ll get through the bad news together.”

    This plan and the rationale behind it is important, says Tyler Tafelsky of Yisoo Training “When performance suffers, it’s critical to have a reason or explanation as to why things occurred the way they did. Understanding exactly why performance slipped is vital to planning actionable solutions to reverse the problem. Bad news can be mitigated when we can clearly articulate the reason, as well as an action plan moving forward.” You can easily identify why when you keep track of your goals and metrics with a performance dashboard.

    Casey Hill of Bonjoro lays out the two-pronged approach they use in tackling less-than-stellar conversations. “The key when delivering bad news when it comes to reporting is two-fold. #1 have clear reasoning behind why things did not happen the way you expected and #2 make sure you have an actionable plan moving forward to improve them.”

    Tarun Gehani of Pure Visibility chooses to bring the issue up first, with a solution already in hand. “In my experience, I’ve found that being proactive and bringing the issue to the attention of the client is much better than ‘waiting’ for them to find out (hoping they won’t).”

    Says Gehani, “It shows them you not only are actively managing and paying attention to the account, but you care enough about their website and business performance to surface the concern. Additionally, people usually will take bad news better if you come prepared with a proposed solution. People don’t want to hear about a problem on its own, and are much more likely to leave with a positive recollection of the report, if you show you have already thought about a solution and ways to improve.

    Alexandra Zamolo of Beekeeper keeps a few potential solutions in play when needed. “When things have gone awry in a strategy or process for a client, it’s best to be completely honest and explain in detail exactly what happened. But what is even more important is to devise several different plans of action to correct the situation, so that the client is also a part of the process to implement a new plan that is geared for success.” 

    Dai Baker of Dai Baker Creative Group LLC prefers to move the conversation into a positive future scenario. “A good way to deliver bad news to client is to follow it up with optimistic plans for the future. After being transparent and fully explaining the bad news follow up with positive words and plans for improvement.”

    Says Baker, “Reassure the client by letting them know you are already working toward future success. While the client will initially be sad they will become happy as they are able to see that there are future possibilities. Clients want to know that there are other ways to reach success and that this one failure does not equate to a permeant ending.”

    Julia Tiedt of SmartBug Media invites us to remember than marketing has ups and downs.  “Every marketing tactic is not a sure-fire win. A lot of the strategies we implement need to be tested and tweaked continually. Because of this, bad news or bad results is not irregular. The biggest tip for delivering bad news is to pair it with offering a solution. Discuss how you are going to fix the problem and improve upon it. If you come with a plan, your boss or client will see that you are being proactive and typically not take the news as negatively.”

    Tiffany Schultz of Lake One suggests bad news is only truly bad when it catches the recipient off-guard.  “No surprises,” Schultz warns. “Surprises are only fun if it’s a birthday party or if you find money on the street. Being proactive and addressing the poor performance or metric upfront is step 1. Don’t try to hide it. Just be straightforward about it.” 

    The most important part: “You should be the one finding it and bringing it to your boss or client during the meeting. It shows that 1) you’re paying attention to performance 2) you’re transparent and not trying to hide things. Step 2, have a plan in place to try and fix whatever problem is going on and articulate that to them.” Catching, presenting, and solving the problem can change the entire conversation.

    And Toni JV of JVT Media elaborates further and highlights the unexpected upside to this approach. “Present the solution. Here’s how it works: Simply be very direct and frank about the bad news, then offer a possible solution and how you will get to work immediately to fix it. After you do this a couple of times, you’re also going to be adding so much value to your boss by taking care of headaches that you’re going to be a very good candidate for a promotion.”

    John Donnachie of ClydeBank Media has been on the receiving end of bad news and has some advice. “As someone who has been on both sides of this exchange, I can say that the best thing you can do is be direct and have a plan. State the issue directly, don’t dance around it.”

    Donnachie goes on. “When you confidently tackle an issue with a client or a supervisor that inspires confidence. Dancing around the issue makes it seem like you aren’t in control of the situation or that you might be gearing up to deflect blame. After you have clearly presented the bad news and how bad it is (don’t pretend a large problem is small – if it is large say it is large) indicate exactly what you have in mind to tackle the issue. Bad news should always come with next steps and suggested corrective action.”

    Andrew Thomas of Digital 22 calls this the “‘Why & What Next’ technique when communicating bad news to a boss or client.” First, Thomas says, “Telling them what has happened is important and being open and honest is invaluable for relationship management; however I will always bundle this with my initial or final thoughts on why this has happened (data to support this always helps) and crucially I will detail ‘what next’ – how are we reacting to this, what have we already done to mitigate the impact or how has the result influenced our next actions.”

    “I’ve found that clients or peers are much better at understanding and acknowledging unfavorable news/results if there are clear learnings from it that are already being put into action or developed into future solutions.”

    Tommia Hayes of Community Health Charities says, “Marketing is all about trial and error. So it’s important to be honest and inform your boss or client about the initial plan not going well vs letting it continue to spiral downwards. However, when presenting the bad news, it’s important to use those findings and share how you can turn things around. Bad news is to be expected sometimes, but as the person in charge of managing the project, it’s up to you to re-develop the plan and share how you can rectify the situation.”

    Bernadette Kelly of ActiveWin Media “One of the most frustrating things when hearing bad news is prolonging the delivery of the problem. Understandably, no one wants to be the bearer of bad news but avoiding the heart of the issue with verbosity only makes matters worse. Frame the problem carefully and prepare as many viable remedies as you can. After all, it’s not really a problem until there is no viable solution.

    Aleksandar Ratkovic of  Neparno 10 crafts the conversation carefully “to offer a solution in next sentence. ‘but we already know why that happened and this is the solution.’”

    Curtis Boyd of Objection Co has a well-developed plan for this. “We call it the win-back program. It’s a workflow designed to help businesses learn from their mistakes, and win back angry customers. It prompts you to complete 4 major sections:

    1. What happened (you can invite other employee’s to share their experience)

    2. How can we prevent it from happening again?

    3. What are we going to do to make this customer happy?

    4. Win-Back Email content to break the ice.”

    2. Data, Narrative and Contextualized Information

    Relying on the data and crafting it into a narrative your audience can embrace is one way to make the delivery go smoother, say several experts. And it’s all in the details.

    Angela Ash of Flow SEO says, “Bad news is never a fun thing to deliver, but the method of delivery can make all of the difference in the type of reaction that you will receive. Use data to show what went wrong and how you plan to rectify the situation. If you focus on the data, it leaves little space for emotions to creep in.”

    This approach has served Jomely Breton of Empire Bay Marketing well. “My one effective tip on delivering bad news is to tell the clients what has worked in the past, explaining if anything has changed in their company or economic environment and giving them comfort that things will be okay. When delivering bad news to a client, I use data within my managerial statement.” 

    Timing is important to Breton as well. “I prefer to deliver bad news when it arises face to face if I can or give an overview through email by scheduling a call or meeting afterward.”

    If it’s important, it needs to be done in person, says Liz Jeneault of Faveable. “Whenever I had bad news to share with my boss, I would make sure to meet with her face to face. I would typically pop into her office as soon as I knew something had gone wrong, as I always feel it’s important to address issues right away. Offering solutions along with your problem, though, is best.”

    Jeneault also embraces the opportunity in the change. “Try to spin the bad news in a positive light! Explain to your boss how you’re committed to solving the issue, and apologize if need be. Being upfront and honest about issues goes a long way. Don’t try to dance around bad news or avoid it. Getting in front of it makes you seem committed to your work and that you care, and your boss should appreciate that.”

    Praveen Puri of Puri Consulting reminds us to measure twice, cut once. “Before approaching your boss/client, double-check the facts. Make sure you know the problem, ramifications, and possible solutions/mitigations.”

    Be ready for the follow-up and meet it head-on, says Tim Bigknee of Sights & Insights “If you have to deliver bad news to a boss or client during a reporting meeting, they’re going to have tons of questions for you. So the best way to handle this is to come prepared with as many answers as you can. Be able to explain why the bad news happened, why no one anticipated it, and what can be done to rectify the situation. Coming into the discussion with a solution should help them handle the news better.”

    Sally Foley-Lewis of Sally Foley-Lewis | People & Productivity™ reminds us not to lose the possibilities in the problem. “In addition to the actual bad news, it should be presented with what that bad news means and ideas to fix, adapt or adjust. That is, what’s the impact the bad news will have on the metric, don’t ignore any potential silver lining – what opportunities this could actually reveal. What steps or ideas are on the table to address the bad news to lessen or fix the impact.”

    Lynne Wilson of Kiwi Creative also sees the value in learning from the process “In marketing, not everything is going to work out successfully. However, every piece of bad news presents an opportunity for a learning experience. Talk about how the negative report can positively optimize future strategy so that it does not happen again. Much of marketing is based around trial and error, so it is important to learn as much as possible from everything that does not go according to plan so that you are more successful in the future.”

    Tasia Duske of Launchy Birds also recommends “finding the good in the bad. This recommendation doesn’t mean you should sugar-coat the bad news, because that would be disingenuous. Instead, find something positive about the situation. For example, if your site has received a manual penalty by Google this can be disastrous for receiving organic traffic. Maybe the good news is that it gives you an opportunity to overhaul your website or get better at running ads. This positive stance may not eliminate the bad news, but it can help pull it at least a little more toward neutral.”

    And tactfully remind the recipient that in very few cases is a problem “game over” according to Dan Rawley of Twinkl Educational Publishing. “It’s vital to contextualize things by reminding the stakeholder of the bigger picture. Is this a blip in a project that overall is still doing well? Or is this a necessary learning curve on the way to much bigger things?”

    Brendan Hufford of Directive acknowledges that while there is room to parse info in different ways, delivering it with both data and narrative can help recipients digest it as intended. “I believe in defaulting to transparency and not manipulating reality to suit me (something often done in client services), so I always give the client the information straight up along with the plan to correct or pivot. For better or worse, I believe that people hear numbers and feel stories. So often, helping a boss or client better understand the situation with a story can be helpful.”

    The narrative approach assists Jennifer Lux of LyntonWeb in moving past the issue and into the solution. “Anytime I have bad news to report, after analyzing the data, I spend time crafting the story. Bad news is the result of a misaligned tactic, a gap in a strategy, or poor performance of the implementation team.” 

    Says Lux, “Sharing data without a story, and without logic to support that story is looking at the data in a vacuum. When I have to report bad news to my boss, I go one step further to identify the root cause of the bad news, and provide recommended solutions to remedy the problem as I present my findings.”

    Narrative can cut both ways, however, according to Tyler Parris of Tyler Parris Coaching “Lead with the bad news, and then be ready to show you’re already on top of it. First, especially at the executive levels, it’s useful to practice the art of bottom-lining or leading with the point and then providing details if and where they are asked for. It’s more efficient. Second, the more you try to build a narrative, with or without data and details, the more the boss or client will think you’re trying to hide something, distort, or obfuscate. They’ll sniff out the bad news anyway.”

    3. Effective, Empathetic, Continuous Communication

    According to Jarie Bolander of JSY PR & Marketing, the sit-down isn’t even the place to drop the bad tidings. “No surprises. Any and all bad news should be communicated before a meeting. The meeting should be the place to figure out how to resolve the issue.

    This becomes easier if you’re constantly addressing a project and its changes, says Mark Armstrong of Mark Armstrong Illustration “Tip for reporting the bad news: never try to blame circumstances, bad luck, or anyone else; accept responsibility, apologize, and lay out your plan for correcting the situation.” More importantly: “Provide regular status reports that include unforeseen developments, unexpected problems, delays, etc, and any other signs of trouble brewing. By keeping people informed, you at least prevent bad news from coming as a shock. The first rule of business: no surprises.”

    Alexander Porter of Search It Local points out that a little grace can go a long way in these situations, advising us to “Give credit. Take blame.” Says Porter, “That’s the most effective mantra to keep hold off when everything is falling apart around you. When things go wrong it’s natural to slip into self-defense mode. After all, 99% of mistakes are shared at some level. But trying to assign blame elsewhere isn’t a long-term strategy worth pursuing. Even if you do convince your boss or manager that someone else carried the lion’s share of the blame, will your teammates want to work with you after that?” 

    And time can heal what urgency has injured. “While initial anger strikes hot, it fades when doused with logic and reason. Own your mistake and the repercussions. Not only will this show that you’re the type of employee who can admit a mistake, but you’ll earn the respect of everyone from your teammates to your boss and even the clients (if they’re the ones enduring the bad news).”

    Getting it right matters, and changes your experience. “There are plenty of practical steps you can take to minimize the damage of course: deliver bad news quickly, come to your boss with strategies to mitigate future problems, suggest alternatives to fix the problem and so on.  

    The benefit here: “As long as you hold onto the mantra of ‘give credit and take blame,’ you’ll always be trusted to have another go when the boss needs someone to step up.”

    This isn’t an individual exercise, either, says Lisa Zwikl of SmartAcre. “At SmartAcre, we have a culture of caring, so we feel it when something doesn’t go as planned. It hurts! I always stress to our team, to be honest when delivering bad news and if you made a mistake, own it— and own it quickly.” 

    Once done, Zwikl says, “Follow this formula: State the facts (using data if possible); Explain how you will fix the problem; Have a plan so the same thing doesn’t happen again, and never deliver that via email. Have a conversation with the client either face-to-face or via a video call so you aren’t guessing or making assumptions about their reaction.”

    Empathy is always about walking a mile in another’s shoes, says Kevin Picton of Sharpen It – Training and Coaching “If you think about it from the bosses point of view, how to deliver bad news is common sense: Tell them there is a problem with X. Tell them the impact (if it is not obvious). Tell them what you are doing about it. Tell them what you need from them (permission, approval, resources, cover, time, etc). Be prepared to say how the problem occurred but don’t offer it up unless asked. And, lastly, any explanation should be about what happened and not who and why so that the focus is on the solution.”

    Everyone is on the same side in this, reminds Jasmine Hippe of Augurian. “Present the bad news to your audience in a way that shows you’re on their team. Be empathetic, anticipate their concerns and be prepared to address those concerns with tactical solutions.”

    Jenny Wilson of Wilson Marketing Consulting “When reporting bad news to a client, my number one tip is to come to the meeting prepared with solutions to the problem.” The effect says Wilson: “This shows that you care about the client and the issue, and you’re willing to put the work into ensuring that you provide excellent service.”

    You must come to the table with both solutions and empathy, says Darryl Smith of Florida Car Accident Lawyer Team “No client wants to hear they have a problem, and there is no clear way to fix it. When you deliver the bad news, your approach should be supportive and open to feedback.”

    Andrew Clark of Duckpin uses this approach, too. “I believe that the person opposite you wants to know that you understand their response, whether it’s anger, frustration, disappointment, or anything else. In past situations, I’ve been quick to bypass this step and start listing off what when wrong and why out of my own discomfort. Unfortunately, this can exacerbate tensions and get in the way of taking action to correct things.”

    You can also manage how your recipient responds (to a point), says Claire Shaner of ZooWho “In Chris Voss’s hit negotiating book ‘Never Split the Difference,’ he talks about the power of giving your audience an accusation audit before delivering bad news. This means laying out all of the bad things that your boss or client could think of you/your team before you deliver the news.” 

    For example, says Shaner, “you could say ‘You’re going to think we’ve failed you, you might think this will set us back, you might think we missed our chance, etc.’ This lessens the blow of the bad news. You are being empathetic to your boss or client’s expectations, and due to that empathy they will respond kindly and likely have empathy as to why you’re delivering bad news.”

    This isn’t something you can accomplish in email, says Shaner, “Bad news should always be delivered face to face so that you can communicate your empathy and pick up on body language responses that you would otherwise miss in other forms of communication.”

    Timing is everything, even when handling sensitive news.

    James Meincke of CloserIQ reminds us of this when sharing their advice. “The most important thing about reporting bad news is to catch it soon and escalate to the appropriate parties. Your boss won’t expect everything to run smoothly, but the worst thing that can happen is that bad results go unnoticed and continue to hurt the business.” 

    Recommends Meincke, “If you notice something off, escalate and communicate that you’re on top of it. Everyone will appreciate the transparency and be more confident in your ability to fix things.”

    Use the reporting tools at your disposal, says Nicholas Maynard of Ridgeway. “Creating bespoke client tracking dashboards enables both client and agency to keep a close eye on metrics; there shouldn’t be any nasty surprises.” 

    Cautions Maynard, “However, in business, you should always expect the unexpected, and it pays to be up-front and honest if you do have to deliver unwelcome news. It’s a cliché to say that that there are no such things as problems, only opportunities, but there’s some truth in it, and provided you come to the table with a workable solution most clients are understanding.”

    And if you find yourself reaching for a visual aid, Milos Mudric of Silver Fox Digital pulls some assistance from the world of psychology. “Bad news is always difficult to hear.” 

    Says Mudric of the scale used in this corporate capacity: “It’s obvious that some decisions will have to be made after facing bad news, and it’s important for my client to know how he will feel. This way, acceptance comes much faster, and there is a lower risk of making ‘angry’ or ‘sad’ decisions.” 

    Jeremy Harrison of Hustle Life acknowledges that delivery is a skill to be mastered. “Delivering bad news is one of the skills I learned while doing my business. I’ve been running a blog for over five years called Hustle Life, which is a resource I created for people looking to find their perfect side hustle. I’ve been in a lot of client meetings, and by continually reviewing everything I did, I’ve developed a fool-proof way of doing it.”

    Sometimes, it helps to keep on top of news, rather than masterfully deliver bad news after the fact. “A tip I can give is to keep my clients in the loop with the aid of a business dashboard software for example. It is still easier to deliver bad news if people are aware and not caught off guard. In all my meetings, I make it a point to state the things that I’ve done and plans that I recommend.”

    One size doesn’t fit all, says Harrison. “When delivering bad news, it’s always good to use different approaches. I always start by preparing and getting all the information from my business dashboard. I then proceed to provide accurate facts, data, and provide options to show the clients that I’m on top of the situation. And lastly, I prefer to deliver them face to face. An upfront meeting is necessary to show that you empathize with your clients.”


    4. The Sandwich™

    It’s a dish that goes by a few different names, but the filling is always the same: bad news. A few of our experts stand by this time-honored method of pairing bad news with more optimistic fare to ease the blow. 

    While not calling it by name, Alistair Dodds of Ever Increasing Circles says of this method, “Start with good to great news! The more impressive the better. It’ll warm up the audience so when you deliver the bad news you have a positive result on your ledger. If you can then end the meeting with good to great news again then you’ll end the meeting on a high. Call it the bad news sandwich.

    Ben Johnston of Sagefrog Marketing Group shares the recipe most often cited online and in the office: “The most effective method I have found is referred to commonly as the s*** sandwich. You deliver a piece of good news about a particular topic, the bad news that you are dreading telling them, and then end with another piece of good news, either about that topic or about something else in an effort to change the conversation onto a good spot of news.”

    Hannah Stevenson of UK Linkology also approaches bad news this way. “Use the sandwich method. Sandwich your bad news between two bits of good news. The first piece of good news should be related to the bad news, then the bad news, then say what you’re going to do to fix things as the final positive. So, you could say ‘We’ve had great success with this blog post, which has had lots of traffic and organic links. Unfortunately, this blog post that we invested in didn’t do so great. So, we’re going to investigate and come up with a content plan that will reduce the number of wasted investments we make.’” 

    Says Stevenson, “This takes the sting out of the bad news and makes you sound proactive and engaged in fixing the issue.”

    It’s not a dish for everyone though, says Michael Alexis of Team Building, who had differing results when served. “Early in my career, I would try the News Sandwich… The result was confusion: ‘How are things actually going?’” 

    Says Alexis, “Now, I prioritize clear communication, especially with bad news. If I am reporting bad news to clients or team members, I start with a short clear statement about reality. For example, I would start communication with ‘We lost our biggest client and this is the effect it will have,’ or ‘We have had three negative reviews on one of our team building activities, and we need to take immediate action to improve’ 

    The result, shares Alexis, is that “expectations for the meeting and priorities are clear, and we can focus on taking positive action.”

    So, the next time you need to sit down for a tough discussion with a boss or a client, take a deep breath, and incorporate a few of these tips into your game-plan. Doing so can make the discussion a lot easier, and improve the outcome of those bumps in the road.

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    Belynda Cianci

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