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Sales Leadership
Oct 16, 2009 | Mark Bishop lock

No matter how effectively you plan, or how effective you manage your accounts, the day always comes when you have to call a customer with bad news. A product didn't ship, or there was a delay in manufacturing, or someone just dropped the ball. No matter what the reason, delivering the bad news often falls on the sales person.

Being prepared to deliver the news in a professional manner is the mark of a good salesperson. In a business-to-business selling environment, delivering bad news should be done with an eye on protecting the relationship you have carefully built with the customer. The two key elements in building trust with a buyer are to be adaptive and responsive and this is truly put to the test in handling problems.

Dave Stein, a NY-based sales consultant, developed an excellent approach for delivering bad news. Here are some of his steps, modified in some cases to reflect what works for selling in the business-to-business (B2B) environment, along with an abbreviated version of Stein's examples.

1. Assess the situation.
How will your news affect the buyer? Will anyone be embarrassed or hurt by the news? What resources will you need to convince the buyer that the situation is now under control? Depending on the situation, can you help others within the buying organization save face? If so, how? Within your own company whom do you need to loop in prior to contacting the buying organization?

Preparing answers to these questions ahead of time helps increase your confidence when you speak with your customer, as you're ready to confront the problem head on.

2. Communicate your purpose.
When you contact the buyer to share the news, demonstrate your courage and integrity by cutting straight to the chase.

"Jim, I need to tell you something that you won't want to hear. But I want you to hear it from me first. I'll give it to you straight."

3. 'Fess up.
Share your bad news. If you were at fault, admit it.

"Jim, I just found out that I gave you wrong information earlier. We do not currently have a standard interface to your existing warehouse management system. It's important that you hear this information now."

4. Apologize.
Say you're sorry. Then hush.

"I'm truly sorry."

Don't elaborate at this point. Give the buyer time to absorb the sincerity of your statement.

5. Explain how this affects your customer.
Spell it out for the buyer. Explain what the situation means, in terms of cost, deadlines and how the buyer's organization is affected. (The customer probably knows all too well the impact this will have on his business, but hearing it from you shows both understanding and empathy for the buyer's problem.)

6. Explain the reason the problem occurred.
Help the buyer understand what went wrong.

"This happened because I didn't check the release dates on the correct development schedule. I thought I was reviewing the current schedule, but in actuality, I was reviewing an outdated copy."

7. Explain why it will never happen again.
Show the buyer that your company has taken steps to ensure the mistake won't be repeated in the future.

"Our VP of Development was upset to hear this happened. He's instituted a new communication mechanism whereby any changes in the development schedule will be emailed to everyone in the sales, marketing, support and professional services organizations. People will be required to destroy their old copies, submit a return receipt for the new copy, and he'll be keeping track of this in a database."

8. Explain what you're doing about it.
Make it clear that you've thought through the situation. Explain your solution. Show that your firm is doing its best to minimize the impact to the buyer. Waive or delay buyer costs when possible; obtain cost breaks, if applicable. Provide suggestions about how to "position" this news to others in the organization.

"Jim, I've already gotten authorization from our VP of Development to make your project a priority over all others. Because we're the ones who made the mistake, he insists that we take on this special project at our cost. The good news is that when the standard interface is released in June, we'll be delighted to provide it at no charge, since you'll have already paid for that capability.

"In the meantime, because we'll be working without the standard interface for a month longer than expected, we're dedicating a full-time IT resource to help your IT manager with the additional workload. Again, there is no charge to you for this service. It's our way of trying to assist your team because you'll be operating under duress for a month longer than originally anticipated."

9. Ask if there are concerns or questions.
Check for understanding about what you've just communicated.

"Jim, I've told you the news, explained the impact and recommended a course of action. Are there any issues that I may have missed? Do you have any questions or concerns?"

Answer all questions at this point if possible. If you don't know the answers to any questions asked, assure the buyer you'll get answers. And then do it. If your boss or another higher-up endorsed your course of action, invite that person to the meeting (if appropriate) or arrange to have him available via phone during the meeting time. (Let your buyer know you arranged ahead of time to have support and/or clarification just a phone call away.)

10. Ask for support.
Close the conversation by asking the buyer for his ongoing support.

"Jim, I'd like to know if I can count on you to accept my apology and continue to work with me to keep our business moving forward together."

Then, zip your lip. As difficult as it is, do not speak until the buyer digests what you've said and voices a response.

Why does it matter how you deliver bad news? When you do it the right way, the buyer eventually reaches a point where it's difficult to continue seething.

"What Buyers Want" in a tough situation are honesty and a sales person with the integrity to deal with problems head on. Stein's tips, with the additional focus on being adaptive and responsive, work well for the trusted business-to-business seller.

About the Author:

Mark Bishop is the President of What Buyers Want and author of The Trusted Seller. Mark Bishop has a training philosophy that teaches salespeople the behaviors buyers are looking for in salespeople; focusing on the relationship development strategies and on longer sales cycles involved when selling to business professionals


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