Let’s talk about not-so-good news

Sometimes we have to tell our customers news they may not want to hear or be disappointed by.

Here’s where we step in with empathy and our voice principles, especially helping customers navigate highs and lows, as well as letting them know we’re listening and learning right alongside them.

In general, we want to avoid sounding transactional. We don’t want to say things like, “Unfortunately, you didn’t qualify for… .” Be sympathetic, warm, and positive.

Here are some examples of bad news.

  • The customer didn’t qualify for a particular tax break.
  • The customer owes taxes.
  • The customer’s payment was declined.
  • We’re sunsetting a feature.
  • Service has been or will be interrupted.
  • The product lost data or failed in some other way.
  • We overcharged the customer.

To be clear, bad news is not the kind of info we present in error messages and other in-product alerts. Those come with their own unique challenges, like brevity and utility. If that’s what you need to write, follow the error message guidelines.

Bad news writing guidelines

Who’s the customer for these guidelines? Anyone who needs to break bad news to customers.

What problem are we solving for them? We’re helping them get the best possible outcome in bad-news situations.

Do

Consider how all the channels can work together.
Before you start writing, take a look at the problem and how best to solve it using a variety of channels. Should the message appear in the interface? In an email? In a notification?

Deliver the bad news up front.
Get to the point. Be direct, efficient, and clear.
 
 

Focus on the solution.
Always focus on solving the problem, not just talking about it. Let the user know they’re in safe hands and that we’ll work with them to fix whatever’s broken. If a customer doesn’t qualify for a particular tax break, let them know that we’ll check for other ones they might qualify for.

Stay calm.
Take it seriously. If immediate action is needed, deliver both urgency and action in the messaging.
 

Be transparent without being confessional.
Inform and guide at the right time without creating additional obstacles or oversharing.
 
 

Respect, understand, and consider the customer.
Customers might not like what’s happening, but they should understand why it’s happening.
 

Empathize.
Remember you’re dealing with a real person and their livelihood. They’ve invested time, effort, and trust in us. We should do the same for them.

Give customers the benefit of the doubt.
Don’t assume customers are trying to defraud us because of an error. If a customer made a mistake, show them a way out of it.

Be comforting and reassuring.
Assure customers that they’re in safe hands. Use a bad-news situation as an opportunity to confirm our commitment to customers and their best interests.
 
 

Don't

Copy and paste your communications.
One size doesn’t fit all, and there isn’t always a simple solution. Every issue is an opportunity to flex your communications muscles. How are you going to write your way out of this one?

Dance around bad news.
Maybe with some fancy wordplay and sleight of hand you could spin a bad news story your way, but this isn’t your opportunity to get one over on your reader.

Make our problem their problem.
Just fix what needs fixing. Don’t expect the customer to jump through hoops to solve a problem we created.
 
 
 

Drum up urgency if it’s not critical.
If we see something wrong, be proactive and guide the customer in a better direction. We’re not alarmist and we never panic.

Detail the problem.
Stay focused on the fix, without going into all the messy details. Remember, our customers have better things to do than read about how we messed up, what lessons we’ve learned, and how it will never happen again.

Trivialize their frustration.
A respectful, straightforward acknowledgment of customer feelings can go a long way. Mention it and then move to the solution.

Dehumanize.
Our customers are not shameless, faceless numbers on the page.
 

Judge.
Avoid judgmental “you” statements. Even if the customer is at fault, stay neutral or even take some of the blame yourself.

Mention security.
Be mindful of how people feel about security. Even if you’re talking about new security features, any mention of the subject can raise fears (“Weren’t we secure before?”). And we have specific legal guidelines for how we talk about security—follow those.

Saying sorry

We recommend saying sorry and/or please when we make the user do extra work for something that’s our fault.

But be aware that the word “sorry” can be considered an admission of guilt. So in some cases, you might want to apologize not for what we’ve done, but instead for the effect it’s had.

Either way, we can always craft our content to sound empathetic for the customer and what’s happened.

Keep language positive

Where possible, avoid can’t, won’t, don’t, and no. To a customer, these can sound like obstacles. We want to show how willing and able we are to help. We want to assure our customers that they’re in safe hands. Don’t focus on what they or we can’t do. Instead, talk about what can be done.

Do

That might be a problem, but here’s what we can do instead.

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Don't

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