Writing is hard. Giving bad news to your customers is even harder. You don’t want them to think badly of you, or to go somewhere else. But at some point, every business has to contact their customers to tell them that something has gone wrong.

You might have to decline a customer’s loan or insurance claim, or let them know that they were charged incorrectly. Maybe you sent them something they shouldn’t have seen. Or your business might have inadvertently made a colossal stuff-up. It happens.

So what’s the best way to pass on news that you know your customers won’t like? If handled well, this can be a great opportunity to build a stronger connection and demonstrate your integrity.

Here are my top five writing mistakes to avoid when you have to give bad news to your customers.

  1. Using passive language. Avoid using terms such as “An error was made”. Who made the error? Why aren’t you taking ownership of it? In business, as in life, you need to admit to your mistake whether it was intentional or not.
  2. Hiding bad news. The ‘compliment sandwich’ approach doesn’t work here. Don’t start your message with something positive and then slip the bad news in behind it. Get to the point straight away. Explain what happened, apologise for it, and tell them how you’re going to fix it.
  3. Using jargon. It’s never a good idea to confuse your customers, but it’s even worse when you’re delivering bad news. It’s a sure-fire way to make them angry. They don’t care about the intricacies of your systems, or new government legislation you have to abide by. Talk to them in language they can understand.
  4. Forgetting your audience and writing for your compliance or legal department instead. It can be tempting to write your message using terminology that you know will get approved by the people signing off on it. But no-one wants to read something that’s full of legal jargon. It’s always possible to find a way to word things that your customers will actually understand, while still making sure you cover yourself.
  5. Not having a clear call-to-action. What are your customers meant to do after reading the message? Nothing? Tell them that. Make it clear what you’re doing to fix whatever has gone wrong, and tell your customers when they can expect the next update from you.

I recently read a great example of a heartfelt and transparent apology by a business I’ve bought from and follow on social media, Seed & Sprout. They didn’t make excuses or try to minimise what happened. Instead they owned up, made a sincere apology and demonstrated everything they were doing to make things right. As a result, the reaction on social media was positive and supportive. You can read the apology here. What do you think about it?