Tips on delivering bad news to clients

IT consultants can take some lessons from physicians when it comes to informing clients about crises. Erik Eckel shares a six step process for delivering catastrophic news to clients.

Many doctors go into their field because they have a desire to help others; likewise, technology professionals often turn to consulting to marry their love of technology and problem solving. But sometimes things go very, very wrong. Physicians are trained in delivering bad news, but most consultants aren't. IT consultants can take some lessons from physicians when it comes to informing clients that workstations or servers require replacement, an office must immediately replace pirated productivity software site-wide, or critical data has been irrevocably lost.

Six-step process

Medical professionals often adopt a six-step process for delivering bad news. The protocol, as advocated by University of Toronto oncologist Dr. Robert Buckman and instructed and practiced by others, is essentially as follows:

  1. Prepare the setting
  2. Discover what the patient knows
  3. Learn how much the patient wants to know
  4. Share information
  5. Respond to the patient's reactions
  6. Determine specific next steps

IT consultants should adopt a similar communications method. Most technology professionals can determine the cause of an IT failure and prescribe recommended fixes, but the manner in which this information is communicated can make the difference between solving a critical issue once and becoming a long-term business partner.

1: Prepare the setting

Initial conversations about bad news should occur in private where sensitive information about the client's network, systems, or security is not overheard by unauthorized staff or customers. Before discussions begin, you should ask the client who else should be present. For example, the CFO, accountant, or another partner might need to be in the room when findings and recommendations are reviewed.

2: Find out how much the client knows

You might learn that the client has been using the same domain controller for nine years; they've neglected desktops by attempting to keep six year-old systems in service; or they're aware they never invested in monitoring or testing backup systems.

This step is also an opportunity for you to determine the client's level of technical sophistication, as well as their emotional state and expectations. Client anxiety and desperation directly translates to how much pressure your office will feel when obtaining replacement equipment, securing new licensing, and installing, configuring and testing. After years of managing a consultancy, I believe this element creates more stress of consultancies than any other business item, including accounting, making payroll, or competing for new projects.

3: Find out how much the client wants to know

Some clients simply don't want that much detail. They don't want to know that the domain controller's toast and no system backup exists. They don't care you have to recreate a new Active Directory structure, redesign the domain, reverse engineer DNS and IP settings. Other clients will want every detail. You can save everyone involved time by asking clients upfront how much information they want.

4: Share the information

Explain what broke and why it broke (if the why is known). Without emotion or any told-you-so nuance, describe your diagnosis, disclose the evidence found that led to that diagnosis, and keep your statements short and succinct. Avoid using technical jargon, and stop frequently to ask the client if they understand the information you're providing.

5: Respond to the client's reaction

I've seen clients react to bad news in very different ways. Some clients break down in tears; some become animated and shout; while others ask what it's going to cost and when will it be completed. If clients seem to have no reaction to your news, ask them what they're thinking.

Physicians use a technique described as empathic response, in which they acknowledge a patient's emotions to show they recognize the cause and possess an understanding. Consultants should do the same.

6: Determine specific next steps

You must tell clients (and possibly write down) the next steps and corresponding costs necessary to address the crisis — there should be no gray areas here. The client should have a clear understanding of who is going to do what at the scheduled time. For example, with the client's approval, you could make sure they know your office will order a new rack-mount server this afternoon, the unit will arrive next Tuesday, your office will prepare its deployment on Wednesday, and operation should be restored Thursday, with payment for hardware and services due two weeks from Friday.

Crises are opportunities

Unplanned outages, unanticipated downtime, failed systems, and other crises present an excellent opportunity for IT consultants to forge strong, long-term relationships with clients. But only by recognizing the stress and emotions that come to the surface during such crises, and effectively communicating throughout the entire process, can consultants minimize anxiety and position themselves as a long-term partner as opposed to an opportunistic technical services provider.


Erik Eckel owns and operates two technology companies. As a managing partner with Louisville Geek, he works daily as an IT consultant to assist small businesses in overcoming technology challenges and maximizing IT investments. He is also president o...

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