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EDITORIAL: How To Deliver Bad News

Posted On: 4/14/2009

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Coin-Op, Office Coffee Service, Arcade Games, Amusements, Jukeboxes, Vending, Vending Machine, Editorial

Even the most successful, experienced businesspeople often find one particular task daunting: delivering bad news. A 25-year operator wrote to suggest that we provide an article on "the art of delivering bad news." Unfortunately, it's something that we all have to do at times -- especially when economic conditions are tough.

This particular operator asked, "How do you tell a customer that we need to trim a game or two from his or her account without getting them upset? How do you deal with difficult customers? How do you pull out of an account gracefully?"

To these questions, a few more might be added. Such as: "How do you fire someone tactfully? How do you inform the staff that jobs or salaries or hours are being cut? What's the best way to tell partners or allies you won't be working with them any longer?"

There is no way to serve a mud pie and make it taste like ice cream, but there are better and worse ways to deliver difficult news. Here are a few principles to keep in mind.

Be truthful. Don't mislead people with false hopes or untrue statements in the days or weeks before you deliver bad news. If you are asked for reassurances that you cannot provide in good conscience, be noncommittal. Best of all is to promise, "I'll tell you as much as I can, as soon as I possibly can." Then do just that.

Choose the best place. If possible, deliver bad news in person rather than by phone, letter or email. If a location owner has been a decent Joe, have the respect to look him in the eye and give it to him straight. He won't like the message, but he might appreciate your courtesy. (He may even remember it if you want his business back later.)

Choose the best time. Attorneys recommend that people be fired on Friday afternoons when they're ready to go home for the weekend. This preserves the fired person's natural routine of being away from their job on Saturday and Sunday anyway, so the actual experience of their changed status (not being at work) is delayed for more than two days, giving them time to adjust psychologically.

Choose the best sequence. If the same bad news must be delivered to several people on the same day, call a meeting and tell everyone at once. If that's not possible, send a written message to everyone at the same time. Avoid telling one person, then another and another, one at a time. That makes your message turn into a game of "telephone" because the first people who get the news start spreading the word in ways you did not intend.

No frills, but no blame. Be direct, but not brutal. Vagueness is not kindness. You're doing someone a favor if you get to the point, state it plainly, and don't beat around the bush. For example, "Sam, as you know we've been having a very tough year. Our revenues just won't support the same level of (staffing, service, location support, whatever) that we've done in the past. I'm sorry to say that starting on Monday we're not going to be able to (keep you on staff, keep running 12 games in your location, for instance)."

Keep it short. The less you say, the less ammunition you give the other party to argue with.

Try to deliver good news at the same time. If you need to trim a game or two from an account, try to promise that at least one remaining game will be upgraded, or that some other special attention will be paid to the location. In the case of a layoff, tell the person, if possible, you can help him find another position, or you'll use him on a freelance basis if you can, or he's first on the list to be rehired when conditions improve.

Offer alternatives. When you have to remove machines from an underperforming location, this may be the best opportunity you'll ever get to secure minimum guarantees, contracts or league support. Perhaps previously resistant locations will grab these options rather than lose machines.

Separate the bad news from the person getting it. If it's true that "this isn't about you or your work, your location, etc.; it's about the economy" -- then say so.

Express empathy and regret. Phrases like "I'm sorry to have to tell you..." or the equivalent of the baseball club's phrase, "This is the toughest job a manager has..." may help salve the wounds you're inflicting, at least a little.

Say thank you. Thank employees for their past services. Thank locations for their past business.

Grow a thick skin. No matter how honestly and sympathetically you deliver bad news, some people will react badly. If they become abusive, remember that's a reflection on them, not on you -- and don't blame yourself for what cannot be helped. You have to do what's right for your business in order to keep putting food on the table for your family, your remaining staff and your remaining customers.