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Nobody wants to be the bearer of bad news and it’s even worse if you have to do it in a foreign language. It’s best to do a bit of advance planning: think about what you’re going to say and how to say it in English.

Apologise

It’s best to get the bad news out of the way immediately (keep small talk to a polite minimum if you’re face to face). Start with “I’m very sorry to tell you (that)…” then describe the problem in simple, objective language that neither exaggerates nor underestimates its seriousness: “…your parrot was damaged during maintenance”. The passive verb (was damaged) works well here, first, because it efficiently transmits the most important information and second, because it discreetly distracts attention away from the question of who is responsible for the problem. Admitting that “we damaged your parrot” would sound infinitely worse.

Explain


You can now defend yourself with any mitigating
circumstances, ideally, force majeure stuff like pandemics or transport strikes. Introduce them with: “This was due to…” and, if things are complicated, “…a range of factors beyond our control, including…”. If you really have nothing to cover your corporate backside, you can “…accept that we made a (serious) mistake…” and, perhaps, “…assure you that we are urgently reviewing the way we do things”.

Offer an Olive Branch


Whether writing or speaking, you want to finish on at least a semi-happy note and ideally you should be able to refer to a solution with a pretty clear idea of when it will be in place: “We expect to receive a replacement parrot this week and after performing the necessary checks we will ship it to you express”. If you have the option, you can offer some form of compensation here “…as a way to thank you for your patience and (or) understanding”. If nothing else, there’s always the trusty “We are doing all we can to solve this problem and to make sure that it never happens again”.
Of course, your customer might not accept all these pretty English cliches without argument and you might have to defend yourself against questions and accusations. Start with: “I am really sorry for all the problems this is causing you, but…” and then you’ll probably want a phrase with just, like “It’s just not possible to…”.
I’ll be attacking just and its uses in my next blog…

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