Customer Service: Tips for Delivering Bad News

The best thing about working in the financial aid office is delivering the great news to students and families that they are able to fund a higher education and improve their lives. However, with federal, state and institutional budgets being cut deeper all the time, you may find yourself having to deliver bad news to your students more often than you would prefer.


Federal regulations give financial aid offices the authority to exercise professional judgment in some qualified situations, but sometimes students still don’t receive the amount or type of aid they require or would prefer. 

Here are five simple steps and recommendations for delivering unpleasant news:

  1. Preparation - Have the information you anticipate the student will want to see available. If you can think of alternative solutions or options that may help the student, have those materials available as well. 
  2. Delivery - Be direct and deliver the news face-to-face whenever possible. Don’t cloud the bad news with too much information and don’t confuse the student with complicated regulatory language. Simply share the unpleasant news and, as succinctly as possible, why that outcome came to fruition. 
  3. Compassion - Make the student feel like his or her emotional reaction is normal. Take a deep breath, and empathize. Explain that you understand this is a difficult situation, but you’re there to help. If the student wants to express displeasure with the system, you can always direct them to NASFAA’s Take Action page. 
  4. Creativity - Engage the student with alternative solutions. Be flexible and prepare your entire financial aid arsenal, if you need to. Explain that there are options and all is not lost. Remember this is why your job is so important - you make the impossible possible. 
  5. Follow-up - Schedule a time in your calendar, perhaps a week later, to call or send a quick message to the student to see if they’re considering other options, and let them know you’re there to help.

Don’t forget, your financial aid office may already have policies in place to guide you through these kinds of interactions. It is important to be aware of what institutional policies and procedures are available to assist a student when you’ve expended your best professional judgment...and all of the above tips.

As an office, working with your colleagues in other departments can improve services on an institutional level. Check if your office has any updates on customer concern resolutions. Share those ideas, or lack of ideas, with counselors and advisors in other departments, and brainstorm. Try to establish consistency, shared processes, and understanding between departments. Understanding the limitations other departments face may help prevent the spread of false expectations. 

As American journalist Edward R. Murrow once said, "We cannot make good news out of bad practice."


Publication Date: 11/22/2011

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