Writing Negative Messages

Last update: 21 August 2002

 
A negative message is any message to which the reader will have an unpleasant emotional reaction. Readers find negative messages disappointing or threatening in some way. Such messages require special care to avoid damaging the quality of the relationship because the negative message—the bad news—will hurt the reader’s feelings or cause him or her to lose face.

Not all messages saying no are negative. For a message to be negative, the reader’s ego must be involved in the outcome. If a reader requests information you and others in your organization are not equipped to provide, for example, the reader’s feelings will not be hurt when you direct him or her elsewhere. Treat messages of this variety as you would a message conveying positive information:  state the most important information first, and use it to help establish rapport with the reader.

Also, be aware that saying no is more serious in some cultures than it is in others. The Japanese, for example, will avoid saying no directly, and if they are unable to avoid a negative reply, they will often apologize for the negative message. Communicating negative information effectively requires greater cultural sensitivity than does communicating something positive. Before writing, do your best to ensure that you understand the cultural implications of the message and the expectations of your audience.

General Structure for Conveying Negative Information

When your reader’s ego is involved, opening with the negative message would violate the reader’s expectation and damage rapport. If you have interviewed the reader for a job and have selected another candidate, for example, the reader’s ego is involved in your response even if he or she has already decided on another job with another organization. In such cases, the opening should pace the reader’s expectation by mentioning something about the subject with which the reader will agree.

Such letters require extra care—the more the negative information concerns the reader as a person, the greater the need for psychological preparation. Telling your reader that you can’t fill an order because you are out of stock will not hurt his or her feelings as much as would your refusing to extend credit.

The best preparation for bad news is a logical and believable reason that the negative message is in the reader’s long-term best interest. If the situation does not allow that approach, at least show that your reason is legitimate, and help your reader save face by suggesting alternative courses of action or ways to compensate for a shortcoming. The fact that a positive alternative exists, however, is not a reason for refusal. The advantages of buying with cash (such as a discount) are not a reason to refuse credit.

Use the following structure for conveying bad news: 

Pace 

Openings for negative messages are often called buffer beginnings because they are designed to buffer the negative message that will follow. Buffers are designed to establish rapport by being positive—something with which the reader will agree or perhaps an honest compliment. To be effective, however, they must also introduce the subject of the message without misleading the reader into thinking that the message is positive and without foreshadowing the negative. Also, recent research suggests that not everyone appreciates a buffer beginning. For these reasons, buffers are usually brief.

Lead 

As is typically the case in informational messages, the explanation and reasons provide the transitional element from the opening to the kinds of win-win solutions possible. Note that neither company policy nor the size of the organization (either large or small) is a real reason—if you have a policy, you should have a reason for it. Also note that one absolute reason is sufficient. Use more than one reason only when the individual reasons are weak—and be sure you have a good reason before saying no automatically. Be especially careful to avoid negative transitions. Such words as but, however, although, and even though signal a turn for the worse.

Blend Outcomes

When possible, be specific about the ways in which you can help the reader meet his or her needs, even though you are unwilling or unable to do things in the way he or she requested or desires. Your refusing to extend credit now, for example, may keep your reader out of future credit difficulties. Saying no to a special request may be necessary to help you keep prices low. Subordinate the negative information itself by emphasizing a positive alternative, using positive language, and avoiding blaming the reader for having caused problems. When possible, put the most negative element in a subordinate clause.

Motivate

When the reader needs to do something specific—return a form, confirm an alternative, or make a decision—make sure that he or she knows exactly what he or she needs to do and any appropriate deadline. When the reader has no options with your organization, do your best to promote goodwill so that, if future opportunities present themselves, the reader will have a favorable opinion of you and your organization.

Sales material, including resale (on a product or service already purchased) or new sales (on new product or services), can help make a closing effective when it fits in well with the positive alternative suggested in blending outcomes. Even when sales material is appropriate, however, be careful to avoid sounding greedy and selfish. When further action is required, be specific about who should do what next.

Negative Replies

A negative reply to a request for goods, service, an adjustment, or credit is bound to upset the reader. Because in most cases your reader will expect to have the request approved, your negative reply will come as a disappointing surprise. When you decide that a negative reply is the only one possible under the circumstances, you need to make the best of the situation by working to maintain a positive relationship with the reader and making certain that he or she understands the reasons for the decision and knows what other courses of action are possible.

Delayed or Declined Orders

One type of negative acknowledgment is a message stating that an order cannot be filled or that there will be a delay in filling it. The fault may be either the reader’s or the writer’s (or the fault of the writer’s company). When the reader has been at fault by not supplying complete order information, the writer’s principal task is to obtain the information required to complete the order without accusing the reader of having written an inadequate order.

When the writer or writer’s company is responsible for the delay or refusal, the writer’s principal task is to persuade the reader either to wait until the order can be filled or to retain faith in the writer’s company or its products in spite of having to order elsewhere.

Messages about delays in shipment for which the reader is at fault (because of incorrect or incomplete information, missing check, or similar reason) require

  1. Careful, positive wording of a request for the missing information.

  2. Inclusion of resale material to encourage the reader to continue with the purchase process.

  3. A request for specific, prompt action on the part of the reader.

Sample 16 illustrates these principles. Also, note that although the message is a long one in view of the relatively small profit on the product, computerized databases and mailmerge programs make it easy to use the same basic letter for a wide variety of products over an extended time. The cost of individual letters would be low compared to the goodwill and increased sales that would result. Other important considerations are the following:

Letters announcing a delay caused by problems at the writer’s company have the objective of keeping the order in spite of the negative content (announcing the delay). The writer needs to explain the reasons for the delay, let the reader know how long the delay will be, and persuade the reader to wait. When the delay is going to be a long one (and what is considered “long” will vary depending on the nature of the product or service involved) the writer should acknowledge the reader’s right to make the decision about whether to wait or order elsewhere, as is shown in Sample 17. If the delay will be short (inconsequential given the product or service), the writer may assume—with confidence—that completing the order later will meet with the reader’s approval.

When you must decline an order because business conditions make it impossible for you to supply the goods or service (or a reasonable alternative), you need to explain the situation in a straightforward way. Your reader will appreciate it if you supply information about where and how the requested goods or services can be obtained. When the business conditions are temporary (strikes, shipping problems, a manufacturing problem, etc.), include appropriate resale or new sales material to demonstrate your confidence in the future of the business relationship. Be especially careful, however, to avoid making promises you may be unable to keep.

Although an increasing number of companies are establishing direct marketing strategies (most notably on the World Wide Web section of the Internet), many companies still rely on a system of established dealers. If you work for a company that sells only through established dealers and receive an order, your objective will be to retain the reader’s goodwill while persuading him or her to visit a local dealer. Emphasize the benefits of buying through a dealer, as Sample 18 illustrates.

If you need to decline an order from a dealer, it will be for one of the following reasons:

  1. The dealer has not established sufficient credit or is having other credit problems. In this case your objective is to retain the order on a cash basis, and, for this reason, this type of letter is a credit refusal and not an order refusal.

  2. You already have an exclusive dealer in the area. In this case, your explanation of the arrangement you have with the existing dealer will justify the refusal. Limit the positive close to simple goodwill, and, of course, avoid resale, new sales, and positive alternatives.

  3. The dealer does not meet your requirements. This is a broad category, covering financial matters (the dealer wants a larger markup than you offer), character (the dealer has a reputation for not providing the high-quality customer service you expect from your dealers), and circumstance (the dealer’s facilities or location are not suitable for your corporate image or market needs).

Negative Replies to Requests

Most people make requests and claims only when they feel that they truly deserve a positive reply. Any time you must refuse a request or claim, pace the reader’s expectations by opening with something positive with which he or she can agree. Subordinate the refusal itself by emphasizing the reasons for it and any logical, positive alternatives.

Remember that alternatives themselves are not reasons and that the reasons for the refusal should precede the alternatives. If the reasons and the alternatives are sufficient to make the refusal clear, you may not need to state the refusal explicitly. When possible and appropriate, attempt to obtain the reader’s business in some way other than the one the reader has suggested, as Sample 19 illustrates.

Negative Replies to Claims

When a customer has written to you claiming that your product or service was deficient in some way, you obviously need to consider the situation carefully. Some companies have decided that the customer is always right and approve every adjustment requested. Other companies feel that unwarranted claims should be refused because it is unfair to make all customers pay for the unreasonable requests of a few.

If you decide that a reader’s request is unwarranted and should be refused, you need to be careful to avoid accusing the reader of carelessness, misrepresentation, or fraud. Rather than assume that the reader is deliberately trying to cheat you, assume that your reader does not understand the nature of your service or the operation of your product. Your principal objectives in such cases are to educate the reader and to resell the product or service in question. You may also want to show confidence in the future of the relationship by selling a new product or service, as is illustrated by Sample 20, a letter refusing a refund for a tour.

Credit Refusals

A letter refusing credit is more of a persuasive message than a negative message because its objective is not so much to refuse credit as it is to obtain the customer’s business on a cash basis. The purpose of the refusal is to show the reader that while a credit purchase might look attractive at the moment, it is in his or her long-term best interest to avoid risky credit obligations.

When refusing credit, make your reasons clear, and suggest ways the reader can improve credit eligibility. Emphasize your requirements for credit rather than the ways in which the reader has failed to establish a good credit rating, and invite the reader to apply for credit again when he or she meets those requirements. Be careful to avoid promising to extend credit in the future.

Because you still want the customer’s business on a cash basis, much of your letter will consist of resale. Emphasize the advantages of doing business for cash, but remember that those advantages are not reasons for refusing credit. Also avoid thanking the reader for the order, which would sound selfish in view of the situation, and emphasize the reader’s alternatives (such as local bank credit based on collateral, smaller order, or layaway purchases). Sample 21 illustrates these principles.

Negative Announcements

When your negative message is written in reply to something the reader has requested, you at least have a logical starting point for your letter. Readers who have requested favors, adjustments, or credit expect your reply and know that their request may be denied. Negative announcements and reminders present a more challenging problem. Even when your readers know that they have not fulfilled some obligations, they do not fully expect to receive your announcement.

Also, negative announcements and reminders are frequently prepared as form messages to keep their costs low, which makes personalizing them difficult, and it is easy to forget that the reader is still a customer—or potential customer—who needs to be encouraged to act in a way that will allow both of you to benefit rather than a nuisance whose behavior is causing you a problem.

If negative announcements and reminders are to be read and taken seriously, they must offer the reader something of value. When you can, offer real and specific benefits. You should, at least, offer to discuss the situation with the reader so that you can reach an agreement.

Sample 22 and Sample 23 illustrate these points.

Letters of reprimand also fall into this category. Even though these messages stay within the company, they typically use letter format because of the formality of the situation. Such letters are usually preceded by less formal warnings, so the reader should be expecting the negative message. Even so, when circumstances require you to reprimand an employee for his or her behavior, delay the most negative aspects of the message until you have reviewed the facts.

To help the person do a better job in the future, be specific about and document what the person has been doing wrong (too much absenteeism, too many personal phone calls, poor quality control, or other failures to meet job requirements). You should also specify in the letter what the person needs to do to perform satisfactorily. Letters of reprimand are often delivered as part of a formal review procedure so that their contents can be discussed. When writing such letters, use the following structure:

  1. Review the facts:   Begin with a point of agreement to pace the reader and help establish rapport. Use positive language to specify what the reader is doing wrong, and explain the reasons the reader should be aware that the behavior is wrong.

  2. State the expected behavior:   Tell the reader exactly what should be done to correct the problem. When appropriate, clarify future review dates and progress expected by those dates. If failure to correct the problem behavior could result in termination, say so explicitly.

  3. Offer to help:   Keep the communication channels open. Offer to discuss the situation with the reader. Ask the reader to come up with his or her own solution to the problem.

These points are illustrated in Sample 24.

Apologies

Sometimes you must apologize for a negative announcement. If you have to postpone or cancel an engagement at the last minute or otherwise renege on a commitment to a reader, an apology may be necessary and appropriate.

Unlike most apologies (see “Apologies” in Conveying Good News), apologies for negative announcements should be delayed until you have presented the reason. Unless you must return a check or some other obvious indicator of the bad news, beginning such a message with I’m sorry would reveal the negative content before the reader is prepared to receive it. In such cases, pace the reader’s expectation by beginning with something with which the reader will agree, but keep it brief, and focus on the actual reason you are writing:

Apologize either immediately before or immediately after clarifying the negative aspect. Keep the apology brief to avoid encouraging the reader to feel worse than she or he already does. When you can do so appropriately, suggest alternatives that will help the reader solve the problem caused by your inability to keep your commitment. The closing should be positive and forward-looking. Be careful about making new promises, which may not be taken seriously at this point, and avoid the temptation to apologize again.

Sample 25 illustrates these points.

 


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