No news is good news, the old saying goes.
But sometimes bad news is unavoidable. Rather than blurt it out in the first paragraph, which is likely to anger the reader and prevent an objective reading of the rest of your letter, break up your bad news into chunks. With a strategy for each paragraph, follow these basic steps to make the best of a bad situation.
Begin with a positive or at least a neutral opening. Emphasize past good relations:
“Our companies have enjoyed a mutually beneficial relationship for many years.”
Or you can say something about the product or services of the company to which you are writing:
“Your company has offered a quality product to the athletic community for the past 25 years.”
Beginning with statements like these emphasize your objectivity and show that you are not bent solely on criticizing the company. This will help to earn your reader’s trust. If you cannot say anything positive, find something neutral to say:
“About three weeks ago I visited your restaurant with a friend to have a Saturday afternoon luncheon.”
This type of statement introduces the occasion of your letter by simply making factual statements.
Provide background details about the nature of the bad news. This provides helpful information that will allow the reader to have a more complete picture of the situation and respond appropriately:
“We arrived at your restaurant about 1 p.m. The hostess seated us promptly, but we then waited approximately 20 minutes for the server to arrive at our table. When Helen finally arrived, she seemed distracted and got our beverages confused. After giving our meal order, we waited approximately thirty-five minutes.
When I could finally get Helen’s attention, she told us quickly it would be another five minutes for our steaks to come out, but we ended up waiting another fifteen minutes. Mine was charred, though I had asked for medium-well, while my wives were bloody, though she had asked for medium. When we asked Helen to have our steaks re-cooked, she angrily grabbed our plates. After 20 minutes of additional waiting, we finally left, paying the cashier for our beverages.”
A paragraph like this provides examples of the “poor service” which was the focus of this bad news letter. Also included are the server’s name, the length of time spent waiting, the type of cooking errors, and the server’s attitude. The reader doesn’t have to second-guess any of these.
In the third paragraph, state exactly what you want the manager to do with your bad news:
“I just wanted to bring this situation to your attention so you can train servers to be more careful with customers’ cooking preferences.”
Or you might say something like this for another type of bad news:
“Although the first-floor lounge will be closed for repairs during the month of October, the basement and second-floor lounges will remain open.”
In this example, the bad news portion is reduced to a dependent clause beginning with “Although,” while the second part of the sentence is a complete statement that grabs the reader’s attention to help him or her focus on the good news portion of the report.
In some cases you may ask for a refund, an apology, a change of company policy, or an opportunity to vent. Know ahead of time what your purpose is in writing the letter, and make it clear in the third paragraph.
In the final paragraph, close on an upbeat note with a positive look to the future, suggesting confidence in the ability to restore good relations:
“I am sure this episode can be quickly addressed to ensure that future visits will be comfortable and enjoyable.”
Or you can say something along these lines:
“We hope that this one experience is merely a fluke, and that future business will be conducted as smoothly as in the past.”
Avoid negative words like “can’t,” “bad,” “unfortunate,” “regret,” “mistake,” “terrible,” and the like. Use neutral terms when possible.
Remember, your overall goal is to get good results. Most companies appreciate heartfelt feedback even when it is bad news. This gives them the chance to make amends and retain the customer rather than recruit a new one. If you like doing business with a particular company, take the time to write a bad newsletter if something should go wrong. Both of you may benefit.