Getting to No: Writing Refusal Letters that Keep Customers

We’ve all had to do it and I’m guessing that just about everyone really hates doing it. I’d be a little worried about people who don’t hate doing it. What am I talking about? I’m talking about writing messages that contain negative or unwelcome news. You know what I mean—the kind of message that is going to upset your reader because it’s going to tell them something they don’t want to hear. We’ve all received these letters—some of us more than others! In addition to being a business writing consultant, I’m also a novelist and believe me, I know what it feels like to get bad news letters—rejection letters in my case. How about: “Thank you for letting us read your novel; don’t quit your day job.” Okay – so none of my rejection letters (or emails) have been quite that harsh, but definitely some are better than others.

Not all bad news letters are created equally. Not by a long shot.

Today I’m going to talk about methods for writing a bad news message that your readers can accept. They are never going to be happy about receiving the message because it is denying them something they want. However, you can write the message in such a way that they can accept it as fair and reasonable.

How does this message make you feel?

Dear Applicant:

We regret to inform you that your proposal to create a mural on an outside wall of the municipal library has been rejected. We receive many proposals such as yours. While your proposal had merit, the funding committee cannot approve it. Consider applying again next year. Good luck.

Ouch! The writer of this message probably didn’t think there was anything wrong with the contents. After all, the writing is correct and the message is crystal clear. So what’s the problem? The problem is that such a message unnecessarily invokes negative emotions such as anger and even fear. Certainly, the reader of a message containing unwelcome news will feel disappointment, but the reader should never feel angry or upset.

You employ many of the same techniques you use for persuasive writing such as sales letter writing and copywriting to inform a reader that they will not receive something that they value. In fact, both types of letters are persuasive letters. The goal of a refusal letter is not to say no. Instead, the goal is to help the reader accept the negative news, and if appropriate, determine how they could receive a letter of acceptance at another time.

Focus on how you make your refusal letter a helping letter.

To understand how a refusal letter could be a helping letter, you need to think about your reader’s feelings and goals. The reader is hoping for good news, but worries about receiving bad news. You need to write the message in a way that lets the reader down slowly, clarifies the reason for the refusal, and provides some kind of alternative.

You structure a refusal letter according how emotionally invested the reader is in receiving a positive response. You can use the direct approach is the “no” situation is relatively neutral. For example, if you are refusing the writer’s invitation to attend a meeting, you can write:

Thank you for inviting me to the board meeting on October 2. I have a previous engagement and will not be able to attend. However, I’m excited to hear that we’ve hired a new personnel manager and look forward to receiving the minutes of the meeting.

In this situation, the reader does not need to be led slowly to a no because the reader has little emotional investment in the situation. You state the refusal in the first sentence or two and then close positively.

You use the five-paragraph persuasive refusal structure when the reader may have a negative emotional reaction to the message. Here’s how it looks:

Paragraph 1:  Say thank you for the contact and add a polite goodwill message.

Paragraph 2:  Give the reader the context or rationale for the decision in a fair and reasonable way. You want to present information neutrally as you build toward the giving the negative news or the refusal. Your reader should have the opportunity to say “no” to him or herself before you do.

Paragraph 3: State the no clearly and diplomatically. Avoid using negative words. For example, you can say “not accepted” instead of “rejected.” In this context “not” is preferable to using the more emotionally charged “rejected.” I’ll have lots more about how to avoid negative words in business writing in a future blog!

Paragraph 4:  Provide some kind of positive alternative. The goal of this paragraph is to give your reader some hope without raising unrealistic expectations.

Paragraph 5:  Thank the reader again for his or her attention and then close positively.

View a sample Refusal Letter that uses the correct persuasive refusal structure.

You need to take more time to write a refusal letter that readers can accept as fair and reasonable than you need to write an abrupt refusal letter that leaves the reader with negative feelings toward you and your company or organization. The time you take to write a well-constructed refusal letter is time well spent. Both you and your company or organization benefit when you make sure that every single message–even those containing negative news–builds good will.

Do you  need help with your negative news messages? Give me a call!

The content in this blog was adapted from New Perspectives on Portfolio Projects for Business Communications by Carol M. Cram and published in 2010 by Course Technology.


About carolmcram

Carol M. Cram is the author of "The Towers of Tuscany" about a woman painter in fourteenth century Italy (available now on Amazon). Before devoting herself full time to the writing of historical fiction, Carol enjoyed a career as an educator and author of numerous bestselling college textbooks for courses in computer applications and communications. In addition, she was on faculty at Capilano University in North Vancouver for two over decades. As Vice President of Clear Communications Consultants, she facilitated numerous communications workshops for corporate and government clients. Carol holds an MA in Drama from the University of Toronto and an MBA from Heriot Watt University in Edinburgh. Carol is currently working on her next novel and compiling a collection of short stories. She lives on beautiful Bowen Island near Vancouver, BC, with her husband, painter Gregg Simpson. When she is not writing, Carol loves taking walks among the arbutus trees, dancing Nia, volunteering with the local arts council, and traveling.
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