For most people, responding to customer complaints is easier when their organization has actually made a mistake. A hearty apology followed by an explanation of how one has rectified the situation, as far as the writing goes, is fairly straightforward.

What about situations, though, in which your organization cannot control an outcome: an expensive camera dropped over the side of a ferry? Valuable data that a customer has lost and would like to be compensated for when your agreement clearly states that you will replace software but are not responsible for data?

The possibilities are endless, of course, but the bottom line is that the situation is tricky. In English, the response is called “the negative adjustment” or “the bad-news adjustment,” in which one must explain that one cannot grant a customer’s request.

In my experience, negative adjustments are almost universally poorly crafted, and I think that’s because the first impulse of the writer is usually to be defensive or legalistic.

I would like to suggest some tips for breaking bad news when you have to while doing all you can to maintain the goodwill of the customer or client.

  1. Think of your purpose as maintaining goodwill. Chances are, the reason you cannot grant a customer’s request is that the terms of your agreement do not allow for it. For instance, the ferry owner must be protected from liability for lost items. The result, otherwise, would be replacing iPhones and jewelry, hats and purses, to the point of bankruptcy. When you are protected by a user agreement or contract, though, there is no reason to think of a first response to the customer as an occasion to prove exhaustively that you are not responsible for the loss. Instead, the purpose of the letter is to maintain goodwill with the customer or client despite that you cannot grant the request.
  2. Avoid negative language. I often question the logic of an adjustment letter that immediately imposes a value judgment on an organization’s policy. For instance, I often invite people to think about the implications of the statement, “Unfortunately, our policy does not allow us to…” There should be nothing “unfortunate” about a policy. If there is, the first question that comes to a reader’s mind is why unfortunate policies are in place to begin with. There’s also the risk of sounding as though one would love to grant the request but cannot because of the harsh taskmaster of a contract or policy. “We regret to inform you” is another particularly droll way to begin, despite how epidemic its use in the professional world. It’s unlikely that a letter beginning this way will maintain goodwill.
  3. Offer something, and forgo lengthy explanations about your policies to get to the offer quickly. Take, for instance, the following example: “Thank you for letting us know about your experience on your recent archipelago tour. We are terribly sorry to hear about the loss of your iPhone. While we cannot replace lost items, we appreciate your patronage and would like to offer you ____.” Probably, there is something you can offer the customer as a token of your good will. It may be a coupon, a free ferry ride, a small product, or any other discount that lets the writer know that you care about their business. While you cannot honor the complaint, you can honor the fact the customer believes that he or she is entitled to something.

A formula I recommend is getting to the good news of the letter—your desire to maintain goodwill with the customer, as soon as possible, in four paragraphs:

  • Express empathy about the customer’s experience.
  • Briefly restate the customer’s request, in specific detail, so that the customer understands that you have taken the time to understand the request.
  • Say what you cannot do, but subordinate it to what you can do: Although we cannot do A, we appreciate your business and would like to offer you B.
  • Suggest briefly, if necessary, how the customer will receive what you’re offering. Examples are “To activate this discount, just enter the activation code DISCOUNT1 when you make a purchase,” or “I’ve left your coupons with Erik in reception so that you can pick them up at your convenience.”

If you have questions about bad news adjustment letters, feel free to contact me at