Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Saying "No" With Panache

When you must say no or disappoint your reader, you need special planning. Your intention is always to maintain goodwill. If you must disappoint the reader, here are some things to try:

Offer options
A friend received a letter from a major university denying her daughter the financial aid she requested. The letter started, "I’m sorry to let you know that we can’t. . . " When my friend called the university, she found out that there are other financial options to pursue. Instead of saying "no," the letter may have said, "Although we can’t grant you the financial aid you requested, we’d like to let you know of other funding options to pursue." That would have maintained goodwill.

Give an explanation
Don’t tell your reader, it’s company policy. Readers don’t care about your policies. However, they do understand logical reasoning. Following is a letter I wrote for an insurance company explaining why the company couldn’t pay for cosmetic surgery:

"Thank you for choosing [company] as your insurance provider. We know you have choices and are delighted you chose us. We’d love to say “yes” to everyone who wants an elective procedure. But if we did, we wouldn’t have the funds to say “yes” to everyone who needs a procedure. We are confident that you’ll understand. Please be assured that if you ever need a procedure, we’ll be right there for you. Once again, thanks for choosing [company] as your provider."

Change the order
Don’t start with the bad news. Open with a buffer that’s upbeat, and close on a friendly note. Put the bad news in the middle. You may even consider a neutral subject line, such as Policy No.

Get creative
It’s not always appropriate to get creative, but here are two times creativity worked well:

A financial planner sent a letter during the last economic downturn. It showed a line graph of how the stock market rebounded after the last two severe downturns. That was a very creative way to let clients know they shouldn’t panic because things typically get better.

I wrote an annual report for a company that had a bad year due to economic conditions. To counter the numbers, I generously peppered the report with testimonials from customers, many of which are very recognizable company names. The subtle message was that “we’re solid, despite bad numbers beyond our control.”

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