Assignment Eight: Business Letters

Read Gerson & Gerson, chapter 6 for the important basics of business letters.  Pay special attention to essential components, bad-news letters, adjustment letters and complaint letters.  Then write an indirect claim letter.

  • Letters are documents which leave the organization to be read by outsiders.

  • Letters have a way of establishing or eroding trust.  Poor writing, sloppy formatting and careless proofreading damage credibility. If you're careless in your writing, you might also be a careless as a professional dog groomer or insurance agent or interior decorator, and mistakes can be expensive or painful to your customers.  Don't let those customers get the idea that you're careless or poorly educated.


We write claim letters (sometimes called a complaint or adjustment letter) when a product or service doesn't please us.   If you've paid the exterminator $350. and your house still has fleas, you might want to write a claim letter.  Your assignment calls for you to write an INDIRECT CLAIM letter, as well as a refusal to that claim.

  • Sometimes a  claim letter is called a direct claim.  Here there is no question that the reader is at fault; maybe the product is still under warranty or the merchandise was damaged when it was delivered. 

  • An indirect claim is what you'd write if your claim isn't so solid.   Maybe you know you shouldn't have taken the camera to the beach, or the transmission in your car failed after 65,000 miles.  Maybe you've lost the receipt or warranty.  If the whole matter winds up in court, you'll lose.  But the company still should bear some responsibility for your loss.

  • Start an indirect claim by establishing rapport.  In a friendly and positive way, identify yourself as a customer worth pleasing: "When I first looked into purchasing a camera, I asked my aunt, a professional photographer which brand she'd recommend.  She told me that she always tells beginners to buy the Kippel 2000." 

  • Next, state the details of the purchase:  I bought the camera August 17 from Phox Photo in Denver, CO, and I paid $499.50 . . . "

  • Describe the problem:  All my pictures are fuzzy, and it won't stay in focus.  I'd be happier with the Kippel 3000."  Clear and complete details are VITAL here.

  • Negotiate: "Since my warranty is expired, I can't really expect a replacement, but I am willing to return the camera in exchange for a $100. discount in the price of the Kippel 3000, the camera I really want."  If this is truly an indirect claim, you're arguing from a point of weakness, and you can't expect complete reimbursement.

  • End with action, including a specific request and a date:  "I'm going to the Grand Canyon in March, so please let me know if the trade-in is acceptable by February 15."





Dear Capt. Hollingsworth:

This letter is being written to inform you that I am making a claim against you. If I do not receive complete and immediate satisfaction, I shall take out full page advertisements in the New York and London newspapers warning passengers of your gross ineptitude.

Your idiocy has cost me the following items: 5 suits of clothes $184.39 1 Rolex watch $934.97 1 cardboard shoe box $ .15 1 pair prescription glasses $123.55 1 bottle Old Mariner scotch $ 47.99.

In addition, I have suffered grave mental anguish (therapy bills for $4,877), and you caused me to miss sales meetings in which I expected to earn $9,329. I have enclosed receipts for all of the items listed above, and also included are sworn affidavits from my business associates and my psychiatrists. Testimony is given therein as to the extent of my internal malaise and financial loss.

You will remember that on the night of April 15 of this year your ship, the Titanic, struck an iceberg and sank; it was in this accident that I was so grievously wronged. At the time of the accident, I was playing roulette in the Starboard Lounge, and I was doing quite well, I might add. Black 16 has always been kind to me. Anyway, when the accident occurred, I was forced to run nearly the length of the ship to secure a place on a lifeboat. In that frantic dash, I turned my ankle while kicking slow-moving children out of my way, and in my haste, I more than once spilled my drink. So I am adding a claim of $53.83 to my bill, the cost of an ankle brace and a new martini.


P. L. Otter


We write a refusal letter when we believe that a claim should not be honored.  Some claims are simply without merit, and some ask for more than we're willing to give.  The refusal is tricky; it should say NO, but it should also be friendly, positive, helpful, and it should leave readers feeling as though they've been treated fairly.

  • Begin a refusal with as much action as you can.  You investigated, analyzed, recreated, disassembled, tested . . .  Use words which will make readers imagine you hard at work, industriously attacking their problem.  Passive voice is a terrible idea here.

  • Never begin with "we regret" or "we are sorry."  Your goal is to keep readers reading, and if they see these words, they're likely to throw the letter away and go away mad.

  • Recount the steps of the investigation.

  • Educate and inform readers; this is your chance to help them avoid future problems and learn to use the product better.  Did they buy the wrong bug spray for wasps?  Are they operating the camera under water?

  • If you assign blame, use passive voice.  "It appears the camera was dropped." is much more polite than "You dropped the camera."  The reader may be the source of the problem, but it's a bad idea to emphasize that fact.

  • Finish on a helpful note.  Without giving away the store, offer helpful information or a small discount.  Don't turn your refusal into an acceptance, but try to offer something to make the disappointed reader feel better.

  • Incidentally, a recent IBM study demonstrated that the most satisfied customers were those who have had a problem politely and quickly resolved.  Those customers are even happier than those who had no problems at all.




White Star Shipping
2343 W. Broadway Suite 32
New York, New York 10042


April 30, 1912
Mr. P. L. Otter
67 Vestry St.
New York, New York 10021

Dear Mr. Otter:

Claims such as yours deserve our swiftest attention, and when we received your letter, our investigators were summoned immediately. According to your letter, our negligence deprived you of personal effects, mental and physical health and business success. Our goal is for all of our passengers to enjoy a relaxing and pleasant voyage, and we were deeply saddened and embarrassed by the incident involving the Titanic.

Our agents in England have examined the ship's manifest on file in Southampton, and there is no record of you ever boarding the Titanic, and when our Stateside agents met with one Mrs. Camillia Philby, proprietress of the Breevoort Hotel on Bleeker St. in New York, it was discovered that you have been constantly housed there since January of this year. Mrs. Philby also supplied us with a weekly guest register with your signature. It appears to us unlikely that you could have been aboard the Titanic, and our belief is that trickery for profit is being conducted.

While we are forced to dismiss your claim as fraudulent, let me remind you that White Star Shipping has a fleet of over 70 ships (including 23 passenger vessels), all of which are at your service. Because a gentleman of your occupation may find it necessary to import or export sensitive cargo or make a hasty withdrawal from the country, I have enclosed for your convenience a detailed schedule of shipping dates and times. If I may assist you with reservations or be of further service to you, please write.

Yours Truly,

Ernie Hollingsworth

Capt. Ernest Hollingsworth



Write an indirect claim letter in which you ask for something: a new product, a discount on a new one, a repair.  You should argue from a weak position; you've contributed to the problem or the warranty is expired, or something, but you do believe the company bears some responsibility.  Be specific about what you want.  Then write a refusal to your own claim, educating and persuading the reader.  Remember that you may still want his or her business.   Both letters must be in full block format.

Please compose both letters in the same word processing file, and please send them in a single attachment.



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Skill of the Week:   The "You-Attitude"

People are selfish.  To succeed and prosper, we consider issues and make decisions based on our own points of view, our own interests, our own beliefs, our own ideals.  And at the same time we're selfishly looking after our own interests, everyone else is being selfish too.

In business writing, always keep the readers' needs in mind.  Be sensitive and respectful as you consider their situations.  In the long run, your readers will return your respect, and you'll be able to accomplish much more.

When you write the claim and refusal letters, think about what readers want.   Complaint officers may get 100 abusive letters and calls every day.  A polite letter will get a much fairer hearing.  And if you look like a promising customer, the company will have an interest in helping you.

The writer of a good refusal letter keeps in mind the fact that a   disappointed reader probably won't be a repeat customer, and if you can make readers believe they were given fair hearing and give sound reasons for the refusal, you'll do better.

As my grandmother would say, "You catch more flies with honey than with vinegar!




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Comments on the claim letter:

Letter should contain addresses and date.  See p. 150 Gerson & Gerson for examples.

Author is stating the obvious: of course he's writing a letter.

Never begin with  threats or insults: they just alienate your audience.

The itemized list is good, but a column (with total) would be better.

Don't add more information!   This should be in the list. 

And we don't yet know any of the details of the claim.

Finally we understand what happened!   Too much incidental detail here though. 

No action ending!  Make a specific request and name a date:  "Send me $3295 by May 15."

No signature!

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Comments on the refusal:


Proper placement of addresses and date for full block format.


The author took immediate and positive action to investigate the claim.  Regardless of outcome, the reader will believe s/he was treated fairly.



The steps of the investigation are described thoroughly and actively, but this is an awfully  long sentence.

"It was discovered" and "trickery is being conducted" are in passive voice; usually avoid the passive, but when assigning blame (in this case making accusations) passive voice is a good idea.

The refusal itself is almost hidden.   The reasons speak for themselves.

The letter ends with something helpful: information which could help Otter (and which could lead to business for Hollingsworth).


Signature is present.



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