Introduction:

Giving good news is a very easy thing to do in an email or letter, unfortunately giving bad news isn't. No matter how you write it, people are not going to be happy when reading it. But there are ways to prevent that unhappiness turning into resentment or even anger and damaging a relationship or losing a customer.

In my experience, any email giving bad news needs to:

  • Quickly inform the person of the news
  • Explain or provide a reason(s) why either the decision was taken or the thing has happened
  • Be apologetic
  • Provide the person with an opportunity to discuss the situation with you
  • And if to a customer, use formal phrases and vocabulary

In addition, depending on both the situation and if you are to blame, you can either offer some form of compensation, an alternative or a possible solution to their problem.

In this online exercise on 'giving bad news', we will look at both the structure and polite English phrases (both formal and less formal) used in good business emails to give bad news. We will also look at two different examples of emails which are giving bad news. One to inform a customer of a problem and the other to break a promise you've made with somebody.


Example & Exercise: Giving bad news

Read the following two business emails where bad news is being given. In the first, a customer is being informed by a bank that their credit card has been cancelled by mistake. In the second, one work colleague is informing another that they are not going to help them to do something that they had promised.

From the context, try to guess what the meaning of the words/phrases in bold are. Then do the quiz at the end to check if you are right.

Email 1

Dear Mrs Ryder,

I regret to inform you that due to a mistake on our computer system, your credit card account with ourselves has been cancelled. As a result, you will not be able to use the credit card. I apologise on behalf of our company for this situation happening.

Unfortunately, due to banking regulations we are not legally able to change your account's status from cancelled to active. In order to change the status to active, you will have to reapply for the credit card account again. Once you have done this, we will re-issue you with a new card as quickly as we can.

Please find below a link to the web page to reapply:

www.bankcards.com/creditcard/appform.html

As a way to recompense you for any trouble this has caused, we will credit your account when active with £35.

If you have any questions, please don't hesitate to contact me by email (on jbeever@bankcards.com) or by phone (on 0242 7433123).

Please accept my apologies for any inconvenience this may cause.

Yours sincerely,


James Beever
Customer Services Analyst

Email 2

Good Afternoon John,

I'm afraid I won't be able to help you to do the report for the holiday park. Something very important has just come up and for the next two weeks I'm going to have to focus all my attention on it.

I appreciate that it's very late to tell you that I can't help you and I can only apologise for that.

Have you thought about asking Karen Taylor to help? She has experience of writing these types of reports.

Sorry again for not being able to help you.

Regards,

Emma

Now do the QUIZ below to make sure you know how to write this type of email.

Click to see more email/letter exercises & examples


Quiz: How to give bad news in a business email

Below is a definition/description of each of the words/phrases in bold from the above text. Now choose the word/phrase from the question's selection box which you believe answers each question. Only use one word/phrase once. Click on the "Check Answers" button at the bottom of the quiz to check your answers.

When the answer is correct, this icon will appear next to the answer. Click on it to find extra information about the word/phrase (e.g. when, where and how to use etc...) and a translation in Spanish.

1.

A formal phrase used to tell the person you are going to compensate them for the problem they are experiencing, is

     

As a way to recompense you for any trouble this has caused:
(phrase). You would use this phrase when you want to compensate a person with something. This phrase is followed by details of what the compensation is (e.g. money, something free, a discount etc...). For example, 'as a way to recompense you for any trouble this has caused, we will reduce your next two payments by 50%'.

A less formal way to say this is 'to compensate you for any trouble caused'.

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2.

A different way to say 'I can understand' which is used to empathise with the other person, is

     

I appreciate that:
(phrase) In this context, you use this phrase to show that you understand how the bad news will affect the person receiving it; the possible difficulties or feelings it may cause. It is followed by what you expect these difficulties or feelings to be. For example, 'I appreciate that this is not what you were hoping' or 'I appreciate that this complicates the situation on the project'.

You can follow this by placing an apology at the end of it (e.g. 'and I can only apologise for that') if you feel that it is your fault.

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3.

A phrase which isn't formal which is used to first tell somebody in an email that you can't do something, is

     

I'm afraid I won't be able to:
(phrase) This is a polite way to tell somebody that you are not going to be able to do something that you promised you would do. This phrase is followed by details of what are you are not going to be able to do. For example, 'I'm afraid I won't be able to do the presentation on Thursday'.

A formal way to say this phrase is 'I regret to inform you that I will be unable to'.

You should follow either sentence with an explanation/reason why you can't. For example, 'I've just been informed that I have to spend next week in Edinburgh'.

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4.

A phrase which is used to suggest a possible solution to a person, is

     

Have you thought about:
(phrase) It is polite and helpful to offer a possible alternative or solution to the person when you tell them you can't do something for them. This less formal phrase is used introduce this alternative or solution. For example, 'have you thought about asking Peter if he can attend?' or 'have you thought about changing the date?'.

To do the same in an formal email/letter, you should use 'I/we recommend that you' instead.

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5.

A formal phrase which is used to explain to the person what the consequence(s) will be to them of the bad news you're giving them, is

     

As a result:
(phrase) This phrase is used to clarify what the bad news means for the person receiving it (what the impact will be). For example, 'as a result, you were not covered by the insurance policy when the accident took place'.

It should be used directly after you've first told them the bad news.

This phrase doesn't have to be used if there is no need to clarify what the consequence(s) of the bad news is for the person.

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6.

A reason why you can't do something for somebody, is

     

Something very important has just come up:
(phrase) This basically means that something very serious (which you don't explain) has unexpectedly happened and you have to focus on it. It's a good reason to use when you want to tell somebody you can't do something you promised to do.

You would only use this phrase if you are telling them you can't do something just before it was planned to happen (within a day or hours).

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7.

A less formal way to apologise at the end of an email, is

     

Sorry again for:
(phrase) It is polite that when you tell somebody bad news by email where either you or your company is to blame, that you apologise at least twice (after you first tell them the bad news and then at the very end of the email).

The phrase 'sorry again for' should only be used in less formal emails (e.g. to work colleagues or people you know well) where you are giving bad news. It is followed by details of what you are apologising for. For example, 'sorry again for not being able to help you with the report'.

A formal way to say the same is 'please accept my apologies for any inconvenience this may cause'.

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8.

An explanation that you give for not doing something, which means you won't have any time to do it, is

     

Have to focus all my attention on it:
(phrase) It is important that when you tell somebody that you can't do something you had promised to do, that you explain why you can't. Make sure that any reason/excuse you give is a convincing one which the other person can appreciate/understand. For example, something serious has just happened or your boss has ordered you to go on a business trip.

You may then have to explain why this means you can't help them. This is what 'have to focus all my attention on it' does. It basically means that you'll have no time to help them do what you had promised.

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9.

A formal phrase used at the beginning of an email to introduce the bad news, is

     

I regret to inform you that due to:
(phrase) This is a very formal and polite way to introduce bad news in an email/letter. This is written at the start of the email/letter (either after the person's name or the brief introduction where you write what the email/letter concerns (e.g. credit card, car rental etc...)).

This phrase is followed first by what caused the issue/problem, then by what the bad news actually is. For example, 'I/we regret to inform you that due to a technical problem we will be unable deliver your package until next week'.

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10.

A formal way to apologise at the end of an email, is

     

Please accept my apologies for any inconvenience this may cause:
(phrase) It is polite that when you tell somebody bad news by email where either you or your company is to blame, that you apologise at least twice (after you first tell them the bad news and then at the very end of the email).

This phrase should only be used in formal emails where you are giving bad news. A less formal way to say the same is 'sorry again for' followed by details of what you are apologising for.

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11.

A word which is used to introduce more bad news later in the email, is

     

Unfortunately:
(adverb) Often when you have to give people bad news in an email, you may have to inform them about more just one thing they won't want to hear. To introduce the second piece of bad news you can use 'unfortunately'. You would then follow this by saying what the bad news is. For example, 'unfortunately, you will also have to pay an additional €70 for losing your passport'.

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12.

A formal phrase used to introduce instructions of what the person receiving the bad news has to do to resolve a problem, is

     

In order to:
(phrase) Sometimes when you give somebody bad news, you may also ask them to do something. This could be instructions on how they can resolve the problem/issue or something they are required to do.

Before you give them the instructions, you first need to tell them the reason why they need to do them. And this is introduced by 'in order to'.

'in order to' is followed first by the reason why they should/have to do something (e.g. 'resolve the problem with your laptop') and then by the instructions ('you need to reinstall the software'). For example, 'in order to resolve the problem with your laptop, you need to reinstall the software'.

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Practice

Now that you understand the vocabulary, practice it by writing your own email giving bad news in English with the new words/phrases.

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