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February 2021

While all agree that poor writing negatively affects organizations, no reliable statistics exist on the exact financial implications. A few references exist however; in his book, Writing for Dollars, Writing to Please: The Case for Plain Language in Business, Government, and Law, Professor Joseph Kimble presents more than 50 case studies demonstrating that using plain language can save businesses and government agencies significant amounts of money.

In the specific case of formal business communications, a simple one-page letter, depending on how it is written, can produce very different outcomes, with very different economic consequences, for an organization. In extreme scenarios, a company sending a poorly drafted letter to a strategic partner, important supplier, or key client, may see months or even years of efforts entirely ruined within a few minutes.

In this article, which includes an example, we will review most of the rules applying to formal business correspondence in the context of a complaint letter, where a company faces difficulties in dealing with a certain counterpart and seeks remedy. Applying these rules will help boost your chances to secure the desired outcome, and save you both time and money.

The dos and don’ts of a persuasive business letter

1. Adopt a formal and courteous style

The accepted style for formal business letters is slightly more formal, polite and courteous than the one used in regular communications. There is no need to be overly formal or too cold – your reader should feel the letter was written by you, not by your company’s legal counsel.

2. Be concise

A lengthy letter that keeps on going over the same arguments does not stand a better chance of convincing its recipient. On the contrary, a brief letter that clearly states the issue at hand and the difficulties your organization are facing as a result will be far more persuasive. It is commonly recommended that a formal business letter should take no longer than a single page.

Any sentence or word that does not serve a specific purpose should be discarded, repetitions should be avoided at all costs, and unnecessary details should be left aside.

3. Use plain and direct language

Your letter carries an important message that is succinctly conveyed in a few paragraphs. To make sure you are well understood by the recipient, you should avoid using overly sophisticated language or any form of industry jargon. Instead, use plain, straightforward language, which you feel confident leaves no room for ambiguity.

4. Ponder over every word

Every word and sentence in your letter should have a clear and specific purpose. You should avoid using vague words or expressions, which could be interpreted in many different ways. For instance, instead of writing “We wasted a lot of time as a result of your company’s actions”, write “We spent a total 200 man hours to correct your company’s mistakes.”

5. Maintain a firm and authoritative tone Your letter will have far better chances of being taken seriously if it is written with authority. You should present your case and all facts accurately, firmly and with confidence. For example, instead of writing “I believe my colleague Mr Wong has discussed the matter with you”, write “Mr Wong of our Project Management Division discussed the matter with you on 20 November.”

6. Be polite and respectful

While you may be infuriated by your counterpart’s incompetence or misconduct, it would be highly counterproductive to convey such emotions in your letter. First, most organizations seek to meet their clients’ and business partners’ expectations. Second, the recipient may not be personally responsible for whatever harm has been caused. Last but not least, to appear emotional or sarcastic will put the reader on the defensive, damage your overall credibility and hurt the odds your letter will be considered with goodwill.

7. Be constructive and preserve the relationship

Your letter may be addressed to a company with whom you will likely keep on doing business. You should avoid blaming the entire company for a situation that is attributable to only one or a few of its representatives. Instead of threatening to take further action, constructively suggest one or a few ways the issue at stake can be resolved. If the recipient perceives that your company is ready to terminate the relationship, he or she will see less incentives to offer redress.

8. Proofread your letter

It goes without saying that your letter should be thoroughly proofread to cleanse it of any typo or grammatical mistake.

Standard structure of a formal complaint letter

Unless the issue at stake is so complex that it requires more than a page to describe, a proper formal complaint letter consists of only three main paragraphs, of roughly equal size, as follows:

1. Describe the issue

This first paragraph is dedicated to comprehensively describing the matter at hand, mentioning the what, when, where and how. The first sentence of this paragraph should already give the reader a very good idea of the nature of your complaint. Following sentences can provide more circumstantial details.

2. State the impact on your business

In this second paragraph, you can explain, again succinctly, the exact damages the issue has caused. As we explained, you should avoid vague complaints and instead highlight all aspects that can be quantified, e.g. how many weeks of delay you suffer, how much time you spent on correcting the issue, how many customers were affected, etc.

3. Propose a remedy

In this crucial third and last paragraph, you will make your case for seeking redress from your counterpart and set out in detail a proposed remedy. It can be a good idea to remind the recipient of the positive aspects of your existing relationship and your strong expectation that they will satisfy your request. A reasonable deadline should accompany your proposal.

Sample of a complaint letter

10/F Emerald Tower
234, Green Street
Causeway Bay, Hong Kong

Mr John Smith
Key Account Manager
5/F Amethyst Building
73, Purple Street
Kwai Chung, Hong Kong

30 November 2020

Dear Mr Smith,


Your company has failed to deliver on time the tools and equipment listed in appendix A of our agreement dated 12 September 2020 (the “Agreement”) to our job site at 46 White Street, Wanchai. While the Agreement specified that all tools and equipment were to be delivered on 7 November 2016, actual delivery only took place two weeks later, on 21 November 2020.

This delay has caused us to postpone by two weeks the start of construction work at the job site and has made it impossible for our company to complete the overall project on time. Understandably, our client, Pinnacle Properties, has expressed its immense dissatisfaction with the delay and has made it clear that our company would lose its future business should we be unable to rectify the situation.

As we cannot make up for lost time, the only remedy we can offer Pinnacle Properties is compensation for lost revenues, which they have estimated at HKD240,000. We consider that The Tool Corporation, as the party responsible for the delay, should bear at least 80% of this cost. We invite you to revert to us in writing with your company’s position on this matter by 14 December 2020.

Your sincerely,

William Chan
Director, Projects Division

- Letter from PINNACLE PROPERTIES dated 24 November 2020

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What’s next?

Your organization probably already follows most if not all the rules of formal business correspondence. If not, there is a possibility that your communications with key business partners are not yet achieving their full potential. It is never too late to improve though, and taking the time to train your employees or colleagues on this important subject will certainly prove worthwhile. We strongly recommend sharing with them these recommendations, and perhaps engaging the services of a firm that will be able to instil good practice at all levels of your organization.