4.4 Business Letter Types

There are several types of business letters. This chapter looks at three common examples—inquiry letters, bad news letters, and complaint and adjustment letters. The following chapter(s) will cover employment documents—namely, cover letters and resumes.

Inquiry Letters

The inquiry letter (or email) is useful when you need information, advice, names, or directions. Be careful, however, not to ask for too much information or for information that you could easily obtain in some other way—for example, by a quick trip to the library or an internet search.

      • Early in the letter or e-mail, identify the purpose—to obtain help or information (if it’s a solicited communication, information about an advertised product, service, or program).
      • In an unsolicited letter or e-mail, identify who you are and why you need the requested information.
      • In the communication, list questions or information needed in a clear, specific, and easy-to-read format. If you have a number of questions, consider making a questionnaire and including a stamped, self-addressed envelope. If it’s e-mail, just put the questions in the body of the e-mail or attach a separate questionnaire document.
      • In an unsolicited letter or e-mail, try to find some way to compensate the recipient for their trouble. You might, for instance, offer to pay copying and mailing costs, to accept a collect call, to acknowledge the recipient in your report, or to send him or her a copy of your report. In a solicited letter or e-mail, suggest that the recipient send brochures or catalogs.
      • In closing an unsolicited letter or e-mail, express gratitude for any help that the recipient can provide you, acknowledge the inconvenience of your request, but do not thank the recipient “in advance.” In an unsolicited letter or e-mail, tactfully suggest to the recipient will benefit by helping you (for example, through future purchases from the recipient’s company).

Job Inquiry Letters

Job inquiry letters describe your strengths and express your interest to potential employers. Sending these letters (sometimes called “cold” letters) to the companies or employers you have targeted can help uncover unlisted or upcoming employment opportunities. Keep in mind that these letters are unsolicited, so they should be brief, concise, and direct.

Here are 10 tips for writing successful job inquiry letters:

        1. State who you are: begin your letter by stating who you are and giving your status or position (student, researcher, job seeker, interested consumer, etc.), and mention how you found out about the individual or entity you are writing to.
        2. Get to the point quickly, preferably in the first or second sentence: “I am writing to you today to inquire about any possible technician positions that may be available now or in the near future.”
        3. Be courteous: this is an unsolicited inquiry, and you may be imposing on the reader’s time and/or resources.
        4. Demonstrate your enthusiasm and energy with language and style appropriate to your field.
        5. Use simple and direct wording whenever possible.
        6. Appeal to the employer’s self-interest by demonstrating that you have researched the company or organization (many applicants forget this helpful step).
        7. Give positive, truthful accounts of your accomplishments and skills that relate to the company or position you’re inquiring about.
        8. Request a talk, discussion, or meeting rather than an interview.
        9. Keep your letter short, but it should be long enough to thoroughly explain what it is you are inquiring about and what you want the recipient to do in response.
        10. Make it easy to respond to your request: consider reminding the recipient that he/she may reply to your request via email.

*When the person responds to your employment inquiry, it’s always a good idea to send a quick note of thanks expressing your appreciation.

The following document is an annotated sample of a job inquiry letter: 


Bad News Letters

Often, business letters must convey bad news: a broken computer keyboard cannot be replaced, or an individual cannot be hired, for example. Such bad news can be conveyed in a tactful way. Doing so reduces the chances of damaging business relations with the recipient of the bad news. To convey bad news positively, avoid negative words such as unfortunately, cannot, forbid, fail, impossible, refuse, prohibit, restrict, and deny as much as possible.

When delivering bad news, use the following items to structure your letter:

      • Buffer/cushion: start with a sincere greeting unrelated to the bad news. If you open with the bad news, you may lose your reader immediately. A buffer sets up the communication and puts the reader into a more receptive frame of mind.
        Example: “It’s been a pleasure to serve your office supply needs for the last four years.”
      • Explanation: explains the purpose of the communication and provides a brief overview of the situation. Bad news is harder to accept when it isn’t explained, so provide reasons where possible and appropriate.
        Example: “Due to an error in our inventory tracking, one of the products (the Epson 4400 desktop ink jet printer) from your May 1 order is backordered until May 14.”
      • Apology: include a simple apology if necessary or appropriate.
        Example: “Please accept our sincere apologies for the oversight.” OR “We apologize for any inconvenience this may have caused you.” OR “I am sorry for the confusion.”
      • Redirect: after delivering the bad news, include a statement that fosters goodwill. If possible, offer a compromise. The redirect can also be used to discuss specific actions that you will take (or have already taken) to remedy the problem. In both examples below, the redirect also includes a soft-sell message (a subtle, low-pressure method of selling, cross-selling, or advertising a product or service).
        Example: “Please let us know if you would like us to issue you a refund for the Epson 4400 printer or if you would prefer to wait until it becomes available on May 14. If you prefer to wait, we will overnight your printer via FEDEX as soon as they arrive. As a thank you for your continued business, we would like to offer you 20% of of your next purchase as well as free 2-day shipping on any of our products.”

Table 4.4 provides an example of how you might structure a bad news message:

TABLE 4.4 Bad News Letter Structure
Buffer or Cushion
(unrelated to bad news)
Thank you for your order. We appreciate your interest in our product.
(what happened and why)
We are writing to let you know that this product has been unexpectedly popular, with over 10,000 requests on the day you placed your order.
Negative News
(delivers bad news but also states what they can do)
This unexpected increase in demand has resulted in a temporary out-of-stock/backorder situation. We will fulfill your order, received at 11:59 p.m. on 09/09/2009, in the order it was received.
(moves away from the bad news and offers a compromise)
We anticipate that your product will ship next Monday. While you wait, we encourage you to consider using the enclosed $5 off coupon toward the purchase of any product in our catalog. We appreciate your business and want you to know that our highest priority is your satisfaction.

*NOTE: No amount of strong or fancy writing will make bad news sound good. However, a well-crafted message helps the reader understands and accept the message.

Letters of Apology

You can craft a successful apology letter by:

Analyzing your audience:

        1. How serious is the issue?
        2. How much damage has been done?
        3. How valuable is the future relationship?
        4. What is the appropriate tone for this message?

Paying attention to your content:

        1. Offer a sincere apology, but don’t overdo it.
        2. Provide an explanation where appropriate, but don’t make excuses or blame others.
        3. Offer to make amends or rectify the situation when appropriate.
        4. Close by maintaining good will.

The following document is an example of two bad news letter examples; the second example is a revision of the first


The following is a sample assignment/activity in crafting an apology or delivering bad news:



Watch the following video from Will Fleming on delivering bad news and making apologies in writing:


Complaint Letters

A complaint letter requests some sort of compensation for defective or damaged merchandise or for inadequate or delayed services. While many complaints can be made in person, some circumstances require formal business letters. The complaint may be so complex that a phone call cannot effectively resolve the problem; or the writer may prefer the permanence, formality, and seriousness of a business letter. The essential rule in writing a complaint letter is to maintain your poise and diplomacy, no matter how justified your gripe is. Avoid making the recipient an adversary.

*NOTE: Complaints by e-mail may not be as effective as those by regular mail, so that option is not included here.

    1. Early in the letter, identify the reason you are writing—to register a complaint and to ask for some kind of compensation. Avoid leaping into the details of the problem in the first sentence.
    2. Provide a fully detailed narrative or description of the problem. This is the “evidence.”
    3. State exactly what compensation you desire, either before or after the discussion of the problem or the reasons for granting the compensation.
    4. Explain why your request should be granted. State the reasons why this evidence indicates that your requested should be granted.
    5. Suggest why it is in the recipient’s best interest to grant your request; appeal to the recipient’s sense of fairness or desire for continued business, but don’t threaten. Find some way to view the problem as an honest mistake. Don’t imply that the recipient deliberately committed the error or that the company has no concern for the customer. Toward the end of the letter, express confidence that the recipient will grant your request.

Adjustment Letters

Replies to complaint letters, often called letters of “adjustment,” must be handled carefully when the requested compensation cannot be granted. Refusal of compensation tests your diplomacy and tact as a writer. Here are some suggestions that may help you write either type of adjustment letter:

    1. Begin with a reference to the date of the original letter of complaint and to the purpose of your letter. If you deny the request, don’t state the refusal right away unless you can do so tactfully.
    2. Express your concern over the writer’s troubles and your appreciation that she or he has written you.
    3. If you deny the request, explain the reasons why the request cannot be granted in as cordial and noncombative manner as possible. If you grant the request, don’t sound as if you are doing so in a begrudging way.
    4. If you deny the request, try to offer some partial or substitute compensation or offer some friendly advice (to take the sting out of the denial).
    5. Conclude the letter cordially, perhaps expressing confidence that you and the writer will continue doing business.

Additional Resources


"Complaint & Adjustment Letter." Online Technical Writing. [License: CC BY 4.0] 
"Delivering A Negative News Message." Business Communication for Success. [License: CC BY-NC-SA 4.0]


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Technical Writing at LBCC Copyright © 2020 by Will Fleming is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.