Using a “Buffer” to Tell Customers Bad News


Javier started his own accounting company three years ago.For the first time, expansion has forced him to deal more with the hiring process. The screening and interviewing process had always been a “piece of cake” for him.That wasn’t his problem. Javier’s major issue was dealing with the unsuccessful applicants—the ones he would have to tell “no.”

After he had thought the whole process through a bit, Javier decided that this would actually be a challenge for his skills as a manager of a growing business.As he had read in a trade journal just last week, “A successful entrepreneur has to know the right ways of saying no.”Saying “no” effectively is a skill, a skill anyone who owns and manages a business needs to develop.

A bad-news message is any message that the receiver would really rather not hear.Putting together that kind of message is never easy—and is usually unpleasant.However, by using some fairly simple principles, you can learn to compose such messages with relatively little pain.After you have written a few, the job is likely to become considerably easier, as Javier was about to find out.

What is a buffer?A buffer is simply a statement or series of statements that softens the blow of the bad news that is about to be given.You might say that it calls forth a certain amount of sympathy at the very beginning.For example, I have considered your application carefully in light of your impressive record.However….Thank you for your well-written credit application request. 

As you can easily guess, this type of device could easily be overdone–even backfire.When using buffers, a business writer must always be sure that several problems do not happen:

Don’t imply a positive statement.Although your buffer must be positive, it should never be so positive that it implies that you are about to say “yes.” Don’t exceed three short sentences.The maximum length for a buffer is roughly three sentences.Even if those three sentences are unduly long, your buffer is likely to be too lengthy.Long buffers do either one of two things: 1.) they confuse the reader with their lengthiness, or 2.) they actually end up implying “yes” because of their length. Don’t imply a negative statement.If your buffer gives away immediately that you are sending bad news, then it is not really a buffer at all.It is simply a statement of the bad news where a buffer belongs. Be relevant.Don’t write a buffer that is totally off the subject of the rest of the message.A buffer that discusses the performance of your reader’s favorite sports team, for example, violates this relevance rule.Whatever you choose as a buffer must tie in with the rest of your letter, e-mail, fax or whatever form you are using.

Also, the words “I’m sorry,” or “we’re very sorry” do not constitute a buffer.Any apology can be overdone and can sound negative.“Sorry” is a negative word.A buffer must really work in softening the bad news.To be effective, it must be sincere.If it doesn’t work, find one that does.Apologies are not always negative, but–as in all business writing–they must be used carefully and sparingly.

When choosing a buffer, try to avoid wordy and meaningless expressions.Writers of bad-news messages sometimes mistake such expressions for appropriate buffers.For example, I am writing this e-mail in response to your credit request letter of June 11. That sentence has no real function.Rather than serving as a buffer, to soften the bad news, it only fills space.

Finally, be aware of the tone you are using in your buffer.Often a pompous, superior tone comes out in what otherwise would have been an effective buffer.Remember that tone in writing is attitude.By making sure you don’t have a negative attitude towards your reader, you will go a long ways towards not showing such an attitude.People receiving bad-news messages are often expecting arrogance from the writer; don’t give them any reason to see it in your writing. Here is a very negative example from a buffer for refusal of credit: Our credit checking process is extremely thorough and has been called “nearly infallible.”The business owner who wrote that sentence didn’t impress anyone.

Several other devices–too numerous to include here–;are useful for telling customers bad news.Your skillful use of the buffer, though, can be a beginning point in successfully relaying messages to readers that they would rather not hear.Your job as an entrepreneur could become a bit less stressful with it careful use.

Lowell H. Lamberton is professor of business at Central Oregon Community College.For more information, feel free to contact Professor Lamberton at 383-7714 or


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