Business English Writing

Right on the Money

“Since most writers are fools, especially about money, a new client was likely to find his dreams being set straight quite early (by Pat) in the relationship,” so began writer Clive James’ tribute to his literary agent Pat Kavanagh after she passed away.

“Such bluntness could be daunting,” James went on to say ,“but it was also reassuring, because the client guessed, correctly, that his new mentor wouldn’t be pussyfooting with the publishers either. Pat could make publishers shake in their hand-made shoes. On the appointed day to have lunch with her they always dressed with extra care.”

When Hong Kong adults seek me out to help them improve their Business English, I’m always relieved when I discover I can do a decent-enough job despite my inability to write about financial stuff as elegantly as Clive James.

For lesser mortals, a certain degree of pussyfooting is needed when broaching money matters in writing. For money is more than funds in the bank; it is a reflection of worth and a basis for pride. So, when I have, say, to implore people to pay their bills, I’d sometimes go as far as taking the blame for the situation, in order to save face for the other party.

Below is the email I wrote to a student’s parent who had yet to meet her financial obligations to me:

I’ve been checking my accounts, and I think I may have forgotten to inform you of how to pay me, for fees for XX’s lessons in January and February are still outstanding.

My payment info is as follows: XXXX

My fees are HKD XXX/session.

I really enjoy teaching XX; you can track what I teach her by reading the lesson notes I send you after each class. If there’s anything else you want me to teach her, just give me a shout. I always welcome feedback from parents. 

In the business world, if the company that has repeatedly avoided settling its IOUs is an important client and you want to deliver an ultimatum without burning bridges, you can consider sending this note:

As you know, you’re one of the clients I hold most dear. Alas, it’s company policy that we can’t continue serving clients with outstanding bills that go back as far as X months.

  If you have some sort of payment plan in mind, please don’t hesitate to share with me. You have my word that I’ll try my best to persuade my finance colleagues to accept your proposal.

  If it were up to me, I’d continue to provide services. But my hands are tied by my firm. Sorry.

If you are the client, and your boss is asking you to press suppliers to deliver the goods at a lower cost, you can write to them this way:

Due to the slowdown in the global economy, we are now compelled to work under a tighter budget.

As a result, we have begun the process of asking our supplies for reductions in fees.

When our contract with your company is up for renewal, we will be requesting a XX% discount on the ongoing rate. If these terms aren’t favourable enough for you, we may have to find another supplier.

I know this isn’t a pleasant note, but I sincerely hope we can continue doing business.

An impresario who met opera star Maria Callas backstage after she had just delivered a disastrous performance likened the awkward air between them as follows: “It’s like a woman wearing a very low-cut dress. You’re not sure whether it’s rude to look. I decided not to mention it and she never mentioned it either.” When you become aware of the money troubles of your business associates because they’ve been unable to pay you, think along the lines of this impresario when you write to them: the more your letter suggests you’ve hardly noticed their financial situation, the better.

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