Writing escalation emails: 8 tips to help you strike the right tone

As an InCorporate Trainer embedded in the purchasing department at a major player in the automotive industry, my job is to help participants deal with communication challenges. One of the biggest challenges my German purchasers struggle with is striking the right tone when communicating serious messages. We take concrete steps in training to move away from being too direct by familiarizing participants with the softer phrases we tend to use in English. But how soft do you really want to be when you are not happy and the situation demands stronger language? How do you successfully strike this balance without being perceived as rude or arrogant? Let’s try to answer this by looking at a concrete example:

The situation

A participant recently had to tell a company that they had raised their prices too much for the current economic climate. After years of the prices being raised significantly, they decided enough was enough. They demanded an official statement explaining why this had happened once again, before a formal review of the business relationship would take place.

Writing emails that people read: Free eBook download8 tips to help you strike the right tone

At a time when you may be pretty angry, it’s important to stick to the facts and to avoid emotions showing obviously in a situation that escalates to this level. Having said that, it needs to be clear that you are angry about what has happened. Finding such a balance is really difficult – for native and non-native speakers alike.

Here are 8 tips you can use to help you find this balance in your next escalation email.

  1. Leave out the ‘hope you are well’ style pleasantries.
  2. Use the first paragraph to talk about your history with the company to remind them that you are an important business partner.
  3. Outline why the situation has escalated.
  4. Explain why you think what has happened is not acceptable. Keep it from getting too personal and leave softer phrasing out.
  5. Remind the company again of what they may lose by ruining the business relationship with you.
  6. Make your demand for future action clear. Using phrases like ‘we expect’ or ‘we require’ are clear and direct.
  7. State the impact of the future action.
  8. Use a formal sign off such as ‘yours sincerely’ or ‘yours faithfully’ to make it clear that the situation is serious. The use of formal language is a very good indicator in English that a matter is serious. Usually when we know people in business, the language we use tends to be informal. The shift back to formal in a long-standing relationship is a sign that the relationship is in danger.

The 8 tips in action

Here is an email which shows the 8 tips above in action.

Dear Mr Smith,

(1) Our company XXX has been dealing with YYY for a number of years now and in this time we have established a strong business relationship (2), with expenditure reaching $1.5 million per annum on your products. 

(3)Each year the price of the product has steadily risen, first from $9 per unit to $12 in 2012 and then again in 2013 to $14 per unit. You have insisted that higher costs in producing and materials have led to these significant rises and that they are out of your control.

However, upon finding out that the price of the product is now $16 per unit, we believe that this is the result of increased profits on YYY’s part, particularly because the purchasing manager at your company confirmed as much in our last negotiation meeting.

We at XXX believe in keeping business relationships for the long term, and feel it is important to treat your counterparts with the utmost respect (4). At this point in time I don’t feel that YYY is respecting our business, which has amounted to a total of $10 million over the last 7 years and involved us making YYY our preferred supplier of this particular product in that time (5). We expect a statement from you by November 11th, 2015 outlining your reasons for the last increase in price and why you believe this is fair (6).

Once we have received this statement we will decide on our future course of action and review our relationship with YYY accordingly (7).

Yours sincerely,

Ms Muller

Do you have any other tips? We’d love to hear the steps you take towards striking the right tone between outlining the seriousness of the situation, yet not coming across as rude.


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1 reply
  1. Gerhard
    Gerhard says:

    Hello Vanessa,

    I would find it difficult to write something like
    “we believe that this is the result of increased profits on YYY’s part, particularly because the purchasing manager at your company confirmed as much in our last negotiation meeting”.
    It’s not clear to me if the purchasing manager revealed the reason for the inceased price in a more private situation or not. Maybe it would harm him if we talk about it in an email.
    Can we just say something like: “We have (strong) reasons to believe that the increased price has to do with realizing a bigger profit than before?

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