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National’s Bad and Good Business Writing

This week I received an email from National Car Rental. The email's subject, "Lynn, we've updated our terms and conditions" caught my attention, as did the heading "IMPORTANT INFORMATION REGARDING YOUR EMERALD CLUB MEMBERSHIP." Because I rent a car from National about once a month, I wanted to know about any new terms.

I clicked the link to the "amended copy of the Emerald Club Master Rental Agreement and Program Rules and Conditions." What did I face?

A 43-page document of over 20,000 words! 

How could I possibly identify the new terms and conditions in 43 pages with no updates highlighted?

If the story ended here, I would not have identified the company. This would have been a brief example of what frustrates customer-readers. But National corrected the situation. 

I sent National this email:

I just received a 43-page document of over 20,000 words from you in an email titled "We've updated our terms and conditions."

I do not have time to read a document of that length. What are the new terms and conditions?

Thank you!

Lynn Gaertner-Johnston

I prepared myself for a disappointment. I hoped for but did not expect a reply. Yet one came promptly:

Dear Lynn Gaertner-Johnston,

Thank you for your email. We apologize for any inconvenience this has caused. I do not have a list of all of the changes to the Emerald Club Agreement, but here is a brief description of some of the changes that may impact the rental terms:

[The email concisely described four changes touching on toll passes, prepaid fuel, free days for club members, and rental credits for elite members. Then it continued:]

Let me also inform you of what has not changed. We haven’t changed your membership level or how you earn membership tiers. The process in earning rental credits is not changing, nor are you going to lose rental credits. Our Emerald Club rental services such as access to the aisle, upgrades, etc., are also not changing.

Again, we apologize for the inconvenience.

If you have any further questions or concerns, please feel free to contact us.


National Car Rental

I described National's first communication as bad because it seemed to expect its customer-readers to do the impossible. And since virtually no one would read 43 pages in search of program changes, the message created customer frustration and potentially damaged customer trust.

This second message completely reinstated my positive view of National Car Rental. The customer service rep, someone named Nia, turned the situation around by answering my question (What has changed?) and reassuring me with information on what had not changed. It made me smile.

If you write to customers, does National's example give you any ideas about what to do and not do?

I welcome your comments.

Syntax Training

Posted by Lynn Gaertner Johnson
By Lynn Gaertner-Johnston

Lynn Gaertner-Johnston has helped thousands of employees and managers improve their business writing skills and confidence through her company, Syntax Training. In her corporate training career of more than 20 years, she has worked with executives, engineers, scientists, sales staff, and many other professionals, helping them get their messages across with clarity and tact.

A gifted teacher, Lynn has led writing classes at more than 100 companies and organizations such as MasterCard, Microsoft, Boeing, Nintendo, REI, AARP, Ledcor, and Kaiser Permanente. Near her home in Seattle, Washington, she has taught managerial communications in the MBA programs of the University of Washington and UW Bothell. She has created a communications course, Business Writing That Builds Relationships, and provides the curriculum at no cost to college instructors.

A recognized expert in business writing etiquette, Lynn has been quoted in "The Wall Street Journal," "The Atlantic," "Vanity Fair," and other media.

Lynn sharpened her business writing skills at the University of Notre Dame, where she earned a master's degree in communication, and at Bradley University, with a bachelor's degree in English. She grew up in suburban Chicago, Illinois.

2 comments on “National’s Bad and Good Business Writing”

  • I have just met someone who actually reads the terms and conditions… I need a moment to steady myself. 🙂

    Welcome to the age of automated email spam, though thankfully in this case the company saw sense and put a human on the line the second time.


  • Hi, Robert. I am glad you stopped by to comment.

    You are correct–people rarely read the terms and conditions. My concern was that I rent from National regularly, and I wanted to know if something important had changed. Like the rest of the world, I could not stand to read the entire document. I just needed to know the changes.

    I apologize for the delay in responding. For days it was impossible for me to log in here to comment.


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