The Do’s and Don’ts of Writing a Winning Complaint Letter

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For 13 years, I was a constituent services staffer for a Michigan legislator. In other words, my job was to try to resolve constituent complaints.

That means I’ve seen a lot of complaint letters. I’ve also written a fair share myself because many times, in order to resolve an issue, my boss needed to send her own letter about the problem. As a result, I quickly learned what letter-writing strategies work best and which ones are bound to get you the cold shoulder.

Here are some do’s and don’ts for writing effective complaint letters.

Do address your letter to the right person

Sending a generic “To Whom It May Concern” letter looks lazy. It also reduces accountability. It’s easy to dismiss a generic letter; it’s a little harder to ignore one addressed to Mr. John Doe when you’re John Doe.

At the same time, don’t make the mistake of going straight to the top of the ladder. Find the person who is most directly in charge of your area of concern.

For example, if you have a safety concern with your car, skip the CEO, whose desk might be filled with hundreds of letters, and go instead to the director of the safety division, who might get less correspondence.

Because it can be hard to find direct emails for some individuals higher up in big corporations, you might need to send a snail mail letter instead.

Don’t make threats

Nothing turns off a reader quite so much as threatening to call a lawyer or going to the media. It has about as much impact as your little sister screaming she’s going to tell Mom when you know darn well Mom won’t do anything about it.

If you have an issue you think deserves media scrutiny or legal action, by all means contact the media or an attorney and let them do the threatening on your behalf. Otherwise, your words are hollow and do nothing more than make the reader less likely to want to help you.

Do sandwich your complaint with praise

Rather than sending an angry letter, try the honey approach instead.

Begin your letter with a positive comment. Tell them you have long been a happy customer or you were excited to try their product because you had heard so many good things about it. Then say you were disappointed and explain your concern. Wrap up the letter by saying you appreciate their help in resolving this matter because you do think their company has great potential.

Of course, you’ll need to finesse those words to fit your situation, but you get the idea. Essentially, you want to come across as a friend, not a foe. After all, everyone is more inclined to help people they like.

Don’t say you’ll never do business with them again

Maybe you never will do business with them again, but don’t put that in your letter. Otherwise, what incentive do they have to try to keep you happy?

Do include any necessary details

If you’re writing about a particular purchase, include the day of the purchase, item and invoice number, if applicable. If you’re writing to complain about an employee, include the name or a description, the date of your interaction and exactly what the employee did or said.

Be sure to send copies of receipts, contracts or other supporting documentation if the situation calls for it. That said, limit what you send to only what is absolutely necessary. If you have a 10-page rental contact, and your issue is addressed on Page 3, send only Page 3. Alternately, if you need to send more pages, highlight the pertinent sections to make them easy to find.

However, regardless of what you send, make sure you always make copies and keep the originals for yourself.

Don’t ramble on and on

While you want to provide all the details, you want to keep everything as short and sweet as possible. One or two pages max.

Leave out any background information that isn’t absolutely essential to your complaint. If you find you tend to ramble, try using bullet points of one sentence each to focus your thoughts. After you have the information stated concisely, you can remove the bullets and break up the sentences into paragraphs.

Do suggest a specific resolution

As a legislative staffer, I would sometimes read letters that included long tirades about everything that was wrong in the world. Then, they would end abruptly, leaving us to scratch our heads as to the purpose of the letter. Was there something specific we were supposed to do or was the writer simply venting frustration?

Don’t leave your reader guessing. At the end of your letter, start a new paragraph and begin it was the words “I ask you to” and then fill in the blank.

Keep your request specific and reasonable. Even Bill Gates can’t end world hunger, and the car company isn’t going to give you a new ride because the dealer scratched your car during a service visit.

Don’t forget contact information

It’s surprising how often people forget to include contact information with letters. Be sure to include your name, address, phone number and email address on the letter itself. Don’t assume your reader will be able to pull it out of the company records.

Do go to social media if needed

Social media wasn’t in play when I worked in the Legislature, but it certainly is now. In addition, companies seem eager to keep bad press off their social media sites.

If you aren’t getting a response to your letter or think you got a half-baked answer, commenting on the company’s Facebook, Twitter or Google+ account might get the attention you need.

As with other communications, keep it short and sweet. No reason to share the whole sordid affair. Something as simple as “I sent a letter but haven’t received a response yet” or “I was disappointed your company glossed over my concern” may be all it takes to get the social media team to jump into action.

Be aware that the folks running a company’s social media site aren’t necessarily in a position to resolve your problem. In fact, some companies may outsource their social media presence to third-party marketers. That said, even if these people can’t take care of the problem, they usually have the ability to get your concern in front of the people who can.

If you need more help crafting a letter, USA.gov offers a complaint letter template that can be customized to fit virtually any situation.

Meanwhile, if you prefer to take your complaints to the phone, read this article on how to get what you want on customer service calls.

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Comments & discussion

We welcome your opinions, but let’s keep it civil. Like many businesses, we reserve the right to refuse service to anyone. In our case, that means those who communicate by name-calling, racism, using words designed to hurt others or generally acting like an uninformed bully. Also, comments that include links to email addresses or commercial websites typically aren't posted. This isn't a place to advertise your business.

  • Cheryl Dye Marston.

    I respectfully disagree with this article on a few points.

    First, while it is important to address it to the correct person, sometimes going to the top is exactly where to start. For instance, I had an issue with a Wellspan location. The first time I addressed it with the manager. The second time I wrote the President of York Hospital. I was heard the second time. The President or CEO of a company have people delegated for complaints, just as you had done for a Michigan legislator.

    Another time I worked for a defense contractor. The manager of the office was caught lying on his time sheet; he said he was in the office during a time the company was closed the week after Christmas. The timing mechanism on the alarm did support that information. For a government contractor that is fraud. I could not do anything when I worked there, but when I left, as a stockholder, I went to the stockholder meeting and ask the board of directors why he wasn’t fired. They heard me (loud and clear).

    While I agree threatening to contact an attorney is not effective, letting them know you are aware of social media sites will get their attention. [I am trying to resolve this without posting to your Facebook page] Technology has changed the way consumers get their information, relying more on what their friends say than commercials. Organizations know that, use it.

    As far as the structure of the letter; on letterhead, with the correct letter writing formatting… tell them why you are writing, then tell them, then tell them why you just told them. (Four paragraphs)

    I am writing to you about an experience I had at your ABC store at the ZYX location.

    [insert story/complaint, best to have names and dates]

    [this is where you let the reader know why you wrote the letter. If you just want to be heard, what resolution you are seeking. For example, if a product was inferior, ask for a replacement or money back.]

    Thank them for their time in regards to your complaint at the ABC store at the ZYX location.

    I agree not to ramble on and include unnecessary details. In fact, after you write the letter wait a day and proof read it, then
    take out extraneous information: for those of you that remember the TV series Dragnet, “Just the facts, ma’am”.

    Saying nice things can’t necessarily hurt, but in my humble opinion, it can sometimes draw focus away from the complaint. The reader may not put the weight you intended on your situation because you still feel good about the company; therefore, I feel it should be used with some caution. However, I agree. Threatening never to do business with a company is a bad idea, most likely based on emotion not facts. Just stick to facts.

    The most important thing in writing a complaint letter is to also be the type of person that would also write a letter complimenting an organization. Next is to ask yourself, “If I was as happy about my experience as I am upset, would I write a letter complimenting the organization?” I think this measures the true dissatisfaction, the necessity for the letter, and increases the likelihood it will be received well.

    Thanks for listening,

    Cheryl

  • Jake

    The sandwich is solid advice. You get more with honey than you do with vinegar.

  • Y2KJillian

    Somewhere or other, I read that the so-called “praise” sandwich was called a “slug sandwich” and it was suggested it was
    wrong to use it.
    I agree, though, that some praise helps your case. Also, using proper paper & envelope, correct grammar, spelling, format, etc. is important; writing with a crayon on toilet paper and using curse words and poor English isn’t your best choice. Not that I’m accusing anyone of doing that.