Photo (cc) by kattekrab
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.