How to complain and get a good result.

By Paul Michael on 28 January 2007 (Updated 10 June 2007) 10 comments

Customer service

As a professional advertising copywriter I’ve learned a thing or too over the years about persuasive writing. I’ve used that knowledge in my personal life on many occasions, but the place where it’s really paid off is in letters and emails to customer service departments. I’ve put together a little guide for writing a letter of complaint that will hopefully get you further along than a typical rant and rave.

I should point out that this is advice only for those involved in the most minor of problems. If you get rear-ended by a bus and get hospitalized, you’ll need much more than a letter of complaint. But, if you get bad attitude from a store clerk, this may help you get something other than a snotty reply, or in most cases no reply at all, from the customer service rep.

First up, do you have a genuine complaint?
Silly question, right? But I’ve talked to many customer service reps over my time, and some of the things they get screamed at for are ridiculous. It’s not the company’s fault that you ordered a car with cruise control and expected it to be auto-pilot (that’s a real one by the way…the mind boggles). Are you ticked off for a genuine reason, or do you just want to lash out because you made a bad purchase? If you feel you have a genuine, realistic gripe, it’s time to take action.

What do you want out of the complaint?
Be reasonable. A bad attitude from a grocery clerk is not going to get you a year of free groceries. A stale bag of chips will not get you a lifetime supply of your favorite snack. Ask for something equal to your disappointment. A bad experience in a restaurant equates to a free meal next time, so try for that. A poor product deserves a refund or replacement. I recently had very, very poor service at a gas station. I wrote and explained what happened, politely, and what the company would be willing to do to help restore my faith in their company. I received two gas certificates in the mail a few days later, and I’m happy to go back and try them again.

You catch more flies with sugar than vinegar.
Not that I’m calling CSRs flies, that’s just an old saying that illustrates a point. If you start spitting venom in your complaining letter all you’re doing is letting that company know that you’re irate and probably a lost cause. It’s far better to be a loyal, disappointed customer who really wants their faith restored in a company, than be completely ticked off and taking your business elsewhere. Also remember that these people have to sit and read complaints day in, day out. Another average ‘I’m pissed off, what are you gonna do about it’ letter is hardly going to cut through the clutter.

You must get across that you are a customer who still wants to come back and use that company’s products or services, but need a show of good faith in order to do so. Act a little wounded if you must. The outcome will favor you much more.

Threats and rants will get you nowhere.
I’ve worked closely with CSRs over my many years in advertising, and they’ve all had threats of varying proportions. From legal action to verbal abuse and violence, it’s all been done many times. And those reactions fall on deaf ears. You may get lucky and get a result, but usually you’ll get an apology letter, if anything at all. More often than not, threats go nowhere because people know you write them in a state of anger and frustration and 99% of people will never see the threats through. They just want to vent. So, calm down before you write your letter, take a few deep breaths and put everything in perspective. You’ll get much further from that starting point than with steam shooting out of your ears.

Handy phrases to use in your letters.
Try a few of these next time. They’re worth their weight in gold. And use this tone throughout your letter. It’s one of disappointment, not anger.

Since I can remember, I’ve been a loyal customer of…

I have always enjoyed your products/services but was really disappointed when…

I was shocked to see such bad service from a company I’ve grown to trust…

I feel let down by this incident. It’s so unlike your company…

Can you restore my faith in…

You get the idea. Let them know they are a good friend who has let you down. Someone you care about, and want to trust again. That’s a good story to tell, and a good way to get someone to listen. It’s far easier for a company to save an existing customer than spend more marketing dollars acquiring a new one. As long as you indicate that you want to be saved, that is.

A good checklist for your letter

  • Include your contact details. They need to know who to reply to.
  • Have respect for the person you’re talking to.
  • Don’t make idle threats or wild claims.
  • Be brief. No-one wants to read War & Peace. Get to the point in one page or less.
  • If you need to provide proof, keep copies or better yet, send copies.
  • Keep a copy of your letter. You may need to reference it later.
  • Avoid generalizations. Be specific about the one incident.
  • Be honest. Really, only complain if you have a real complaint.

One final comment – nice feedback is also appreciated.
As I said earlier, the customer service folks are on the receiving end of some pretty nasty calls and letters for most of their working day. So imagine their reaction when they get a letter or call that is simply a note of thanks for a great product or service. Not only does it make them feel good about their company, it also has more chance of making it higher up the corporate ladder. Who knows, it may even get to the CEO and you may find yourself getting something in return for your kind words. It’s not uncommon for nice feedback to result in a t-shirt, gift voucher, pen, or free product that you like so much. So, next time you eat a really tasty meal or are knocked out by the quality of service somewhere, think about letting that company know. It’s a win-win situation for everyone.

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Guest's picture
Brian

These are very helpful tips.  I have always been too lazy to write these type of letters.  Maybe all I need is a little help and extra incentive.  Thank you for the extra push.

Guest's picture
John

Good tips. I find one basic rule goes really, really far:

Don't curse and don't raise your voice. Just don't. The moment you take it to that level of obvious anger, you are about 99% more likely to get zippo. And it'll just serve to make everyone around you uncomfortable.

You can get away with expressing your anger or disappointment as much as you want or can if you don't do those two things.... and CSR's will often stay with you about making you whole.

Guest's picture
Dave

This is great! I have been challenged by each one of the suggestions. I admit to having become cynical after so many times of feeling powerless. Your post gives me hope.

 

I agree with the tip to give positive feedback. The service folks get so little of it and when they do they almost drop to the floor in gratitude. When I have exceptional service, I always ask to spek to the manager oo the way out and tell them how great it was. I admit its kind of funny to watch the trepidation of the manager thinking he is about to get yet another complaint.

 

thanks!

Fitch Hurst's picture

I just had a long-running incident with CSRs at Chase telling me one thing, but doing another-- telling me I'd earn reward points for certain purchases and assurances that if I didn't, it would be corrected over the phone. Unfortunately, this was not the case and I got letters in the mail saying that no, I would not be given the reward points.

After over a month of calls, one CSR gave me a mailing address to write to. My letter did fail the "one page" and even had to be 11-point font with 3/4" margins just to fit two pages. But I had specific dates, numbers, and more recently names, which I decided to start writing down. I painted a detailed picture of why I was dissapointed in their misdirection. I never used the word "promised" but I used the word "assured" a lot-- "I was assured I would be given" and "The Agent assured me this was the policy". This was a more passive word but shows that I gave trust in the company.

I am supposed to hear back 7-10 days after I sent my letter. I'll let you know how it went.

Andrea Karim's picture

Hey, Fitch, there's always Consumerist, should you want to make Chase squirm a little. If you can get them to verbally abuse you, it would be even better.

Guest's picture
Mike Rodriquenz

I have taken my car back to the Midas shop three different times,not to mention a forth to another location for sub standard brake service and still I am not satisfied.No courtesy calls,no responses to emails,no nothing.I have filed a complaint with the BBB and still nothing.I am out $200 and have a warranty that is not worth the paper it is printed on.So despite the size of the company and saying and doing all the proper things to at least get there attention,they are not impressed,nor do they care and it just doesnt work.

Guest's picture
Guest

extremely poor service from MFI ordered a kitchen cabinet for £3700 and delivered the item 1 weeks after the set date, items arrived damaged and wrong items were sent, and the main cabinet still missing, nothing is being done, had to pay extra £200 to the fitter for rearranging the date for him, this delayed our complete kitchen work process, proo service from MFI, went to the shop and the manager "ash" was really unfriendly and argued back when it was there fault, all i'd say is never buy from MFI again extremely terrific service

Guest's picture
Guest

I dont know if Im doing this right but im just so upset about a tv chanel in Ny tbs optimum they changed all the shows and they are all horrible programs now they were good and Im a disbled person who is home everyday and really looked foward to the shows and ir very disappointing and you should put dawsons creek on also. Thankyou a guest

Guest's picture
Denise

hi I just very upset about a tv ChNWL INnY TBS OPTIMUM HAS has changed all its programs they were very good and now there horrible Im home all day im a diabled person and its just ver disssapointing because it was such a great channel and now theres realy nothing good to watch and hbo is not even worth getting because they have the same movies on all the time and also you should but dawsons creek on instead of saved by the bell Thank you

Guest's picture
Zhu

Only recently I made one complain to a company. I was getting tired of spending money in shoes that would break two weeks later for no reasons. I wrote a polite letter with a couple of pictures (more of a theraoy than anything else actually!) and mailed it, not expecting much of it.

A couple of weeks later, I had a letter of apology and a brand new pair of shoes sent to me. Seriously.

I believe if you have a valid complain, most company will try to help.

 

Great tips!