The Letter Always Wins

by Maggie Wells on 3 July 2008 26 comments
Photo: iStockPhoto

Somehow among our many ways to contact a company and complain about products: email, toll free numbers, in person—the old fashioned letter still seems to be the squeaky wheel getting the oil.

Case in point. This week Smucker’s Jam agreed to replace two of my grandmother’s Pineapple Jams that she ordered. She talked to them on the phone and they apologized that the shoddy packaging caused the glass to break. But it was her letter that got her two free bottle replacements. (I’m not sure why they even make pineapple jam but grandma digs it and hardly anyone seems to stock it).

The husband thinks all products made now should be made just like they were made sixty years ago. He holds companies—especially old companies to high standards. But he’s also a cheap bastard that predictably buys the same brand over and over again. He’s bought the same model of New Balance running shoes four times and they’ve all worn and cracked in the exact same place. He called and complained a few times, but his last letter earned him a pair of new New Balance shoes free.

Okay. Two is a coincidence. But we’ll go with three being a rule of thumb. Playtex replaced not one but two nursing bras I had because the stitching around the underwire came undone and nearly poked my son in the eye (it did poke him in the back before I realized what was happening). I called their toll free number and they apologized but I got two free ones after my letter was sent.

I have to credit my husband with all this. I am a product of our throw away culture and am apt to give up on a company or product and just move on, but Julian is another story. He insists that things should be of good quality and when things break down he believes it’s good for companies to be held accountable to his standard. I tend to believe that all wear and tear is my fault and so I should eat all cost. He, on the other hand, believes that a good product holds up with wear and tear. From the lowly toothbrush to my Toyota Corolla, he makes the inquiries, writes the letters, gets the answers—and many replacements, coupons and rebates along with it. I can’t complain.

I’m not sure where he gets the extra energy to write the letters ---always pleasant and detailed and not rants—but I appreciate that we have at least one family member crazy enough to believe that good companies should stand behind their products. ANd I shouldn't doubt him. His letters always deliver.

I’d tell you the stuff he got from Apple but I don’t want to jinx it.

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Guest's picture
Guest

I called an airline to complain about our horrible service and got an insincere apology. I wrote a letter that detailed our experience (no ranting) and got 2 first class vouchers anywhere we wanted in the US. The letter not only gets results, but somehow, just writing it is a little therapeutic.

Guest's picture
Jesse

Is it just a complaint? Do you specifically ask for a replacement?

Guest's picture
Tam

Fantastic timing! As a peeved customer who was just charged three times for a single online purchase greater than 100$ (which has yet to arrive), this is exactly the tract I need to take. When I contacted the company's CS department, I was met with an unsympathetic "we don't see it here, you'll need to mail us a copy of your credit card statement, then we'll get back to you if we feel your complaint has merit" I've had to contact my credit card company and file a dispute, where it very clearly was charged to my account, and I'll no doubt have to pay the interest on at least one of the false charges. I think in this case a respectful letter of dissapointment will at least make me feel less frustrated and more powerful as a consumer.

Guest's picture
Tam

Fantastic timing! As a peeved customer who was just charged three times for a single online purchase greater than 100$ (which has yet to arrive), this is exactly the tract I need to take. When I contacted the company's CS department, I was met with an unsympathetic "we don't see it here, you'll need to mail us a copy of your credit card statement, then we'll get back to you if we feel your complaint has merit" I've had to contact my credit card company and file a dispute, where it very clearly was charged to my account, and I'll no doubt have to pay the interest on at least one of the false charges. I think in this case a respectful letter of dissapointment will at least make me feel less frustrated and more powerful as a consumer.

Guest's picture
Dermot

We were abroad last year on our honeymoon and my wifes bank took the liberty of cutting off her credit card. The local banks could not do anything and when we rang our bank all they could do was post out a new card to us, but we weren't to be home for another two weeks! Thankfully I still had access to my money but otherwise we would have been completely stuck.
When we got home we found a snail mail letter saying there had been foreign activity on the card and that they were going to cancel it, sent on the very day they did cut it off. I took time to write a carefully worded, very polite but VERY unhappy letter about how we could have been stuck cashless on our honeymoon, how the snail mail letter they sent to us was only sent on the day the card was cut off, how no effort was made to phone/email us, and saying how we had brought our money with us on the card, because its safer than cash, isn't it? I also asked if we should rather close our accounts with them and go with a rival bank. I copied this to the CCard dept and our branch manager.
Got a long letter back from both saying how they were reviewing their systems, blah blah blah, and a cheque for €500! Best letter Ive ever written.
Definitely worth complaining if youre not happy with a service, and the more polite and dignified you are in your complaint the stronger it sounds.

Guest's picture

1) Writing a letter shows a higher level of commitment than an email, phone call or web feedback form, because of the extra inconvenience. Companies know you are serious. They also suspect someone who is serious is more likely to make a stink with his or her friends and family, and thus tarnish the brand.

2) Most companies do not have highly automated systems to process paper mail, unlike their Taylorian call centers or automated email feedback handling systems. Thus your snail mail has a higher likelihood of being seen by an actual human rather than some natural language parsing algorithm or a powerless call center drone.

As for pineapple jam, I am surprised it is even possible, since the bromelain enzyme in pineapple digesta pectin or any other gelling agent.

Guest's picture
Tom

The pineapple jam is just a gelling agent filled with artificial pineapple flavoring, maybe with some natural fruit flavors mixed in. So, the enzyme wouldn't be in the mix.

Guest's picture
FrugalZen

The antigelling enzyme in Pineapple is destroyed by heat...thats why Jello and other deserts of that type tell you to use canned but not fresh Pineapple when used as an addition.

I've had no problem making Pineapple Jam myself at home.

~ Roland

Guest's picture

This might work most of the time, but it definitely does not work with Sandals Resorts. My wife and I vacationed at one of their places for about $1,000/day and were not happy at all with our experience. We easily could have taken that money and had a much better vacation. There were cockroaches in our room, the food was not good (Sandals in all inclusive but we even left one night to eat somewhere else), the wait staff was VERY slow, the SPA lost my wife’s reservations and didn’t seem to care… the list goes on.

Anyway, when we got back, I wrote them a couple of paragraphs about our experience (and I never write letters). I DHLed it to them from my office and tracked it, so I know it was received.

What did I hear back? Nothing. No letter. No refund. No offer for a reduced rate at another resort. Absolutely nothing…

Anyway, as you can tell, I was not happy with my Sandals experience. Their lack of caring just solidified the fact that I would never go to another one of their resorts again.

PS. They own Beaches Resorts too.

Guest's picture
Guest

Well, you have had the last word. I won't use Sandals after reading about your experience. And as quickly as word gets out on the Internet, the Sandals people are going to be wondering why the drop in business. And too bad they'll never attribute it to the one letter they got and ignored.

Guest's picture
engchik

Recently I bought chicken breasts from Perdue (the new individually sealed ones) at a high price of 6 breasts for $8.99, but I wanted to try them since I only need to eat 1 at a time. the chicken wasn’t good (I didn’t get sick, but the texture was chewy and very pressed-meat-ala-fast-food), and I decided to write them a letter- with the UPC code and the receipt, telling them while I always buy Perdue and like the chicken, I was less than pleased with this purchase and asked if they could help- it always seems to work to ask specifically for a solution, so I asked for a coupon or a refund.
In less than a week I got a voucher/coupon for up to $10 off any Perdue purchase, and they even sent me a stamp to replace the one I used mailing my letter. I think the letter really does garner results!

Guest's picture
Guest

On the flip side, I've also gotten free stuff, and coupons for writing a company to say how much I LOVED their product, too!
Don't forget to compliment a job well done, even if it's a huge company!

But yes, I've written many a politely angry letter, and gotten some good results.
Except for Samsung. We bought a TV and a DVD/VCR in the same day, and they BOTH broke within months. We thought DVD's were just terrible, and skipped all the time, but it turns out it was just our DVD player. (we've since replaced it with a cheap Walmart DVD player, and it works GREAT!)
So I've boycotted Samsung and warned my family and friends ever since they ignored my letters.
Turns out their cell phones aren't that great, either, I've heard from friends.

Guest's picture
GCM

I need to try this out in India - where we rarely get stuff for free !. My dad has gotten some success; but most times, it has been with taking the product to their official store (or something like that). Need to try this out.

GCM

Guest's picture
Guest

[...]A little advice from WiseBread on the best way to complain about defective products, something that we all know is inherently linked with our Jewish identity, Margaret Garcia-Couoh suggests to her reader that calling or emailing a complaint just doesn't cut it like sending an actual pen and ink letter would.[...]

Guest's picture
Guest

[...]A little advice from WiseBread on the best way to complain about defective products, something that we all know is inherently linked with our Jewish identity, Margaret Garcia-Couoh suggests to her reader that calling or emailing a complaint just doesn't cut it like sending an actual pen and ink letter would.[...]
http://frumhacks.blogspot.com/2008/07/best-way-to-be-kvetch.html

Guest's picture
barbc

I wonder if this is a variation on the adage It is better to ask forgiveness than seek permission (or something to that effect).

We can buy badly made items that cost the price one would expect of well made items, but they only last a fraction of the time the better made product would be.

There has to be a monitary advantage to this for the companies.

I often compose letters in my head, but don't get to it. Maybe now I will go that extra step. :-)

Barb C

Guest's picture
quaid

I wrote to a major camera company and complained about the model of camera I got for free from my company. They sent me a letter stating there was nothing they could do and there was no upgrade program and they sent me a free $50 battery.

Whoo Hoo, Free Stuff!

Guest's picture
Shandog

I had a watch that needed the glass face repaired and a new wrist band (the latch system locked up and I could never take the watch off my wrist). The watch company uses a fashion retail chain in Australia as their rep so I had to go through the store to place it for repairs. After three months of dealing with the store sending the watch and returning it with nothing done (and eventually just the glass face fixed) and their continual blaming of the watch retailer, I sent letters to both the watch company and head office of the retail store. The watch company emailed me within a day of receipt, they sent a courier to pick my watch up on friday, fixed it for free over the weekend (saving me $150 in repairs), sent it to my home address instead of the retail store by monday. They also sent a gift pack with a free hat, tshirt and wallet that I still use (pretty fashionable :D).

The retail store wrote back to me with a $100 voucher. Then a few weeks later I was contacted by the NEW store manger of the particular shop I took my watch (old guy was probably fired or moved for incompetency). He asked for the whole story and how they could fix it and then said I could come in and look at their range of converse shoes and take any pair that I wanted for free (about $80). All up a $150 repair was done for nothing and I got about $200-$300 worth of free stuff. very nice.

I've also had vouchers from coca cola, from the guys that make linx deoderant and a few other things I can't remember.

I never complain just for something free, only when I believe the service has not been up to scratch.

Guest's picture
Guest

I recently had unacceptable service at the car dealer. I spoke directly to my service advisor and received several promises of which 3 of the 4 were not met. When I emailed I received a call and all will be taken care of on the 12th of July. I believe that whether it is an email or a letter, clearly articulating your position gets results.

Guest's picture
stoo-b

I think that letters work best because when it comes civil law a paper-trail is a must. Companies know that, if pushed far enough, disgruntled consumers may lodge court cases (or contact regulatory bodies) for faulty, mis-sold or deficient products or services.

Something I would recommend is to address the letter to the chief executive of the company. Whilst he or she is unlikely to personally read it, many large companies take the fact that a customer has had to complain to the chief exec quite seriously and in some cases have a dedicated department to deal with these complaints with better tools at their disposal for resolution.

Remember though that if you're going to send a letter to complain then be sure to make it to the point, courteous and clear what resolution you are expecting. Also ensure that you send the letter by recorded delivery as this will allow you to confirm that it has been received.

Guest's picture
icy_tm

A few years back, I was very into Legos and was a loyal customer. However, one of the sets that I bought was missing one of the pieces. So, I wrote a letter to the Lego company, and within a few weeks, they sent back a nice letter, and enclosed the missing pieces along with a coupon for 10% off of a Lego purchase. However, I'm sure that if I had sent an email, I probably wouldn't have gotten a reply.

Guest's picture
jerrydill

I just had a bad experience on an airline. The people at the desk didn't seem to care and it just seemed like I was talking to a computer rather than an actual person. It was very disgruntling. I had excellent service on the site before that instance. I would like to write a letter, but I'm not sure who to write it too or how to format it. I am glad you wrote this because it really motivates me to write a letter.

By the way the airline is Airtran. I would not suggest flying them. you can usually get a flight to Atlanta for $10 more on Delta. It's worth the extra money.

Guest's picture
Indigo

The only time I've had trouble with them was a problem of my own making. I didn't realize miles expired, and when I asked about it, the person I emailed was terribly roundabout in explaining it to me. I had to ask her directly before she gave me a straight answer. Anytime I've flown, I had wonderful service, even on such a long trip as Atlanta to LA.

It was United I had the problem with; I've written them twice now, followed up with phone calls and more letters, and the most they ever give me is a $150 voucher as a "goodwill gesture". And then they make it super-difficult to actually cash in said voucher.

Guest's picture
Suz

The difference, I've found, between writing letters and calling/emailing is that with a real, hard, hand-written letter it will ALWAYS get to the right place. On the other hand, your call and email are outsourced to people without any power to solve your problem so all they can do is appologize. Thanks for the great reminder!

Guest's picture
Kelly

I actually have always had success with the phonecall as well as email. I even wrote about my free stuff here:

http://debtsmack.blogspot.com/2008/05/consumer-knows-best-aka-how-to-get...

Guest's picture
Indigo

I have a phone job working in a customer service call center, so I truly loathe talking on the phone for any reason that isn't work related.

I have two experiences wherein email still got me freebies.

Krispy Kreme had a donut I simply fell in love with -- the Caramel Kreme donut. I happened to buy one on the last day of the promotion, I discovered a day later, when they were no longer available. I asked when they'd return, and was told they were seasonal so they wouldn't be available for a year. Which was okay. Donuts are fattening. I would wait.

I waited the year, walked in, and did not find my long-awaited Caramel Kreme donut. I tried every Krispy Kreme within a half hour drive of my house, then emailed Krispy Kreme. I got an email back apologizing, advising me that the donut had been put into rotation as a regular specialty donut, and asking for my snailmail address. A week later I had a coupon for a dozen free donuts. Two weeks after that, I got an email telling me the Krispy Kreme in GA where I could actually get the Caramel Kreme. It was too far away for me to reasonably drive just for a donut or two [or even a dozen], but wow!

The second time email served me was at Steak and Shake. There was a chocolate fudge milkshake I enjoyed. If I bought it at the one near my home, it was perfect. If I bought it at the one near my job, the level of chocolate was much weaker. I sent an email, and got an immediate apology, plus a note from someone higher up in the company telling me to print the email and present it to the manager for a free replacement of my shake. I did so, and got it. Turned out the branch at which the shake is perfect is not following the recipe right, and all other branches are -- plus it's really a vanilla milkshake with chocolate syrup. So I don't really do Steak and Shake much anymore. But the email still got the results.

So some companies are capable of acknowledging we live in an electronic age. My suggestion would be email first, and then send the email along with your polite and respectful letter if you don't get a response.