How I got two CEOs to listen to my complaints

By Paul Michael on 18 September 2008 21 comments

Here’s a shining example of how Wise Bread writers not only read each others stories, we also follow the advice. And in my case, it worked like a charm. I’m two for two, and I plan to keep on going whenever I have a problem. What I’m talking about, ladies and gents, is the good old-fashioned complaint letter.

Several months ago, Margaret Garcia-Couoh published a great article about writing a physical letter to contact a company. Before that (long before, one of the first article I ever published) I wrote an article outlining how to complain. And after experiencing two really cruddy examples of customer service, I decided to combine the two.

First, Firestone. Here’s a very, very abbreviated version of my experience.

I had a complete oil change/tire rotation coupon for Firestone for $14.99, so I made an online booking. First, my GPS couldn’t find the store because the address on the website was wrong. I missed my Monday appointment but called and said I’d be in tomorrow, booking the same time slot. When I brought the car in on Tuesday morning at 8am, there was no record of my appointment. So, I came back bright and early the next day, only to be told the store didn’t have a filter for my car (seriously). I offered to go pick one up myself, and was directed to a local Wal-Mart…who don’t stock VW Passat filters. So, I had to come back again the next morning, where my oil change was finally done…but the coupon wasn’t accepted. I had to pay $34. Oh, and I needed new tires too, which were going to cost me $800 if I bought them at that location.

I could go on, but you get the picture. Four days and a whole lot of wasted time and money for a simple oil change, and not even the discount that was promised at the end of it. I was annoyed. No, I was fuming. So, I did what I usually do in this situation and sat down to write an email. Then, I stopped. I recalled Margaret’s article and decided instead to write the letter in my word processor. I signed it, put it in an envelope and personally addressed it to the CEO of Firestone, Mr. Mark A. Emkes.

A few days passed, and nothing happened. After a week, I had forgotten about it. That was until I got three phone calls from three different Firestone employees; one assistant to the store manager, one store manager and one district manager. The CEO had clearly lit a fire under someone, because all three were extremely eager to rectify the situation. I had the cost of the oil change refunded, and the store also agreed to mount and balance any new tires that I bought for free (which I got from TireRack, great savings there). Result. One very happy camper here. Maybe this mailed letter idea was legit?

Well, a few weeks later I got the chance to test it again. My wife took a trip to California and rented a car. She called me after she had driven only a few feet from Deluxe Rentacar and said the car didn’t feel like it was running correctly. She then asked what the tire pressure was supposed to be. I didn’t know the exact specs for a PT Cruiser off the top of my head, but I said 32psi was a rough estimate. The tires were at 10psi! How they let her drive off in this amazed me, but she filled them at a nearby garage and drove off. When she brought the car back, she had left a brand new pair of children’s shoes, complete with box and receipt, in the back seat. They cost $45 and she was naturally upset, but her friend said they could go back to the rental place and pick them up without missing their flight. So she called Deluxe Rentacar, said she was on her way back and could they have the shoes ready and waiting. This is when an exceptionally rude woman said, and I quote “there are no shoes in that car. And anything that’s left in the cars is fair game.” Fair game? What? So, my wife called me and I, in turn, called again on her behalf. I got the same, rude “fair game” message, which seems to me like another way of saying finders keepers. I was not happy.

Once again, the complaint letter I mailed did the trick. I wrote to the CEO/owner/president of Deluxe Rentacar, a very nice man called Mr. John P Hennessay, who called me shortly after receiving the letter. He was very apologetic and also wanted to know the names of the people involved, so that he could rectify their behavior. He assured me it would never happen again, and also refunded the cost of the shoes to the credit card my wife used. If she does go back to L.A. soon, I know she’ll be happy to use Deluxe Rentacar again.

If you’ve had a bad experience yourself, I think it’s well worth the time and effort to mail your letter (be it printed out or handwritten) to someone high on the food chain. And if you’re not sure where to get that information, my favorite source on the internet is the Better Business Bureau . Type in the name of the business, the address and it will spit out a bunch of information for you. You’ll get names of the principles, the corporate mailing address and all sorts of other good information (you’ll also get an idea of the company’s track record at resolving complaints).

Also, no-one wants to receive a whining, bitching rant, so make your letter polite. But, make sure you point out everything that happened that caused you distress. It’s also good to add in some praise of the things the company has done right, if not now then in the past when you’ve used them before. Remember, CEOs and business owners are people too, they deserve to be treated with respect, especially if you’re looking for a favorable result.

Follow this advice, the advice in my previous article and the wise words of Margaret and I’m sure you will get the same great results that I did. Corporations want your custom, your repeat business and your patronage, and it’s a lot easier to keep a customer than to try and get a new one. It’s in their interests to keep you happy, you just have to make them want to keep you around. If they already think you’re a lost cause, your letter will almost certainly go in the that special in-box known as the garbage can. Best of luck.

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Guest's picture

A letter mailed in receives extra attention vs email, but I did once get a computer company to take back a system 6 months after the date of purchase, it was a $3k system back then.. Can't officially tell you the name of the company, but it begins with A and ends with E, the CEO happens to wear a black turtleneck a fair bit of the time as well.. The damn fans, it was like a jet taking off all day long..


Funny thing, in the end we have to A***e computers again, a Macbook and an iMac.. Doing the right thing keeps the customer around.

Guest's picture
Gerard Sorme

I have always used the snail mail letter to the CEO to get attention to a problem. It's obvious that the smaller rental company CEO called you personally. However, it took me several years to catch on that all letters mailed to CEOs of large corporations are "filtered" with complaint letters going to what they call "Executive Assistants", but are, in fact, a team of corporate troubleshooters. If it gets the desired results - that's all that matters. Also, I learned that some CEOs insist on personally reading a "sampling" of complaint letters regularly. The troubleshooting team also writes up short executive summaries to the CEO on a weekly basis advising the CEO of any trends, etc. There's no question - this works!

Good post.

Carrie Kirby's picture

I learned this while working as a business reporter. CEOs often have a very rosy view of how their company is running, since everyone below them gives them good reports. And naturally they also take even small aspects of the business quite personally. They can be quite shocked by customer service problems that are actually all too common. I wouldn't complain to the CEO on the first try, but I would definitely cc any complants to the CEO if the first complaint didn't get results.

It was known among reporters that if the PR people or other gate keepers were not helping get us an interview or some information, as a last resort getting through to the CEO personally could make things happen.

A CEO who actually reads his/her paper mail, though? That was a new one on me. For larger companies, if you really want to get the CEO's attention, I'd still aim for email. It's the only way (unless you also have their phone number) to circumvent the secretary and other gatekeepers who would read paper mail.

I blog at

Guest's picture

Excellent advice. When I a recent request for a discount in medical bills was at first denied, I took my case to the clinic's CEO in the form of an email complaint letter. My issue was quickly directed to the appropriate person and resolved in my favor.

Guest's picture

I'm glad that their response to your car issue was satisfactory. Let me tell you that owning a VW is no fun - and if you haven't figured this out already, you will. You have to REALLY like your VW to jump through all the hoops to keep it maintained. It's the poor man's Porsche - except when it's needs to be maintained or repaired....then you might as well have bought a Porsche. Good luck.

Guest's picture

Would be interested if anyone has tried this with organisations outside of companies (such as public service or embassies)

Guest's picture

Many people concentrate on a company when they have a negative experience, but it is just as important to let a company know when they are doing something right. In March, we wrote a letter to an airline letting them know about the great job one of their ticket agents did making sure we got where we were going despite weather and non-changable tickets. A few weeks later, we recieved 2 $100 vouchers for the airline, and a copy of the commendation letter that they gave to the ticket agent. I just wanted to make sure the agent was recognized for all of her hard work, and we got a little something for ourselves in return!

Guest's picture

Thanks for this very interesting post, Paul Michael. It's great that you were able to get the company's attention and thanks for this useful advice.

While you've got Mark Emkes' attention, why not send a follow up in relation to labor rights and environmental abuses on Firestone's rubber plantation in Liberia? For 82 years, Firestone has used child labor and abused workers' rights on their rubber plantation. You can find out more at and there is a sample letter online here: (that letter is addressed to the CEO of a Firestone subsidiary, but you can send it to Mark Emkes as well).

Guest's picture

I just stumbled across this post and felt compelled to reply.

I had a very bad experience with a local high-end restaurant a few years back. I won't bore you with the details but I was entertaining some C levels and the evening was a complete joke.

I wrote a 3 page letter to the restaurant owner and mailed it in. I didn't hear anything for around 2 months - I had completely given up on them and decided never to go to that restaurant ever again.

All of a sudden an envelope showed up one day. Inside was a hand-signed letter from the General Manager apologizing for my night and indicating that he had discussed my letter with the entire staff. Included were two $75 gift certificates (roughly half my expense for the night involved).

Needless to say I was impressed and definitely used the certificates.

Paul Michael's picture

It does take people a while to respond sometimes, but it's amazing how these letters do the trick. As for the Firestone info, I'll look into that. There's just no excuse for abusing human rights.

Guest's picture

I think a lot of people would never think to do something so simple as address a letter of complaint to the owner of the company. But hey - they own the company - they have a right to know what is going on throughout the ranks.

And really - the worse case scenario - the letter does not get read...

Companies, especially big ones, get away with so much because too many people just let the situation go without a follow up. Obviously there are wrong ways to go about taking action but a simple letter to the president may be all you need to get some customer satisfaction.

Thanks for letting us know it really does work!

Guest's picture

Yes snail mail works. It's the only way to go when dealing with bad business. There is a great website to help called

Guest's picture

that it gets attentions there is a service provided by the Post Office in conjunction with Certified Return Receipt mail...

for an extra couple of bucks you can specify that ONLY the person it is addressed to may Sign for it...Secretaries, Admin Assistants, Mail Room people No Can Do..

Postman has to see the person and they have to show ID and they Personally Sign.

Believe me it Gets Attention.

~ R

Guest's picture

Wow??!!"anything left in the cars is fair game, maam."

excuse me? She's saying that she or other staff stole your wife's stuff and that that's normal at that office.

an "enlightened" employer would take this as an opportunity to teach some of the finer points and goals of customer service.

a less englightened one would just fire her. But it can be hard to find good help at less than $10 an hour pay.

Guest's picture

I've had success with this letter-writing approach on a couple of occasions. A few years ago I moved to a new state, and there was a problem with my paperwork when I first tried to transfer my RN license to the new state. It was completely not my fault, but had to do with some messed up paperwork from the state I was originally licensed in. After about a year of failed attempts to get the problem solved lower on the food chain, I wrote directly to the Secretary of Wisconsin's Department of Regulation and Licensing, the umbrella organization that oversees the WI Board of Nursing and other licensing organizations in the state. A few months later, my problem was solved. There was a little more involved that just writing a letter to the right person, but that step was the key to getting things moving.

Guest's picture

I have done this frequently with strong effect. I find it most helpful if the company happens to be a public one, to mention anything about their stock price or any unpleasant news and draw a correlation. I wrote to Gap once pointing out the rudeness of a store manager regarding a store credit, how I was in their demographic, and would be so very happy to buy something--many things, in fact-- if only the buyers would return to the basics Gap had been known for and provide something worth purchasing. I told him with an attitude like this manager had displayed, coupled with the weird merchandise choices, it was no wonder the stock slide they were experiencing was not abating. I also took the tone that I was sure with his long experience in retail that he could not possibly be aware of, much less condone, the behavior from this particularly uncooperative and juvenile manager. I got a phone call to apologize, a coupon for free jeans, and a refund of the gift card balance that I'd been trying to spend for a year without luck, and a follow up letter. I did the same with AT&T while sitting on a long call for customer service. I used the time to write a letter, pointing out how long I'd been on hold, what poor procedure was in place to shuffle me back and forth to people ill equipped to handle the issue, and pointing out my alternatives, which I would be only too happy to utilize if this was not rectified. I also pointed out how much I had spent with the company over the years and was likely to continue spending, and how vocal I was willing to be about the resolution-- whichever way it was handled. Again, I received both letters, a phone call, and a hefty financial resolution to the problem (3 services paid in full for 3 months, well over $350 total).

Go right to the top, name names, and point out your value and you will get results. And try to remember to do the same for those few stars who treat you well, do their job magnificently, and go the extra mile. It's only fair!

Guest's picture

You are all twits. When a service company fails they fail. If you want to shop at the cheap end you will end up with service that is hit or miss. Of course the company does not have a shoe is fair game policy. Get over it.

Guest's picture

Recenly I had a problem with my New car Mahindra Xylo. I went to their website but couldn't find any place where I could register a complain. Thats when I decided to write in a physical complaint letter to the manager of Mahindra Services. Fortunately he did receive the letter and he promptly acted to get the problems in my car fixed. When you want to get yourself heard you will get heard.

Guest's picture

Like many have said already, while writing to a company for a negative experience can be helpful, don't forget to thank a company for helpful experiences too. Those can be just as important, and they let the company know they've satisfied another customers needs.

Guest's picture

Good points herein, however, and I say this sparingly - try to put yourself in the other guys' shoes for a second. The examples above are clearly over the top, and I believe you're completely justified with the letter higher up the food chain, but in the everyday, day in/day out routine, those that often get an earful from irate customers are doing their very best to deliver a quality offering. Some things take time to fix/update/develop, etc.

Guest's picture

Nice article! Encouraging.

I recently had a very negative experience in a random search at the gate in a major international airport. I have written a letter to both the CEO of the airline, and the CEO of the airport, but am having trouble getting authentic emails for both. Any suggestions?