Art of Fine Whining
Complaint Letters That Work
When I have a problem with a business or service I frequently write a complaint letter. Surprisingly, I often get a positive response. Here's a sample letter:
Dear Mr. Samm,
My wife and I have enjoyed eating at Samm's for the last several years. Your hamburgers are the best in town, in our opinion. We tell our friends. However, last Friday evening, we waited in a line ten people deep while we watched a lone waitress frantically scurry around trying to serve too many tables. After 15 minutes and not getting seated, we decided to leave and went to another restaurant. Why not hire a second waiter or waitress? And why not enlarge your restaurant? You have available space to the east. We wish you the best with your restaurant, and we hope you resolve the problems we encountered.
Harlan and Char Simantel
The owner replied with a two-page, hand-written letter. He was a bit defensive about how he ran his business, but he included a $15.00 coupon for our next meal at Samm's. Later he built on to his restaurant, as I'd suggested. How do you write an effective complaint letter? (And I'm writing here about products and services under $50.)
Be sure you're right. First, you need to have a legitimate complaint. The loaf of bread was gummy and stuck to the roof of your mouth. You ordered tickets and hotel rooms via a travel agency, but waited weeks while your agent did nothing. The local grocery advertised fast, friendly service, but you waited in long lines at the checkout counter. I complained about each of these problems.
Accuracy counts. Next, be specific with facts. Get the name of the service person, the time you visited the store, the store location, the model number of the item that's not working, a copy of the ad that made a false claim, and so on. Include a copy of your receipt. Use only relevant facts, however. Remember also to include your name and address, phone, and e-mail, so you can be easily reached.
Keep it simple. Be concise. Keep the letter to one page, if possible; a busy manager or owner will appreciate that. Use short paragraphs, rather than one long, tedious paragraph. Arrange your story in a chronological fashion. Use your own words, plain and simple. Ask your mate or a friend to read your letter to make sure it's easy to understand.
A little sugar. Start off your letter with an honest compliment. Praise what the business does right: the clerk was friendly and prompt; you've shopped there for years, because it's convenient and they have a nice variety of groceries; the travel agency was recommended by a friend who was very pleased with the service.
If your letter comes across as a tirade, angry as hell, you'll raise the owner's psychological defenses, and she'll be less likely to want to help you. But if you sound reasonable -- and even offer some honest praise -- she'll feel like you're on her side, and probably be more willing to help you.
Suggest an improvement. To get on her side even further, suggest a way to improve the product or service, if you can. That's what I did with Samm's letter (I was very surprised he took my advice). If you're doing more than asking for your money back, you look less selfish -- even altruistic. Sometimes an outsider (you) sees the problems and solutions of a business better than those who are close to it.
Make it neat. Type your letter if possible. Use a spell-checker. Proofread the letter when you're finished writing.
Ask and it might be given. Be sure to ask what you want from the business to solve your problem. Complaining about the dirty, used replacement computer monitor you received is not enough. You need to firmly demand a monitor in good condition. Quote their contract. Photocopy their advertising about "satisfaction guaranteed." I did just that and eventually got Dell Computer to send me what I asked for, despite some indifferent and surly customer service reps.
Sometimes you don't need to ask for anything. Write your complaint and leave it at that. A responsible company will try to make it right with you and win back your business. My wife and I endured two loud, drunk fans behind us at a minor league baseball park. We couldn't find any ushers or security personnel to complain to.
So the next day I wrote a short letter to the Portland Rockies organization, stating our problem. Within a few days I received a call, thanking me for my letter, apologizing about the disruptive fans and promising to do better. They also sent us free tickets to the next Rockies' game; the seats were even closer to the ball diamond.
When complaining doesn't work. If you've phoned and written and seen the store manager in person -- with no resolution -- call the Better Business Bureau, and write or call your state Attorney General's office. For amounts under $50 it may not be worth your while to do much more.
Next time you're frustrated by sloppy service or a product that doesn't work, don't just fume about it -- get it off your chest and write an effective letter.
The flip side of complaining. When you receive outstanding service or are pleased with a well made product, consider writing a thank you note. Behind every faceless company are thinking, feeling people, and they will happily welcome a "thank you" from a satisfied customer.
At a local grocery store lines were long and slow at checkouts, and there were no clerks in the aisles to help with finding grocery items, among other annoying problems. I wrote a critical letter and never got a response. Later, the store made some improvements. I wrote them again, saying I noticed and appreciated the positive changes, especially the helpfulness of employees, and the elderly greeters who met me at the entrance.
I got a call from the store manager, who told me he read my letter at an employee meeting. He said it boosted morale. That made my day.
Don't be surprised if you get back more than you give when you express appreciation. I've received coupons, t-shirts, mouse pads, a variety of Bic pens, and free tickets. Best of all, it makes you feel good to express thanks for outstanding service and fine workmanship.
Harlan Simantel is a graphic artist for a large community college in Oregon. He is an avid oil painter and likes to fly fish remote lakes and backpack with his wife.
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