Effectively making consumer complaints

The Art of Fine Whining

by Diana Gault


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What do you do about:

  • Faulty merchandise?
  • Unexplained delays?
  • Overcharging?
  • Incorrect advice from a professional?
  • High pressure sales tactics?
  • Blatant rip-offs?

If you're like most of us, you whine to friends. You intend to write to or call the business, but it doesn't happen. And it and probably wouldn't help anyway, right?

Wrong. If you're serious about stretching each dollar, you need to transform your ineffectual, unfocused whine into a well-written, concise communication (a.k.a. formal consumer complaint) to the appropriate person within the offending business. Well-written complaints are rarely ignored. With free samples, reimbursements, discount vouchers, and even simple apologies, the results are frequently better than expected. Most businesses and many volunteer-run organizations are acutely conscious of, and anxious to improve, their public image, particularly if their livelihood (or source of funds) depends heavily on maintaining the long-term goodwill of a relatively small customer base.

A written complaint provides an accurate record; you can present your case in the best possible light, uninterrupted, and with minimal stress. More satisfying than playing digital diatonics with a disembodied telephone voice. But before you start pounding that keyboard, jot down answers to the "Five Ws:"

  1. Who? - Know the name/title/address of manager/proprietor/head honcho to whom you will complain. If you don't know, play detective and find out (e.g. call and ask how to spell the sales manager's name even if you don't know it. If you wind up floundering around an automated system, check the Internet and/or the library for the information.)

  2. What? - This includes the key points at issue. Include your account number/other identifying information and, if you know it, the name/title of employee/volunteer/manager involved.

  3. When? - Have specific date(s) and time(s).

  4. Where? - Be specific For example, say "the small appliances department of your downtown branch" not simply "your store."

  5. Why? - State what you hope to achieve by complaining. Use for the second paragraph of your letter.

Now you're ready for the "Three Rs": Report, Response and Result. Each "R" should be covered in one paragraph; headings are to keep you on track, not to be included in the finished letter. Remember, keep it brief at no more than one page.

  1. Report - Note the nitty-gritty. Omit nothing vital, but don't ramble on about who said what to whom. Double-check any dollar amounts. Use appropriate language. You may think the business sucks, big time, but you must find a fancier way of saying so. Instead, refer to their "appalling inefficiency," "disastrous disorganization," or "outrageous overcharging." Stick to facts, and don't use your misfortune as the springboard for an unrelated (and potentially defamatory) tirade.
  2. If anything you write is not easily verifiable, preface those words with "In my opinion…" for example. Generally speaking, you are entitled to express an opinion about anything or anyone, as long as that opinion is clearly identified as such, and is neither threatening nor abusive.

  3. Response - How do you want this issue to be resolved (from "Why" in the "Five Ws"). If it can't be resolved, how could the business retain your goodwill? Always ask for more than you expect, such as a full refund, instead of the difference between what you paid and what you should have paid.

  4. Result - Explain what action you'll take if their response is unsatisfactory. For instance, you may choose to never deal with them again and/or you'll refer the matter to your local consumer protection organization. Use whatever big stick is most appropriate (but, again, nothing that could be construed as threatening or abusive) and follow through if your complaint is unsuccessful.

Run grammar and spell checks on the finished page and print it. Leave it for a day or so at least. Delete any unnecessary words and reprint for a final reread before you mail (or email) the finished letter.

Sound easy? It's not the first time, but with practice, it will become easier. You'll learn to pick your battles, and you may even develop a "complaint vocabulary" of useful phrases. Start now. Don't wait for a real problem. Practice drafting and writing letters for imaginary situations or those that have happened to friends.

As you become comfortable with expressing dissatisfaction in a reasonable and tangible manner, you will likely have fewer bad experiences to complain about. Because you have learned how to deal with them effectively, you'll be more confident in your ability to prevent, deflect or minimize those experiences in the first place, which is a very "fine art" indeed.

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