What You Say When You Complain: A Checklist For A Business Letter
by Gene Griessman, Ph.D.
One. Begin your complaint letter with a compliment, if you can honestly find something positive to say. For example, “I chose your company because of your excellent reputation.” Or, “I decided to do business with you because you were highly recommended by……”
Two. If this is your first effort, give the recipient wiggle room. An oversight may have occurred. The problem may have happened at a low level in the organization, and the individual you are dealing with just does not know what happened. So say, “You may not know all the particulars of this situation.” Or “I feel what has happened is certainly not intentional.”
Three. Give yourself some wiggle room, just in case you are wrong. Say, “Perhaps you responded, and your letter was lost in the mail,” Or “You may have sent me an email, but my Spam Catcher caught it” Or “You may have made a direct deposit but I just didn’t see it.”
Four. Give the recipient a reason to help you. “Because you are a manager (or a vice president, etc.), I know you want to get feedback from your customers.” Or, “I know you agree that if customers don’t tell you, it is difficult to improve service.”
Five. You should be firm, but you must sound reasonable. If you sound like a crazy, your complaint letter may not be taken seriously.
Six. Your letter should not be long and rambling. Edit out extraneous details. Keep to the point. If it is many pages long, it won’t be read.
Seven. If this is your second or third or fourth attempt, think about who else should know about your problem. Ask yourself, “Who would this party not want to know about this? And then cc that individual or organization.
Here is an example. Several years ago I purchased an auto warranty policy for my classic Jaguar. Unfortunately when I needed a repair, the warranty did not cover what I had been led to believe it covered.
After several attempts, I decided to cancel. The company threatened to impose a very high cancellation fee.
I contacted the office of the state insurance commissioner and spoke with one of the staff members.
Then I wrote an email to the warranty company, referenced the conversation with the insurance commissioner’s office, and sent them a copy of the email.
Result? I received a refund right away without a prohibitive cancellation fee.
Learning point. There almost always is somebody that the offending party doesn’t want to know about your problem. It could be the Better Business Bureau, a member of Congress, the newspaper, a complaint on the Internet. This is your leverage.
Eight. Proof carefully. If your letter is full of typos and inaccuracies, your credibility will be damaged. Read it aloud to yourself and then let someone else whom you respect read it too.
Nine. Some situations require a letter from a lawyer. You can get a letter written for a modest amount for just the letter and bare-bones advice about how to use the letter. I subscribe to a legal service—Pre-Paid Legal—which provides this service for a monthly fee.
Generally, when I need to complain, I start with a phone call, observing the principles listed above—providing the other party a reason to help me, giving the other party wiggle room, sounding reasonable but firm, etc.
But I have found that knowing how to write a business letter of complaint is one of the most important business skills I have ever acquired. The letter, because it is a letter, takes the complaint to a higher level. I rarely fail when I follow the complaint checklist.
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You will also enjoy Lincoln Speaks To Leaders by Gene Griessman and Pat Williams.
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