How to Write an Effective Complaint Letter

It's not often that I write complaint letters. But every once in a while, when a particularly poor product combines with me being in a particularly combative mood, I'll fire one off. This time around it was a package of bizarrely mangled bacon that got me riled up.

From the outside of the package it looked like totally normal bacon, but once I opened it up I saw that I had been tricked. The top few slices were smushed all around the rest of the bacon stack, and there was a huge gash in the middle of the stack, essentially severing all of the slices in half right through the middle. No way was I going to be able to make bacon slices here. Try bacon shreds.

Was I annoyed? Yes. Was this the end of the world? No--because I channeled my annoyance into a terse and manipulative complaint letter.

So, today I will share six tips on how to write an effective complaint letter. I’ll also share the text of my “bacon letter” below so you can look over an example.

1) Do it NOW
There are two key reasons why you want to bang this letter out now and get it over with.

First, tackling the complaint letter immediately makes more efficient use of your time. The details are fresh in your mind and the faulty product, receipts and paperwork are right there in front of you. Even the irritation and annoyance is fresh in your mind, so you can capitalize on it by channeling that negative energy into pounding out an impassioned complaint. You’d be surprised how easy it is to write when you’re truly annoyed by something, and that’s far preferable to letting those frustrations eat away at you. If you wait a few days, the details will begin to fade, the emotional immediacy is no longer there waiting to be channeled, and as a result it will take you much longer to hammer out the letter.

Note that I suggested that you write the letter right away, but not mail the letter right away. Let the draft of the letter sit overnight so you can look at it with fresh eyes the next morning. This will stop you from sending out a letter that’s excessively harsh or brutal (some people call this the “Harry Truman rule”), and you’ll be better able to catch any malingering typos and grammatical errors you’d otherwise miss.

Second, a timely complaint letter helps the company too. In our bacon example, it doesn’t really help a company to hear about a mangled bacon problem if they sold the last of that product lot off the shelves three months ago. Timeliness is especially important for mass-produced products where a production problem can quickly grow out of control and affect thousands, if not millions, of products. If your complaint gets to them in a timely manner, you’ll be alerting them in time for them perhaps to do something about it before it cascades out of control. Of course, if they choose to ignore you, that’s their own fault.

2) Start off by killing 'em with kindness
I always open a complaint letter with a sentence or two about how dedicated a customer I am. I typically don’t have to stretch the truth to say this. If I weren’t a dedicated customer I wouldn't bother to write the letter in the first place--I'd just vote with my feet and change brands. In the example letter at the bottom of this post you can see that I start of by saying how my wife and I are "happy shoppers" at the company's store. Opening with a positive lead like this makes you sound like a customer that's worth the company's time and effort to keep happy.

3) Be concise and keep it simple
Keep your letter as brief and as simple as possible and only stick to the facts. Use simple sentence structure. As obvious as this advice may sound, you'd be surprised how rarely it gets followed--in any form of writing.

You are not the Apostle Paul sending a 20-page epistle to the Colossians; you're trying to get a few bucks in coupons. You can hold back on the purple prose and you can save the tortured metaphors and multiple clauses for your novel. If you can’t state your problem in a couple of brief paragraphs (or heck, in a couple of brief sentences), you’re overthinking things and wasting what little precious time you have on this earth.

4) Include the purchase date, package code, sell-by date and any other identifying codes, and include a copy of your receipt
Believe it or not, many companies actually want to fix quality problems and make customers happy. You need to include as much specific purchase information as you can in your correspondence so the vendor vendor can identify from which lot the product came and in which factory or location it was made. It allows them to track down the origins of the problem. Thus it is absolutely critical that you supply them with all of the dates and codes that you find on the product packaging as well as where and when you bought the product.

5) State specifically what you want in return
I'm not looking for a multi-million dollar windfall here--I usually just ask for a refund of my purchase price. Usually companies have standard practices they follow for consumer complaints, and typically they will refund the price paid. Fair is fair.

But that doesn’t mean that given unusual circumstances you can’t ask for more. My all-time personal favorite complaint letter moment came several years ago, after lengthy and repeated periods of poor TV and internet service from our (unnamed) cable provider. I chose to capitalize on a moment of extreme irritation (I think we had just lost service right in the middle of a brand new X-Files episode) to pound out a particularly harsh complaint letter. And in blatant contravention of the Harry Truman rule, I mailed it out right away and left most of the vitriol in there. On top of that, I copied the letter to the state cable TV regulator's office. Talk about channeling your frustration!

I asked for three free months of cable and internet service and I actually got it. I received in that one refund more value than I'll probably get in refunds over the rest of my life. Ah, it was my finest hour, complaint-letter-wise at least. I wish I still had a copy of that letter somewhere!

6) Make it fun!
Life is too short to stay bitter for long on something like a faulty product or customer service experience. Use the complaint letter as a way to let off steam and channel your frustration. And certainly recognize that you can’t really do this to make money--you're not going to earn a meaningful return on your time if you spend it writing letters for $2.99 refunds like the one I wrote below.

Do this for fun. If the words aren’t flowing, just let it go. Obviously your time is the most valuable asset here, and if a task like this takes you an inordinately long amount of time, you have to question the point of doing it at all, unless you want to use it as an opportunity to improve at business letter writing.

Finally, I've included the text of my "bacon letter" to share with you a typical example of a complaint letter. I wrote this letter in about 15-20 minutes. You could argue, based on a $2.99 refund request and 20 minutes of time spent, that I am trading my time for less than $9.00 per hour in compensation. But let me add that in those 15-20 minutes I went from an emotional state that I can only describe as “highly annoyed” to a state of smug self-satisfaction. Heck, people pay therapists $150 an hour to do the same thing!


January 6, 2008

(unnamed grocery store), Inc.
123 Whatever Street,
City, ST 10270

Dear Sir or Madam:

My wife and I have been happy shoppers at the (unnamed grocery store) for several years. However, I wanted to let you know that I purchased a one pound package of (unnamed grocery store) brand bacon on December 29th that was in unsatisfactory condition. I’ve included the purchase information below.

The problem was with the slicing and stacking of the bacon. First, the top two or three slices of bacon were mangled and twisted around the remaining stack of bacon slices. Second, the entire package of bacon looked like it had been accidentally cut almost totally in half, right through the middle. There appears to be some quality control problems with the slicing mechanism used by your bacon manufacturing contractor.

The bacon tasted fine and was otherwise satisfactory. However, it looked highly unappealing coming out of the packaging. Furthermore, because of the condition it was in, the bacon could not be cooked in slices. Each individual slice of bacon fell apart into multiple pieces when I attempted to peel it off the stack.

Again, we remain happy customers of (unnamed grocery store) and of (unnamed grocery store) branded products. I wanted to notify you of this one quality failure and request a refund of my $2.99 purchase price. My receipt is enclosed.


Daniel Koontz

Purchase Information:
Store Location: (redacted)
Purchase Receipt Information: 12/29/07 12:48PM 284 12 329 129
(Company name redacted) Sliced Bacon Lot #: EST 7202 N2
Sell-by date: Feb 25, 2008


Anonymous said...

Go get em, cuz! Tear em to shreads . . . er, like your bacon.

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