Got Beef? Writing Letters of Complaint

Submitted by SharpMan Editorial Team on Sunday 10th October 2010
In this article
  • How to address the proper party.
  • How to use an effective tone.
  • How to get an answer within a time certain.

Every SharpMan knows someone who is always writing letters of complaint. Bad service at the local McDonald’s? Letter. Car radio breaks after one year? Letter. In most cases it seems like a hassle; but when the same guy enjoys his free Supersized McLunch while listening to his free replacement car stereo, many SharpMen begin thinking, "Well, may be this isn’t that time consuming."

The fact is, writing letters of complaint is less time and thought-consuming once you have your format down. Check out these simple SharpMan tips for writing these types of letters:

Step One: Use the Best Format.

The best complaint letters are typed or clearly printed in a business letter format.

There are several reasons to avoid the temptation of sending a consumer complaint by e-mail. First, complaint letters are most effective when directly addressed (see Step Two). Unless you have the exact e-mail address of the executive you seek (far harder to get than just the name and title), you’ll have to send your letter to a general mailbox (good luck). Second, for the time being, e-mails are still considered to be far less formal forms of communication and thus are less likely to be taken seriously.

SharpMan Tip: If you really are just too lazy to take out pen and paper, consider using on of several online complaint services, such as Mr. Smith E-Mails the Media and Mr. Smith E-Mails Washington, a free online service that locates the e-mail addresses of newspapers, magazines and government officials and then delivers your message for you (http://www.mrsmith.com). If you’re too lazy to even write your own message, check out the Complaint Letter Generator, an online service that will automatically generate an eloquent complaint letter on your behalf (http://www.csag.cs.uiuc.edu/individual/pakin/complaint ).

Step Two: Address the Proper Party.

There’s no point in writing a note to someone without the authority to act on your complaint. Sure, the janitor may have more time to sift through mail, but it’s usually an executive who can make the decision to send you the replacement product you seek. Ideally, you should direct your complaint to the customer service director, the president of the company or a senior executive.

Begin by calling the company and asking for the name and proper title of the person in charge of the division at issue. If you find that the person answering the phone is hesitant about providing a name and title, clearly identify your purpose and insist on getting the required information. Many companies instruct receptionist staff to guard executive information against canvassing headhunters.

For those SharpMen who’ve sworn against their telephone in favor of online research, note that calling is far more effective than visiting the corporate Web site, since executive information is rarely posted online.

Step Three: Explain Your Beef.

As important as to whom you send your letter is what you say and how you say it. Many SharpMen are only moved to write letters of complaint when they’re really ticked off. Of course, this creates a bit of a challenge because the most effective letters of complaint never communicate anger, irrational babbling or threats of litigation/fraternity-wide boycotts. Ideally, your letter should be very clear and concise and convey the following information:

  1. The name of the product, including model and serial number. In the case of a service complaint, give the names and titles of the people with whom you had contact. Also include the date of purchase/service and the location.
  2. Give a brief history of the problem. Include dates and relevant descriptions. Stick to the dry facts; avoid emotional embellishments. No one cares.
  3. Be clear about what you expect the reader to do for you. Would you like a free replacement? Would you like a rude employee to be investigated?
  4. Finally, provide a (reasonable) time in which you expect to hear back from the reader before taking additional action regarding your problem.

Step Four: Identify Yourself.

Sure you’d like to tell them exactly what they can do with their product and remain anonymous, but that’s unlikely to get you a free radio. Make a point of ending your letter by clearly identifying yourself and your company (where relevant) and include your phone number, e-mail and address.

Step Five: Include Copies of Stuff.

Got receipts? Proofs of purchase? Witness affidavits from people who saw the clerk slapping you? Send copies (not originals) of these documents with your letter and refer to them in the body of your complaint.

Step Six: Ensure Delivery.

Most letters of complaint are sent off by regular mail. For those SharpMen who require proof of their letter’s receipt, take the time to send your letter by registered mail (which gives you proof of mailing), restricted mail (where only the addressee may sign for the letter) or return receipt requested (where you receive a postcard confirming receipt of your letter).

Step Seven: Still Pissed?

Report the incident to the local Better Business Bureau. If you’re really pissed, consider sending a copy of your letter to a news program that specializes in investigating consumer concerns. In all instances, be cautious in how you report consumer complaints to third parties. Recount your problem in the most objective way possible; avoiding sounding like a slanderous loose canon. By the same token, refrain from making inflammatory statements in newsgroups and chat rooms. Costly legal battles have been launched by less.

This article last updated on Sunday 10th October 2010
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