The Art of the Complaint Letter
When I was a child, I remember my mom saying I was so stubborn I’d argue with God. My reply? “Only if He’s wrong.” (Even as a kid I figured the odds of God being wrong were pretty low.)
The truth is I don’t like arguing. I just happen to be good at it.
In high school I toyed with the idea of one day becoming a lawyer, but I knew I could never remember all of the laws, statutes and case laws. Today I only unleash my argumentative skills when I have to, and it usually involves writing complaint letters.
I’ve incorporated all of these tips in my most recent (and on-going) real-life experience:
- Only complain when you KNOW you’re right, then stick to the facts
- Be firm but polite
- Save complaints for important issues
- Don’t ask for any extra compensation or freebies
- Follow up as needed*
- CC their superiors, watchdog groups, and other interested parties
- Never use profanity or make personal attacks
- Retain your sense of humor (a little sarcasm goes a long way)
- Get your facts straight and document as much as you can
- Leave the ball in their court
- If Customer Service doesn’t fix it, escalate it to the CEO
Something major has to be at stake for me to sit down and write a complaint letter. I recently spent about four hours writing my third complaint letter to the same company within one month. Why? A glaring mistake on their part (which would have been avoided had they merely adhered to their own corporate policies) has led to a comedy of errors.
My first letter – addressed to the Vice President of Customer Service, with copies sent to a state-wide industry watchdog group and the person who initially referred me to the company - pointed out their error and offered a simple, fair remedy. They sent back a letter spelling out how they would correct it with a reduced fee for September, and included a specific amount and the date it would be deducted from my account.
That should have resolved the situation, but….
The next day I received another letter from them about the “new” plan they claimed I’d requested (I hadn’t). Apparently they were hoping I was dumb enough not to realize the “new plan” was a downgrade from what I already had, but at the same price. Worse yet, it was retroactive.
Learning my plan had been retroactively downgraded led directly to Letter 2, where I pointed out those changes were made without my request, consent or knowledge. That downgrade essentially penalized me for what was clearly their initial error, so I also demanded that my original plan be reinstated immediately.
The date of the next automatic payment arrived before Letter 2 had elicited a response. I checked my bank account to see how much they’d taken out: it was more than double the amount they said, in writing, they would withdraw.
You guessed it: Time for Letter 3, and the gloves are off.
I copied the CEO in on Letter 3 and sent him copies of my two prior letters plus both letters the company sent me. I explained how the entire mess would have been avoided had the company simply followed its own protocol. His response, or lack thereof, will reveal how much (or little) this company values its customers.
Sometimes all it takes to get a lazy or incompetent customer service executive to do his or her job is to make sure the big boss knows about the problem. It’s usually pretty astounding how fast that works. If you present the CEO with a valid complaint, documentation about the issue and outline your efforts to resolve it, in most cases you’ll receive a phone call from an executive level problem solver who will find a way to rectify the situation.
The jury’s still out on my current complaint. (I just mailed Letter 3 today.)
Here are a couple more tips for dealing with customer service issues:
- When calling Customer Service, note the date and time of the call, the representative’s name (and employee ID number, if applicable).
- If your first call to Customer Service doesn’t work, create a paper trail by complaining via e-mail or regular mail. If the company has an online form, copy your complaint and save it in a Word file for future reference.
- If you tweet a complaint, chances are someone from the company will ask you to follow them and continue the conversation via Direct Message. That’s because they don’t want your Twitter followers retweeting anything negative about their company, product or service. If you agree to follow up with a DM, don’t let it stop you from tweeting relevant, fact-based updates to your followers – including thanks to the company if and when they resolve the situation. Never tweet false or libelous statements.
If a company knows anything about good customer service, they’ll find a way to make things right and let you know you’re a valued customer.
Complaint letters are important, since most companies rely on customer feedback to troubleshoot problems and help them improve their products or services. Just remember that it’s equally important to compliment companies on great products or services, and single out employees who’ve done their jobs exceptionally well.
What customer service issues have you faced lately? What steps did you take, and how well did the company resolve the issue?
* A couple years ago the CEO of a certain utility company received monthly updates from me titled, “As the Meter Turns,” to highlight how long it had been since they’d sent someone to read the meter in my basement. They got back on track after about four “installments.”