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.”


About Paula Hendrickson

I'm a full-time freelance writer with an addiction to yarn, cooking and all kinds of crafty things. I come from a long line of creative and entrepreneurial types on both sides of the family, making creativity almost like competitive pursuit.

Posted on September 9, 2013, in Communication, Complaint Letters, customer service, Writing and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 7 Comments.

  1. Reblogged this on The Customer Service Vigilante and commented:
    This is an excellent blog article!

  2. Hi, Paula:
    You know that I have waged a righteous war for years with companies who at first refuse to acknowledge a defect or to correct a service issue. As a former aviation warranty administrator, I learned that sometimes you must take a company to task for what is clearly their responsibility even if the item is out of warranty.
    I employ the same philosophy in my personal life. Never will I attempt to defraud a company, but at the same time, I expect that if they hear from me, it is a legitimate reason for them to review and to respond.

    My latest skirmish was with a well known printer company when an ink cartridge “exploded” in the case, and leaked red ink. Yes, the printer was out of warranty, but as a previous aviation warranty administrator, I knew this was something to be addressed regardless of time since I always used their cartridges and did not abuse my equipment.
    After the usual “sorry, its out of warranty and no call backs, I sent a few emails with details and pictures. Finally, I took to social media which garnered me a speedy response from a Vice President no less.

    Now, the good news. They replaced the printer with a current new model, supplied the setup ink cartridges and the printer has warranty included. I was requested to send in my defective printer-they supplied the box and paid for shipping. I was happy to do it. Will I buy from them again, absolutely!!! They came to realize the importance of customer service but only after a well-orchestrated plan of gaining their attention.

    Many people do not follow up with issues that should be addressed by a company. If we continue to use whatever means available-emails, phone calls, letters, social media, etc. perhaps customer service will become more proactive sooner than later. Or, we will get better quality service and products and not need to launch “campaigns” for justice. LOL.

    Thanks, Paula for details of how-to for those who have legitimate complaints. It is up to us-the customer/consumer to keep companies accountable for their services and products. In today’s marketplace, no company can afford negative publicity especially since it can travel the speed of a Tweet to most anyplace on the globe. Oh, I also write thank-you responses and use social media to report positive outcomes.

    • Paula Hendrickson

      I remember the exploding ink incident and how the company worked to rectify it. Even if the printer was out of warranty, they probably realized a defect in their cartridge was the problem – and also damaged your printer.

      Good outcomes like yours are the best PR a company can get!

  3. Paula: Excellent advice and follow-through. I swear it feels like companies figure they can simply wear you down to the point you give up on your complaint. And, sadly, that is too often true.

    As you know, Paula, I have an employee benefits/insurance background. Shortly after I started freelancing, I had a diagnostic test (an MRI). I was on COBRA of my last employer’s health benefits, so I still had the nirvana of paying relatively small copayments. Our copayments were $40 per visit for the MRI. The provider’s office kept trying to bill me for two $40 copayments because there were two views done that day. I used to do provider contracting as well and knew this was incorrect.

    To make a long story short, we went on a war of written words. I know my broker (my former employer) couldn’t understand why I didn’t just pay the extra $40. It became a matter of principle with me. Even after they had the insurance carrier (who created the contract) confirming it, they still weren’t backing down.

    This is one time the little guy (me) wore them down. They finally dropped the charge.

    • Paula Hendrickson

      I love it, Cathy!

      It all boils down to accountability, doesn’t it? And principle, too.

      This afternoon someone from the company I’m battling called to settle the dispute. Before I let him speak I made it clear that I was taking notes – date, time, his name. He SEEMED to clear most of the matter up. (Coincidentally, this is also with a health insurance company, but it’s about the policy and premium, not a claim.) When he told me my plan had not been changed I told him I needed it in writing. Good thing, too. Since the plan he confirmed as mine is NOT the one I had prior to this debacle.

      I thought it looked wrong, so I called my broker to confirm the name of my actual plan – you know, the one I assumed I’ve had all along – and it was different. So this guy got a reply saying pretty much, “Sorry, but that’s not right either.” I’ll give him a chance to handle it before sending any more missiles – I mean missives – to corporate HQ.

      My broker said she’s meeting with a rep from this company on Friday…wonder what kind of tap dance they’ll put on for her?

      • What a fiasco, Paula. Makes you wonder what’s going to happen once the state health insurance exchanges open the doors.

      • Paula Hendrickson

        More accountability is a good start. The scary thing is my complaint is about them not informing me of changes in cost and policy…God help me if I ever reach my deductible and have to make a claim!

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