Your fingers thump the keyboard or your pen digs into the paper as you pour out your anger, disappointment, annoyance, rage, concern — whatever emotion it is that has propelled you to write to complain.
You finish writing, press send and sit back to wait for the response, which may or may not be to your satisfaction.
Putting some forethought and preparation into a complaint letter will raise the chance of you getting the kind of response you want.
Be clear about the purpose of your letter
Before you begin, identify just why you are writing and what you want to happen. Some of the reasons for writing include:
To ask for a refund
To ask for a replacement
To ask for compensation
To express dissatisfaction with a service
To draw attention to a shortcoming in a system or service
To let off steam
Public complaint, private rant
If you realise that you just want to have a good rant, maybe you could think about what would be gained from writing this letter. Instead of writing, you could vent some of your feelings (indeed, you probably have) by entertaining friends and family with an imitation of the incompetent person who is the subject of your scorn, or a blow-by-blow account of the indignities and inconveniences of your train or plane journey.
Find the name of the right person to address
A name is much more effective than a generic Sir or Madam (a greeting which seems to look more and more outdated).
It’s not always easy to find the appropriate person through a company’s website as some firms like to hide contact details but if the contact information is not readily available then try the Sitemap which should be listed in small type at the bottom of the website in the footer.
Check through the Sitemap for areas such as: Company, Contact Us, Corporate Information, FAQs, Help, Media (which should give you contact details for the press office, if there is one).
If you are in doubt, find a phone number (preferably a free one) and make a call to ask for the name of the chief executive/person who is in charge of delivery/department manager etc.
Get straight to the point
Say what you are complaining about, and what you would like to happen.
I am writing to complain about/express my concern about…
…and to ask for a refund of the full amount/to ask for reassurance that this will not happen again
Don’t just ask someone to look into the matter, ask for a response. If you want a meeting with someone, say so.
Give a clear account of the situation
Stick to the facts. Don’t use emotive or colourful language –– then she flounced out and I was left there/he looked at me as if I’d crawled out of a wormhole/my five-year-old would have shown more competence/the assistant – well, that’s an overstatement
Don’t get carried away with a narrative. Leave out irrelevant details. Make it easy for the person reading to understand the situation.
Include any photographs or other evidence that support your complaint.
Say how it has affected you or why it matters
Make clear the nature and extent of any inconvenience, discomfort, distress caused. If appropriate, give specific details.
Maintain a polite and firm tone
Don’t go off-piste into rant territory. Refer to people by name or role only. Hold back on the derogatory adjectives. Resist the urge to add cutting descriptions.
A bit of humour can soften people and win them over, but it can be dodgy when you don’t know your addressee personally. If your light quip lands on the desk of Mr or Ms Sense-of-Humour-Bypass you might weaken your case.
Finish by repeating what you would like to happen
Refer again to your opening paragraph. Repeat the words you used:
Therefore, I am requesting a refund of …/I look forward to receiving your response to the points I have raised
When you are not asking for anything
If this is a situation which is over and cannot be repaired, just say that you felt so strongly about the occurrence that you had to write. Make clear that you realise that nothing can be done. If appropriate you could add that you hope your observations will stop it happening again.
When you have a working relationship with the people involved
You might be taking up a complaint with your children’s school, or a company you do a lot of business with, or a shop or manufacturer you frequently use, or a club you belong to, or your medical practice, or a restaurant you enjoy going to.
In this kind of case in particular, you want to ensure a cordial relationship will continue when the matter has been dealt with. You can set this up by beginning and ending your letter in a way which indicates a positive attitude.
At the beginning of your letter, use a word like ‘reluctant’ or ‘sorry’. Refer to your normal level of satisfaction with the service you receive.
I am sorry to have to raise this matter, since Tabitha is generally very happy at Dothegirls Manor…
I am reluctant to bring this to your attention, as we have enjoyed many good meals at Casa Bustaguta, but I need to point out…
Reluctantly, I am writing to complain about our recent service, which fell far below your usual good standard.
At the end of your letter, refer to the good relationship you have.
I am sure that we can sort this matter out and that we will continue to enjoy evenings at your restaurant/receive good service/have every confidence in
Check for spelling
Get someone who can spell to double-check your letter. Do this even if you have used a spell-check. Spell-check programs are only human. Well, you know what I mean.
Pause before you send it. If the subject matter of your complaint is delicate, you might like to wait a day. Wait for a very long time if you were drunk, hungry, angry, tired, in a bad mood with someone else when you wrote the letter.
Sometimes things settle in your mind. Sometimes circumstances change. A great example of this is Hello Muddah Hello Faddah, comedian Allan Sherman’s novelty song of 1963 based on letters he received from his son at camp.
The kid in the song has a list of complaints and wants to come home, but then it stops raining, everything looks a lot brighter, and he finishes with ‘Muddah, Faddah kindly disregard this letter!’
You are so right, young sir. Some letters should be disregarded, or not sent at all.