Don’t be a crazy person. That is the No. 1 rule for writing a complaint letter. I’m not kidding. That simple idea will go a long way toward getting your problem resolved. It’s simple: If you come across as having your act together, you have a good shot at getting the complaint dealt with quickly. If, on the other hand, you come across as being out of control, your letter will be ignored. As a consumer reporter, I receive more than 1,000 consumer complaints a week. I have been on the job for well over a decade. Do the math. I have read thousands upon thousands of lousy complaint letters – and a handful of good ones.
Here’s what I’ve learned: By the time most consumers are ready to sit down and write a complaint letter, they are fed up. They have been dealing with the problem for so long that they know too much. The problem has taken on gigantic proportions – if not in real life, then in the consumer’s mind. This is completely understandable. The consumer feels wronged and has worked hard to get the problem resolved. Yet nothing has happened. Because of that, they end up writing exactly the wrong kind of complaint letter: one that is too long and too complex. One consumer, for example, wrote me a 10-page letter about her problem. She wrote about her decision to buy a new sink. How she had shopped for a faucet.
Why she had bought the faucet she’d decided upon. How much the faucet had cost and the store where she had made the purchase. She explained how the faucet was installed and who installed it. She described her mistreatment by the company that made the faucet. Whom she spoke with when she complained and what she was told. She explained, in detail, why she felt the customer service representative was snide. (See “Word to the Wise,” below.) Finally, she stated the problem: The faucet leaked. In journalism, that’s called “burying the lead.” That’s when the most important fact (the faucet leaked) is overwhelmed by less-important facts.
If you find yourself in a similar situation, here’s all you need to know to write a complaint letter that will get read and acted upon:
1. You get four paragraphs. That’s it. No more, no matter how complex the problem. This letter may be the first in a series of contacts. You will offer more information later, if requested, but you cannot force it down their throats.
2. The paragraphs must be short and to the point.
3. Don’t be condescending.
4. Don’t complain about the complaint process. That is a different letter.
5. Don’t send a letter addressed to a major corporation and expect a response. The letter must be addressed to a specific person. Telephone or go online and look for the name of the person in charge of complaints – or at least the person in charge of the product or service you are complaining about. If you can’t find the division manager’s name or the consumer-complaint person’s name, send the letter to the president of the company, using his or her first and last names in the salutation.
6. If you must cc your letter, cc it to only one organization. Although most consumers are convinced that it helps to cc a letter to a host of agencies and individuals, it does not. It shows that you are an amateur. Those of us who receive ccs tend to ignore them. If the letter is being cc’ed to a half-dozen organizations, I assume that everyone else is reading it and I can ignore it guilt-free.
7. Don’t complain via e-mail. E-mail is an easy way to do it, and that’s why e-mails tend to get ignored. With e-mail, consumers don’t have to put forth much effort to write the complaint. In return, companies don’t put forth much effort to fix the problem. The more you put out, the more you get back. Don’t expect some company employee to jump through hoops to solve your problem when you aren’t even willing to stamp a letter. It’s much more effective to write a short letter – and here’s your proof. . . I called the woman with the leaking faucet and suggested that she rewrite the letter in my four-paragraph style. She took my advice, and the company took care of her problem.
I’m guessing her letter looked something like this: Sally Smith Director of Consumer Services XYZ Company 123 Main Street Anywhere, CA 94111 Dear Ms. Smith: I am writing to complain about a recent problem I have had with a faucet manufactured by your company. It is the Aireator 5000gf. The faucet was installed in November 2003 by a professional plumber and worked wonderfully for 12 months.
In December 2004, the faucet began leaking while I was out of town traveling. Water damage occurred. The faucet comes with a “No questions asked” lifetime guarantee, and that is why I am requesting that XYZ pay the costs associated with the damage caused by your faucet. My total out-of-pocket expenses came to $854.00, as you can see by the attached receipts. I look forward to hearing from you within two weeks. Sincerely yours, Jane Consumer
(Ed. Note: Michael Finney is a popular television and radio personality whose broadcasts are enjoyed by millions of consumers. Throughout his 25 years as a broadcast journalist, he has recovered millions of dollars for consumers, led the charge for crucial product recalls, and brought con men to justice. Finney is the consumer reporter for ABC-7 television and KGO-AM in San Francisco, where he hosts the station’s No. 1-rated consumer talk show. Michael Finney’s book Consumer Confidential will show you common sense mo.ney savings secrets and teach you to be a smart consumer. If you are interested in saving an enormous amount of mo.ney, time and energy and get the greatest sense of peace visit: http://www.consumer-confidential.com)