How To Write A Complaint

How To Write A Complaint

It's easy to think you're good at writing complaints.

That's because writing a good email of complaint feels cathartic. It gives us a good feeling. When we write one, we are charged with energy. We feel like we can do no wrong.

Problem is you are not writing a complaint to yourself. Making yourself feel good might be nice when you write it, but it won't get you a good reply.

I spent five years reading and responding to complaints on behalf of some large organisations. Let me tell you, how you write it makes a big difference.

  1. Calm down.

    This is important.

    I know you're angry and you want to write the email now. Don't. You'll embarrass yourself.

    When you're angry, you become obsessed with the idea that you are right. It causes your ego to inflate like a bouncy castle and you won't be able to see your spelling mistakes or anything. You probably wouldn't even bother reading the rest of this page.

    I can't think of any scenario where the email can't wait for an hour while you have a cup of tea. Do that instead. You'll write a much better email when you're calm.

  2. Check you were right

    I promise we get to the letter writing soon. But this is important too.

    It is incredibly embarrassing to send off your letter of complaint, feeling all proud of yourself that justice is going to served, only to later discover that you were totally wrong and had nothing to complain about at all.

    That inflatable ego we mentioned earlier? This would be like being hit with a crossbow and your ego quickly deflating through the bullet hole while you can only watch.

    Save yourself the humiliation and spend five minutes checking you do actually have something to complain about.

  3. Check your detail

    I promise this is the last patronising one.

    If you send off a complaint and you accidentally get the date, time, location, or any other key detail wrong, you're wasting everybody's time including your own.

    Not to mention that the person at the other end is hardly going to take your report seriously if you can't even remember what day it is.

    It's OK if you make this the very last step you do, but just don't forget about it. Make sure you check you got all the details right.

  4. Ask yourself what you want

    Your email will be much more successful if you actually stop and ask yourself what you want it to achieve.

    Do you want a member of staff to be disciplined? If so, make that the focus of your email. Do you want the company to change its policy? Again, make that the focus of your email.

    So many of complaints I received would just be people telling a story: "I asked for a coffee and was told you'd ran out". I'd get to the end and think, why are you telling me this? Do you just want an explanation? Is it a complaint about our stock? A complaint about how you were spoken to?

    It can be genuinely confusing to read a complaint like that, but it's also a cop-out for the lazy. I could just file that and say "well you haven't asked me to do anything, so I won't". Make sure you're clear about what you want.

    The best reason to complain is that you want to raise awareness of your situation and prevent it happening again. That's a good mindset to have. But I appreciate sometimes you have a problem and need it to be resolved.

    Do you just want compensation?

    If you are demanding "compensation", then you have to take the company to court. If you're not prepared to do that, then you should accept whatever gift you are given.

    Whether or not you receive a money off voucher will depend on the company's policy. It will probably depend on which member of staff deals with your complaint, and even down to what mood they are in.

    Some complaint handlers will be more likely to give you a money off voucher if you were polite. Others will be more likely to do it if you were angry. Some will only do it if you ask. Others will say that asking is rude.

    You get the idea. There is no standard rule for how to get money off vouchers, and there is no point trying to come up with one.

    Money off vouchers are known in the trade as "gestures of goodwill" because they are precisely that. They are a gift from the company to you. You are not automatically entitled to one no matter how annoyed you may be.

    The exceptions to all this are if your property was unreasonably damaged, or if you paid for a service which was not received. You are quite entitled to receive that money back. It becomes more complicated if you are complaining that what you paid for was poor quality, as you and the business may have different opinions on whether what you paid for was extremely disappointing or not.

    What you can't do is send an email requesting additional money to cover the fact that you felt stressed, that you had to drive to a different store, or that you were too upset to enjoy your two week holiday. And yes, somebody did once ask for me to pay for their holiday as compensation for the fact our barista upset them!

  5. Get straight to the point

    The person who receives your complaint might be dealing with hundreds of complaints a day. If you want them to help you, first you have to help them.

    Get straight to the point. Say that it is a complaint and tell them what happened.

    Use the opening paragraph to tell them where you were and what you were trying to do. They don't normally need to know why you were there and what your background is, not unless it is very important to your story.

    Remember that most complaints will never be opened again once they have been dealt with. You're not trying to form a personal relationship with the person reading. Any detail which doesn't need to be there can be taken out.

    By making life easy for the person reading your email, they are more likely to take pity on the situation you found yourself in.

  6. Tell them what the consequence was

    This is the key part to getting your complaint understood - but a lot of people get it wrong.

    The main part of your email needs to list everything that went wrong, and then say why that was a problem. Normally it should be one item per paragraph.

    For example, about a hotel you could say:

    The bed was uncomfortable. This made getting a good rest difficult.

    Notice how it's two sentences. One tells them what happened. The other tells them what the consequence was. In a real email you might make the sentences longer to suit the rest of your message.

    Sometimes the consequence will be an emotion: "I was annoyed" or "I was offended". Try to avoid this. The point of the two sentences is to explain why you were annoyed. They already know that you were annoyed - that's why you're writing to them!

    For example, instead of saying "The staff were rude to me. This made me angry.", you need to say "The staff ignored me. This was rude".

    Notice the difference! The second one is much easier for the person reading to investigate. The one before it doesn't really say what happened.

    Sometimes you won't be able to think of a consequence other than an emotion like "I was upset". If that's really important to the complaint then put it in, if not leave it out.

  7. Be nice

    The whole point of a complaint is to get the person reading to take pity on you.

    You want them to feel bad. "How can this happen to such a nice person?"

    They aren't going to feel that way if you are in any way unpleasant, rude or nasty.

    Some people believe that the best way to get yourself taken seriously is to be aggressive and even threatening. That's simply not true. It gets you nowhere.

    If you are angry or upset, you can say this or say what happened. You don't need to show them what being angry looks like.

    If it looks like you don't have the maturity to express your emotions, or it looks like you're a rude person who deserved what happened, the staff will think that, and while they might tell you that they have taken your case very seriously, they won't do it.

  8. Don't try to be clever

    You know what I'm getting at here.

    When you're writing an email, it's so tempting to fill it up with sarcastic jokes. Silly metaphors, silly references, silly asides about your life.

    For some reason whenever we come up with things like this we think we're really clever. The human brain hasn't evolved enough to realise that the person reading this will just think you're an idiot. I promise you that. Don't even try it if you want your complaint to be taken seriously.

    As we said before, you need to get to the point. Making smart remarks like "now maybe I've grown in the last 20 minutes, but that's not an average sized serving!" doesn't cause your email to stand out in any way except making the author look deeply unpleasant.

    Don't try to impress the reader with big words and academic qualifications. It doesn't work. Be yourself: the reader will take your case more seriously if you clearly don't know many words, than if you try to show off about all the words you do know.

    I am aware of the theory that women get taken more seriously if they address themselves as "Dr". All I can say is that this isn't true for any of the staff I have worked with, but that is not to say that it's untrue for every business, or even other departments. If I am being honest with you, when I was recording complaints I found the idea of people offering their academic title presumptuous. Now I know the reason, I won't judge anybody who genuinely believes that using an academic title allows them to be treated equally. My advice about not doing things to show off still stands.

    When amongst friends sarcasm can be funny. When in a serious email it just looks nasty, and as we've said before, if you sound nasty, you're not going to get any sympathy.

    This is true for all jokes. The person you are writing deals with this subject day-in, day-out. No matter how witty you think you are, you can guarantee they've heard your joke many times before.

    When complaining on social media, it can be especially tempting to be witty and sarcastic to gain some 'like's. You can do this if getting a reaction from your followers is important to you, but don't forget that you will still cause the person you are complaining to to roll their eyes.

    Phone calls are totally different. Your personality comes across well in phone calls, and a little bit of personality can brighten up the other person's day (they are used to being moaned and shouted at). Just be careful to make sure your idea of 'witty' isn't boring or confusing them.

  9. Avoid self-pity

    This is a difficult one to get right.

    If you have any kind-of affliction which is important to your complaint, then of course you should include it. For example, if you can't walk far which is why you were annoyed that you were told to go to a different counter.

    The problem is that people mention their disabilities a lot. They mention them when they aren't relevant, and sometimes when they aren't even true. As a result, it can sometimes feel like a parody.

    My advice is this: if your disability is very important to the complaint, mention it. If it's only slightly related, don't.

    For example, if you had to get home quickly because a member of your family needed care, that might explain why you were so angry, but it's not directly relevant to the fact that the shop assistant made a mistake. As we've said before, get straight to the point. In that case the extra detail wouldn't really change the story.

  10. Keep it short

    At the end of your complaint, make sure you say what you want to happen. Something like "please investigate this", "could you please tell me what went wrong" or "please make sure this doesn't happen again" will work.

    What's that? The end? Yes!

    We've said throughout this page that you need to keep things short. Only tell them what they need to know. So to re-cap, your email should look like this:

    First paragraph: I wish to complain about what happened when I... PROVIDE ALL THE BACKGROUND DETAIL HERE

    Second paragraph. Say the first thing that went wrong. Then say why it annoyed you.

    Third paragraph. Say the second thing that went wrong. Then say why it annoyed you. Repeat as many times as you need.

    Last paragraph - say what you want to happen: I hope you can find out what went wrong so you can make sure it doesn't happen again.

    Depending on the situation, you can also use the last paragraph to throw in some niceties, if you think the business deserves them. For example: "I was disappointed because the service here is normally excellent".

    Of course, the template I've just used is very bare. You should expand it a little to make it suit your personality, and make it as friendly as is appropiate.

    When writing to a small company, especially one where you recognise a few of the staff, you might feel a bit rude using my "just get to the point" writing style. That's fair enough, and in those cases you might want to be a bit more personal, because you are trying to maintain a relationship with the management.

    My advice is more geared towards large companies, where they receive hundreds of complaints and you want yours dealt with as quickly as possible. But however big or small the company may be, you still need to respect that the person reading is busy and don't waste their time with your life story!

Are letters better than emails?

Almost all companies these days keep electronic copies of all their complaints. If you write them a letter, they will only scan it and store it with all their emails.

Emails are much better than letters. They get there quicker, they are less likely to be lost or damaged, and they don't sit around in people's in-trays.

That's not to say that there's anything wrong with sending letters (handwritten or typed). If that's how you like to communicate with businesses, then keep doing it.

But don't be under the mistaken belief that letters will be taken more seriously than emails. They won't.

Who should I address my complaint to?

Lots of people seem to be under the mistaken belief that if you address your complaint to the manager, CEO or whoever, it will be taken more seriously. It won't.

At pretty much every company, the same people investigate your complaint, no matter who you address it to. If anything, writing to the manager simply delays your complaint, as it may be passed around the office (or even passed between offices) before it is processed.

Simply address your email to the complaints department (and normally that will be obvious from your introduction). If you start asking for someone specific, unless you have good reason to, it just looks like you believe you are more important than everybody else who also has a complaint. That's never a good way to get your issue taken seriously.

There are some businesses where a CEO will want to sign off all responses to complaints which were addressed to him, but the CEO is still very unlikely to do the investigating. At a small company, it is probably the manager who investigates all the complaints regardless.

This advice is general advice and applies to 95% of large businesses. I know there will be some cases where the complaints department is badly run and by writing to someone senior you can leap over that shambles. But 90% of the time that's not the case, and even if it is, it's not great to start your complaint by insulting the entire complaints department.

My complaint didn't work!

There are normally two reasons why a complaint might not have worked. We all like to think it's the second one. Normally it's the first one.

  1. Maybe you didn't have a case

    This is a difficult pill to swallow. Sometimes, your situation wasn't as special as you thought it was. This is especially true if you were expecting compensation.

  2. Maybe they didn't take you seriously

    This feels more likely.

    If you were clear in your complaint about what happened and what you want them to do, and you believe you aren't being unreasonable, then chances are their complaints department is badly run.

    Maybe they rushed through your case and didn't read it properly. Maybe their company is badly run all the way through. Maybe they thought they could give you a quick reply and you would go away.

    It's hard to give detailed advice for every case, but if you're in this situation you basically need to explain to them why their reply hasn't solved the situation.

    If what they've said is untrue, tell them which part were untrue. End by reminding them of what you would consider to be a satisfactory conclusion. Remain polite, even though you're frustrated. You can be persistent while still being polite.

    If you feel that the company is never going to listen to what you are saying, don't waste your time with them. You've recorded your complaint and it's in their database. If they ever want to find out why all their customers are leaving them, they can go into their database and find out. Until then, just leave them to do their thing.

Legally bland

Any similarities with real-life events or wealthy international firms is probably coincidental. No products endorsed. I'm powered by Monster Munch.

© 2020 Johnathan Randall.