Consumer IQ

The Top 5 Customer Complaint Letters — And What You Can Learn From Them

(image from airline complaint)

Oliver Beale’s letter to Virgin Atlantic chairman Richard Branson is generally acknowledged as the best customer service complaint letter — ever.

In his 2008 missive, Beale, a grumpy ad agency employee, deconstructs a flight from London to Mumbai. His tirade mocks the food (“a crime against bloody cooking”), the in-fight movie (“Is that Ray Liotta?”), and pokes fun at Branson (I can’t imagine what dinner round your house is like, it must be like something out of a nature documentary”), all in 1,070 hugely entertaining words.

But is it an example for you to follow?

Maybe. Maybe not.

A look at the most popular complaint letters suggests the ones that generate a lot of noise online may not be the most effective ones to use as a template for your next grievance.

1. Dead hamsters don’t solve grievances

Beale’s letter sure makes for interesting reading. Here’s an excerpt, in which he berates Virgin for providing a substandard flying experience:

“I’ll try and explain how this felt. Imagine being a 12-year-old boy, Richard. Now imagine it’s Christmas morning and you’re sitting there with your final present to open. It’s a big one, and you know what it is. It’s that Goodmans stereo you picked out from the catalogue and wrote to Santa about. Only you open the present and it’s not in there. It’s your hamster, Richard. It’s your hamster in the box and it’s not breathing.”

Why it doesn’t work? Unless the email is picked up by a lot of major media and blogs, it will be tossed into the circular file. Long, descriptive emails that don’t get to the point rarely if ever get the attention they deserve. Beale’s only did because it was brilliantly-written – and shared with the media.

2. There will be an $8 drop in monthly profits

It is unclear if Wendi Aarons of Austin, Tex., ever sent this complaint letter about her feminine hygiene product to Procter & Gamble in 2007. What is clear is that it caused quite a dust-up online, to the point that it was even truthsquadded as a possible urban legend by Snopes. The bottom line?

This not-safe-for-work letter is real, but the context is a little fuzzy. (I really mean the not-safe-for-work part, by the way. You’ve been warned.)

An excerpt:

“Last month, while in the throes of cramping so painful I wanted to reach inside my body and yank out my uterus, I opened an Always maxi pad, and there, printed on the adhesive backing, were these words: “Have a Happy Period.” Are you [expletive deleted] kidding me?”

Why it doesn’t work: Profanity almost always is filtered out by a company’s email system. Had this letter actually been sent, it would have been met with a form response, if not been disposed of.

3. I am disgusted as I write this note

Here’s another airline complaint. This one was sent in 2005 to the late Continental Airlines (CAL), which earlier this month merged with United Airlines (UAL). It is hand-written, but that’s good. The illustrations make the note so irresistible.

“I am sitting in seat 29E on one of your aircraft. As you may know, this seat is situated directly across from the lavatory, so close that I can reach out my left arm and touch the door. All my senses are being tortured simultaneously. It is difficult to say what the worst part about sitting in 29E really is.”

Why it doesn’t work: Among other things, the passenger threatens to flush one of its employees’ heads down the toilet. He also rambles, although, to be fair, the rambling is entertaining. A shorter, more polite version would have achieved better results. But keep the illustrations.

4. Count me out!

Peter Morin is a happy iPod Nano owner. But when he heard about the terms of settlement in a class action lawsuit against Apple (AAPL) in 2009, he objected. The whole thing seemed just wrong to him. So he wrote a letter to the claims administrator expressing his outrage.

“It would be my preference that every lawyer participating in the group of Plaintiffs’ Counsel be marched into a Shea Stadium full of satisfied iPod owners and pelted with the electronic detritus of their choice. I predict that the “uncoated” iPod nano will not be among them.”

Why it doesn’t work? The letter, while a compelling and interesting read – not to mention funny – doesn’t really offer the claims administrator any way of helping Morin. Except to count him out of the settlement. He could have done that in one sentence. Maybe he just needed to say what he said.

5. I can barely contain my excitement in awaiting your response

Sometimes, sarcasm doesn’t go over well online. Sometimes it does. In John Noble’s case, it did. He had a billing problem with AGL, Australia’s largest energy company. Apparently, the company had neglected to send him a bill for 18 months, but was trying to make up for lost time.

The length of his missive is epic, which is part of the trouble.

“I’m bored of this debacle and I want it over and done with. I’m sick of getting nonsensical correspondence from you. I could have built a tower to the moon with the amount of paper you’ve sent me. I no longer believe that I will ever receive a bill that will satisfy my pedant-like desire for accuracy; no longer trust that your organisation is competent enough to actually supply me with this information.”

Why it doesn’t work: At 1,872 words, this epic-length email is all but certain to be glossed over by the customer service department. Shorter is better. Exception: If your sarcasm works online, give yourself a little literary license. But not too much.

I’m not saying humor (or even sarcasm) shouldn’t be a part of your next complaint letter. Only that short, polite emails that get right to the point and suggest a way for the company to address your problem are more helpful.

Because while the complaint letters I’ve highlighted here are legendary, their resolutions weren’t.

Christopher Elliott is a consumer advocate who blogs about getting better customer service at On Your Side. Connect with him on Twitter and Facebook or send him your questions by email.

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