The worst complaint letter ever? Oh, that’s easy. It came from an elderly airline passenger whose in-flight entertainment system didn’t work on an overseas journey.
“As compensation, I demand a roundtrip ticket anywhere your airline flies,” he wrote in a huffy email to the carrier.
Needless to say, he didn’t get it.
Some emails are discarded without being read. Which ones? It varies from company to company. But a few general rules apply.
• Letters that contain any kind of profanity are normally ignored, and some that may be considered threatening are handed over to law enforcement. (So don’t swear, even if you’re really upset.)
• ALL UPPERCASE letters sometimes don’t even make it through a company’s spam guard. By the way, spam guards also catch and filter out profanity – another reason to lay off the four-letter words.
• Letters with gratuitous file attachments are frequently kicked back by mail servers.
• Asking for something so outrageous that it doesn’t merit a response is another no-no. (“My six-year-old sofa has a stain that won’t come out. I want you to replace it.”)
Elements of a winning letter
If you’re trying to persuade a company to offer you a refund on a defective product or an exchange on an out-of-warranty product – in other words, if it’s going to cost them money to make you happy – then you face an uphill battle. Many companies hire skilled writers who have 50 ways (or more) to tell you “no.”
But there’s a way through their formidable defenses. Here are six things every successful complaint letter has.
You’d be amazed at what you can find with a quick Internet query – everything from successful letters to the form replies they generated to tips for writing a letter. I curate a wiki (www.onyoursi.de/wiki) and the reader comments, in which customers share their advice for successful grievances is often an excellent place to begin. Not only does it help you know how to approach your problem, but it also helps set your expectations.
Keeping it tight
The most effective e-mails and letters are very short — no more than one page, or about 500 words. They include all details necessary to track your problem, such as a receipt or an electronic confirmation. Remember, There’s a real person on the other end of the process reading the e-mail or letter, so if you write too long, it’s possible they won’t make it all the way to the end.
Manners really matter. Time and again, customer service agents tell me that cordial and grammatically-correct missives catch their attention and make them want to offer better service. On the other hand, missives with four-letter words, threats, and ALL UPPERCASE are responded to with the bare minimum. Or not at all.
Citing the rules
Your complaint has the best chance of getting a fair shake if you can convince the company that it didn’t follow its own rules or broke the law. Normally, you can find a copy of an end-user licensing agreement for the gadget you bought right in the box, but sometimes the rules are less obvious. For example, your airline ticket rules aren’t on your ticket, but in an almost unreadable document called the contract of carriage. If you have any questions, ask the company for a copy of the contract or find it on its Web site.
Tell them what you want, nicely
I’ve already mentioned the importance of a positive attitude. I’ll say it again: Be extra-nice. Leaving this detail out could doom your request to failure. It leaves the question of “How do you fix this?” up to the customer-service representative, and rest assured their answer will disappoint you more often than not.
Copy all the right people
Yes, customer-service representatives review the list of everyone you copied on an e-mail or letter. When they see you’ve shared a grievance with a few other folks, it will give the complaint more weight. The people you copy will depend on the type of grievance. Just think of it as the exclamation mark at the end of your letter. You might want to let the government regulatory agency responsible for that business know about the problem. Or, you may want to send it to a consumer advocate like me.
A tight, polite, well-researched and targeted email that specifically says how a company can address your grievance has the best chance of success. A rambling, vague and emotional one, however, may never get answered.
But you can do everything right and still get turned down. Next week, I’ll show you how to appeal a “no.”
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 at On Your Side or by email.