Writing letters to complain about a lack of service or discuss a product that doesn’t work is never easy. We not only want to vent, we also want to get a different result than our first experience. But we often write at the wrong moment, so we write an angry, hostile screed. The reader either wants distance from the anger or to explain what went wrong, which does nothing for the writer.
Here are some steps that make writing a complaint letter more effective.
1. Are you still angry? Wait. I know it sounds counter-intuitive, but when you are feeling angry you can’t think clearly. Feel your anger first. When you are calm again, you are ready to write. Yelling does not inspire contrition.
2. Use facts. Start with the point at which things went wrong. Stick to real events and real results. “The idiot who didn’t show up, even after we waited for 20 minutes,” is not as effective as, “The instructor didn’t show up. Twenty minutes later, we were still waiting.”
3. Explain your emotions, using “I” statements–how you felt, what that emotion led to. “I felt disappointed. I’d waited a year to hear the speaker and was hoping to interview him for our book group.”
4. If you are owed something, be clear and ask for it. This includes apologies. Ask for a refund, a replacement, but do not set a financial value on something that cannot be replaced. If someone insults you, don’t demand $3 million dollars to make yourself feel better. Be realistic. (Often, apologies are harder to get than a financial payment.)
5. If you know how the situation should have been handled, explain it in simple terms. You don’t know the rules and company culture, so offer it as a suggestion, not as a demand. Show how your suggestion could work. Many mistakes are training issues–people in charge without enough training to handle the job.
6. Thank the person ahead of time for taking action or extending an apology. Remain polite. You are more likely to get a positive response.
Case study: Several weeks ago, I signed up for a class at a museum. I’m a member of the museum. When I showed up for the class, there was a last-minute substitution–another class I had no interest in. The volunteer knew nothing about the old class and tried to get me to stay.
I wrote a curt letter to the museum. I got a reply addressed to my husband only (his name is on my membership). The apology was combined with a request that I sign up for another year of membership.
I wrote back, explaining the bad timing of the request, and suggesting that any correspondence be addressed to me, as they had addressed my husband at my email address (which contains my name.) I suggested that pitch letters be separate from apology letters. I explained that currently the museum had no way of reaching class participants if there were a change. Posting changes on the museum website is not useful, as those who have signed up for the class won’t check the website.
To my great surprise, I received a well-written, syntactically correct letter of apology. The writer explained how the mistakes had piled up. She made plain to mention that she wanted me to know about the events, and was not using the mistake creep as an excuse. She apologized in one sentence and then offered a free year of museum membership. The apology would have been enough, but the year of free membership assures her that I won’t leave in anger, and may become a better donor.
A good experience, all the way around. And yes, I let her know how grateful I was.
–Quinn McDonald is a writer and a creativity coach. She teaches business writing.