The Art of Complaining: 11 tips for writing an effective complaint letter

Service Recovery

I recently came across this article while searching through old files. I initially wrote this in 2012 while fine-tuning service recovery skills as a manager, and finding that there were specific guests that I enjoyed helping over others. The ones that were complaining effectively received better compensation, while I felt I was gaining better information that helped make improvements. So I thought, why not try to train guests on the best ways to complain, which would make their lives better and ours easier? This article came from that goal.


Although this website is geared toward attractions industry professionals, it is always important to view your business from the consumer’s perspective.  This article dives into key factors in writing a successful complaint letter that satisfies both parties and is tailored for the complainers’ benefit.  If you were to read or hear complaints that utilized the tips outlined in this article, would you not be more inclined to give them what they want? A complaint is a gift.  If the company doesn’t know what they’ve done wrong, they can’t fix it.  Management cannot possibly see every interface that the customer has with the business, so the only person that can tell the business that they missed the mark is the user of the product, the one that really counts.  Complaints allow businesses to provide a better service in the future, and they enable the business to recover from the customer’s situation specifically.  With these two end results in mind, here are eleven tips on writing an effective complaint letter that are highly likely to gain attention from a company’s service department.

1 – Why are you complaining?
There are numerous ways that a business can disappoint their customer on a daily basis, and if you look for them, you will probably find them.  But the complaints that you should be making are those that occurred directly to you, not something that you searched for.  Make a complaint on something that happened, not because you wanted to make a complaint.  Be sincere, otherwise you will make it obvious that you are fishing – continually changing your story or becoming adamant about small details that hold little to no relevance to any service failure that could have possible occurred.  Some examples of service failures include: complaint against a specific employee, hours of operation, poor product quality, health/safety concerns, crowd control, long wait, discontinuation of product, ADA/accessibility concerns, restrictions, cleanliness, and incorrect information.  Note that, for the most part, these service failures are controlled situations that the business could have done better.  Complaining about the weather is not a resolvable complaint.

2 – Know your audience
Remember: your complaint will be heard or read by a human being whose job it is to be handling your complaint.  They do it all day, all week long; they’re desensitized to it.  Know that whoever is handling your complaint has most likely heard this story countless times from countless individuals, so it likely is nothing new to them.  State the facts, and let them do their job.  Before you call, or before you write that letter or email, process the complaint, and prepare to deliver it in a sense that will be comprehensible to the recipient.  If you plan on making a phone call, compile your thoughts so that they are focused and centered on the objective details of the incident and the immediate damage that it has caused.  Be sure to introduce yourself at the beginning of the call by providing your name, and begin building a relationship with the employee on the other line.  This is going to be the person who makes it all better, so present yourself in a manner that acknowledges that.

3 – Start and end with a compliment
This is true whenever providing feedback to anyone, about anything.  Starting and ending with a compliment shows that you do not see the world in black and white, and also that you are a compassionate person.  Structure your complaint to some extent of “We had a fantastic experience at…however, this went wrong…I can’t wait to come back.”  This does not detract from the effectiveness of your complaint whatsoever; in fact, stating that you still intend on doing business with the company shows that you truly are invested in their success.

4 – Give them the opportunity to make things right
Some people just want to yell.  Some people just get so upset that they will explode with frustration and rip apart the first person who has a nametag or answers the phone.  If you are going to complain, and have an end result in mind, you need to provide ample opportunity for the business to make it right.  If you don’t, you are wasting their time, as well as your own.  You need to make clear that you are giving them this opportunity by saying something to the effect of “I look forward to working together to find a solution.”  This tears down a wall of any possible tension.

5 – How to ask for what you want
There are two schools of thought on the consumer’s end in regards to expressing how they would like their situation resolved.  The first is blatantly stating exactly what you want and making very clear of your intentions and why you are complaining in the first place.  Simply put, this was wrong, give me this, and I’ll be happy.  The second is to do the complete opposite and not mention a desired solution at all, simply stating the facts of your complaint.  Take a look at the pros and cons of each.

Being upfrontBeing discreet
ProsYou leave no room for
confusion in regards to
your desired outcome.
You do not come off as pushy or
threatening.
ConsYou come off as arrogant
and seem less pleasing to
deal with.
You may not get your desired
outcome because the reader is not
well informed.

The best method is to meet in the middle between the two.  Drop clues that will allow the reader to determine exactly what you want.  Don’t give it away, just hint at it.

Example: (Complaint: Poor service in a restaurant, Desired outcome: free or discounted food in the future) “I plan on returning to your restaurant next Friday night.  Is there anything that can be done regarding my previous experience?”

6 – Channels of communication
In today’s 21st century world of mass telecommunication, getting ahold of a business to submit feedback is generally very easy.  Provided that the company has a website, they will usually (if they understand that a complaint is a gift) provide you with their contact information so you can get ahold of them.  Letter, of course, is still the most proper, but emails, phone calls, or even faxes are acceptable and accessible channels of communication.  Based on the type of message you are sending, choose the best option that you feel will suit your needs the best.  Tip: do not publicize negative feedback on social media outlets until you have made concrete attempts at privately contacting the company without result.  This is not an effective step to having your complaint resolved.

7 – Be levelheaded and understanding
This is probably one of the most fundamental keys to any human relationship and is therefore probably the most important tip in this article.  It sounds simple, but it is not a common trait of the majority of complainers today.  Stick to the facts, don’t make ultimatums, don’t exaggerate, and indicate that you have some form of common sense.  Reflect back to the situation and see if any reason why the service failure occurred could be of fault of your own.  Did you do the research?  Did you consider external factors?  Are you a part of the problem?

8 – Assume they know what they are doing, and let them know
Part of being levelheaded and understanding is also acknowledging that the service failure you encountered is likely not a repeat occurrence, otherwise they would no longer be in business.  Let them know that.  If you frequently visit this establishment or otherwise do business with them, you are most likely complaining because of something that occurred out of the ordinary.  Following this step will assist in building the bridge and developing the relationship that you have with the business that will encourage them to want to assist you further.

9 – The best customer is the one that complains (properly) the
most
It’s almost like you are being consultant that pays them for your services.  If you frequently and tactfully make suggestions or provide honest, legitimate feedback that allows the company to make continuous improvements and build upon their overall success, they will be greatly appreciative of their loyal customers who aren’t afraid to point out when they’ve done wrong, but will still come back, spend money, and promote positive word of mouth communication.

10 – Follow through on your promises
Even though this is a post-complaint step, its long term effects are what counts.  If you say that you look forward to a resolution because you intend on continuing business in the near future, or that you intend on publicizing their excellent guest service via social media (see tip 11), make sure you do it.  They will most likely recognize this and your loyalty will be apparent if another service failure happens again, or if they happen to remember you next time you transact with them.

11 – Thank them when they have done right, and publicize it
What company doesn’t love free positive publicity from some of their biggest supporters?  Once the complaint has been resolved, be sure to acknowledge their fantastic customer (or guest) service via social media and word of mouth.  You may even see that the company will respond, publicly or privately.  Some websites, such as TripAdvisor, allow for the company to respond to feedback posted on their website.  This is an excellent way to build your relationship with that business so that they can continue to serve directly to your needs.

Joshua Liebman
As the Founder of BackLooper, Joshua helps attractions strengthen guest engagement through feedback, and provides the intelligence needed to correct the most pressing concerns that detract from the guest experience.  Joshua’s passion for guest experience comes from his background in hospitality and tourism, serving visitors from all around the world and specializing in complex service failure resolution.  BackLooper has proven to help attractions optimize their feedback loop and foster guest loyalty.

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