Responding to Customer Complaints
Here are simple tips, templates and examples for writing good complaints letters. This approach to complaints letter-writing is effective for private consumers and for business-to-business customers who seek positive outcomes from writing letters of complaint. The principles apply to complaints emails and phone calls too, although letters remain generally the most reliable and effective way to complain, especially for serious complaints.
Effective complaints letters (and any other way of complaining) should be:
Imagine you are the person receiving customers' letters of complaints. This helps you realise that the person reading your letter is a real human being with feelings, trying to do their job to the best of their abilities. Your letter should encourage them to respond positively and helpfully to the complaint. No matter how mad you feel, aggression and confrontation does not encourage a helpful reaction to complaints.
Good complaints letters with the above features tend to produce better outcomes:
- Concise letters can be understood quickly.
- Authoritative letters - letters that are well written and professionally presented - have more credibility and are taken more seriously.
- Factual letters enable the reader to see immediately the relevant details, dates, requirements, etc., and to justify action to resolve the complaint.
- Constructive letters - with positive statements, suggesting positive actions - encourage action and quicker decisions.
- Friendly letters - with a considerate, cooperative and complimentary tone - are prioritised because the reader responds positively to the writer and wants to help.
These complaints methods are based on cooperation, relationships, constructive problem-solving, and are therefore transferable to phone and face-to-face complaints.
See the customer service code of practice and tips, to understand more about the organization's view of complaints handling.
What are the tips and secrets of effective complaints letter writing?
(Please note that UK English tends to prefer the spelling ISE in words such as apologise, organise, etc., whereas US English prefers IZE. Obviously in your letters use the appropriate spelling for your particular audience.)
Additional UK Consumer Protection Regulations became effective on 26 May 2008.
Whether you are are complaining as a consumer or responding to consumer complaints, these far-reaching new regulations which might affect your position.
We all receive too many communications these days, especially letters. People in complaints departments receive more letters than most, and cannot read every letter fully. The only letters that are read fully are the most concise, clear, compact letters. Letters that ramble or are vague will not be read properly. So it's simple - to be acted upon, first your letter must be read. To be read your letter must be concise. A concise letter of complaint must make its main point in less than five seconds. The complaint letter may subsequently take a few more seconds to explain the situation, but first the main point must be understood in a few seconds.
Structuring the letter is important. Think in terms of the acronym AIDA - attention, interest, desire, action. This is the fundamental process of persuasion. It's been used by the selling profession for fifty years or more. It applies to letters of complaints too, which after all, are letters of persuasion. The complaint letter attempts to persuade the reader to take action.
Structure your letter so that you include a heading - which identifies the issue and name of product, service, person, location, with code or reference number if applicable.
Then state the simple facts, with relevant dates and details.
Next state what you'd like to happen - a positive request for the reader to react to.
Include also, (as a sign-off point is usually best), something complimentary about the organization and/or its products, service, or people. For example:
"I've long been a user of your products/services and up until now have always regarded you are an excellent supplier/organization. I have every faith therefore that you will do what you can to rectify this situation."
Even if you are very angry, it's always important to make a positive, complimentary comment. It will make the reader and the organization more inclined to 'want' to help you. More about this below.
If the situation is very complex with a lot of history, it's a good idea to keep the letter itself very short and concise, and then append or attach the details, in whatever format is appropriate (photocopies, written notes, explanation, etc). This enables the reader of the letter to understand the main point of the complaint, and then to process it, without having to read twenty pages of history and detail.
The main point is, do not bury your main points in a long letter about the problem. Make your main points first in a short letter, and attach the details.
An authoritative letter is especially important for serious complaints or one with significant financial implications. What makes a letter authoritative? Professional presentation, good grammar and spelling, firmness and clarity. Using sophisticated words (providing they are used correctly) - the language of a broadsheet newspaper rather than a tabloid - can also help to give your letter a more authoritative impression. What your letter looks like, its presentation, language and tone, can all help to establish your credibility - that you can be trusted and believed, that you know your facts, and that you probably have a point.
So think about your letter layout - if writing as a private consumer use a letterhead preferably - ensure the name and address details of the addressee are correct, include the date, keep it tidy, well-spaced, and print your name under your signature.
If you copy the letter to anyone show that this has been done (normally by using the abbreviation 'c.c.' with the names of copy letter recipients and their organizations if appropriate, beneath the signature.) If you attach other pages of details or photocopies, or enclose anything else such as packaging, state so on the letter (normally by using the abbreviation 'enc.' the foot of the page).
When people read letters, rightly or wrongly they form an impression about the writer, which can affect response and attitude. Writing a letter that creates an authoritative impression is therefore helpful.
In the organization concerned, you need someone at some stage to decide a course of action in response to your letter, that will resolve your complaint. For any complaint of reasonable significance, the solution will normally involve someone committing organizational resources or cost. Where people commit resources or costs there needs to be proper accountability and justification. This is generally because organizations of all sorts are geared to providing a return on investment. Resolving your complaint will involve a cost or 'investment' of some sort, however small, which needs justifying. If there's insufficient justification, the investment needed to solve the problem cannot be committed. So ensure you provide the relevant facts, dates, names, and details, clearly. Make sure you include all the necessary facts that will justify why your complaint should resolved (according to your suggestion assuming you make one).
But be brief and concise. Not chapter and verse. Just the key facts, especially dates and reference numbers.
"The above part number 1234 was delivered to xyz address on 00/00/00 date and developed abc fault on 00/00/00 date..."
Accentuate the positive wherever possible. This means presenting things in a positive light. Dealing with a whole load of negative statements is not easy for anyone, especially customer service staff, who'll be dealing with mostly negative and critical communication all day. Be different by being positive and constructive. State the facts and then suggest what needs to be done to resolve matters. If the situation is complex, suggest that you'll be as flexible as you can in helping to arrive at a positive outcome. Say that you'd like to find a way forward, rather than terminate the relationship. If you tell them that you're taking your business elsewhere, and that you're never using them again, etc., then there's little incentive for them to look for a good outcome. If you give a very negative, final, 'unsavable' impression, they'll treat you accordingly. Suppliers of all sorts work harder for people who stay loyal and are prepared to work through difficulties, rather than jump ship whenever there's a problem. Many suppliers and organizations actually welcome complaints as opportunities to improve (which they should do) - if yours does, or can be persuaded to take this view, it's very well worth sticking with them and helping them to find a solution. So it helps to be seen as a positive and constructive customer rather than a negative, critical one. It helps for your complaint to be seen as an opportunity to improve things, rather than an arena for confrontation and divorce.
It may be surprising to some, but threatening people generally does not produce good results.
This applies whether you are writing, phoning or meeting face-to-face.
A friendly complimentary approach encourages the other person to reciprocate - they'll want to return your faith, build the relationship, and keep you as a loyal customer or user of their products or services. People like helping nice friendly people. People do not find it easy to help nasty people who attack them.
This is perhaps the most important rule of all when complaining. Be kind to people and they will be kind to you. Ask for their help - it's really so simple - and they will want to help you.
Contrast a friendly complimentary complaint letter with a complaint letter full of anger and negativity: readers of angry bitter letters are not naturally inclined to want to help - they are more likely to retreat, make excuses, defend, or worse still to respond aggressively or confrontationally. It's human nature.
Also remember that the person reading the letter is just like you - they just want to do a good job, be happy, to get through the day without being upset. What earthly benefit will you get by upsetting them? Be nice to people. Respect their worth and motives. Don't transfer your frustration to them personally - they've not done anything to upset you. They are there to help. The person reading the letter is your best ally - keep them on your side and they will do everything they can to resolve the problem - it's their job.
Try to see things from their point of view. Take the trouble to find out how they work and what the root causes of the problems might be.
This friendly approach is essential as well if you cannot resist the urge to pick up the phone and complain. Remember that the person at the other end is only trying to do their job, and that they can only work within the policy that has been issued to them. Don't take it out on them - it's not their fault.
In fact, complaints are best and quickest resolved if you take the view that it's nobody's fault. Attaching blame causes defensiveness - the barriers go up and conflict develops.
Take an objective view - it's happened, for whatever reason; it can't be undone, now let's find out how it can best be resolved. Try to take a cooperative, understanding, objective tone. Not confrontational; instead you and them both looking at the problem from the same side.
If you use phrases like - "I realise that mistakes happen..."; "I'm not blaming anyone...."; "I'm sure this is a rare problem...", your letter (or phone call) will be seen as friendly, non-threatening, and non-confrontational. This relaxes the person at the other end, and makes them more inclined to help you, because you are obviously friendly and reasonable.
The use of humour often works wonders if your letter is to a senior person. Humour dissipates conflict, and immediately attracts attention because it's different. A bit of humour in a complaint letter also creates a friendly, intelligent and cooperative impression. Senior people dealing with complaints tend to react on a personal level, rather than a procedural level, as with customer services departments. If you brighten someone's day by raising a smile there's a good chance that your letter will be given favourable treatment.
Check contracts, receipts, invoices, packaging, etc., for collection and return procedures and follow them.
When complaining, particularly about expensive items, it's not helpful to undermine your position by failing to follow any reasonable process governing faulty or incorrect products. You may even end up with liability for the faulty product if the supplier is able to claim that you've been negligent in some way.
For certain consumer complaints it's helpful to return packaging, as this enables the organization to check production records and correct problems if still present. If in doubt phone the customer services department to find out what they actually need you to return.
Product returns for business-to-business complaints will initially be covered by the supplier's terms and conditions of sale. Again take care not to create a liability for yourself by failing to follow reasonable processes, (for example leaving a computer out in the yard in the pouring rain by way of incentive for the supplier to collect, is not generally a tactic bound to produce a successful outcome).
Use recorded and insured post where appropriate.
name and address (eg., for the customer services department, or CEO)
Dear Sir or Madam (or name)
heading with relevant reference numbers
(Optional, especially if writing to a named person) ask for the person's help, eg "I'd really appreciate your help with this."
State facts of situation, including dates, names, reference numbers, but keep this very concise and brief (append details, history, photocopies if applicable, for example if the situation is very complex and has a long history).
State your suggested solution. If the situation and solution is complex, state also that you'll be as flexible as you can to come to an agreed way forward.
(Optional, and normally worth including) state some positive things about your normal experience with the organization concerned, for example: that you've no wish to go elsewhere and hope that a solution can be found; compliment any of their people who have given good service; compliment their products and say that normally you are very happy with things.
State that you look forward to hearing from them soon and that you appreciate their help.
Yours faithfully (if not sent to a named person) or sincerely (if sent to a named person)
Your printed name (and title/position if applicable)
c.c. (plus names and organizations, if copying the letter to anyone)
enc. (if enclosing something, such as packaging or attachments)
Obviously if a situation needs resolving urgently you must phone, but that's different to complaining. When something goes wrong the the temptation is often to get on the phone straight away, and give someone 'a piece of your mind' about whatever has disappointed or annoyed you, but phoning to complain in this way is rarely a good idea. This is because:
- 'Heat of the moment' complaints almost always produce confrontation, emotion, and misunderstanding, which are not conducive to the cooperation necessary for good solutions and outcomes.
- For organizations to handle complaints properly they need to be able to deal with facts and written records. Written details are essential to their complaints processing, and a letter is a far more reliable way of communicating these things than a verbal phone exchange.
- You will need a your own record of the complaint to establish accountability, responsibility, that you have actually complained, when you complained, and to whom. Telephone conversations do not automatically create a record. With a phone complaint there is nothing for you to refer back to; no copies can be produced when and if you need to follow up the complaint.
- A letter gives you the chance to present your case in the best possible way. Telephone conversations can quickly get out of control.
- Writing a letter helps you to calm down and do things properly. Calling people immediately on the phone often fuels your emotions, especially if the person at the other end isn't good at handling you. When you lose control of your emotions you lose control of the situation, your credibility, clarity, cooperation, goodwill and objectivity; all of which you need if you want to achieve the best possible outcome.
- For very serious matters you should be using recorded or registered post, which effectively guarantees that your letter reaches the recipient. There is of course no equivalent by telephone.
If the organization has a customer services department at their head office this is the first place to start. The department will be geared up to dealing with complaints letters, and your complaint should be processed quickly with the others they'll receive because that's the job of a customer services department. This is especially the case for large organizations. Sending initial complaints letters to managing directors and CEO's will only be referred by their PA staff to the customer services department anyway, with the result of immediately alienating the customer services staff, because you've 'gone over their heads'.
The trick of sending a copy letter to the CEO - and showing this on the letter to the customer services department - is likely to have the same effect. Keep your powder dry until you need it.
You can generally find the address of the customer services department on (where appropriate) product packaging, invoices, websites, and other advertising and communications materials produced by the organization concerned. Local branches, if applicable, will also have the details.
If your complaint is one which has not been satisfactorily resolved by the normal customer services or complaints department, then you should refer the matter upwards, and ultimately, when you've run out of patience, to the top - the company CEO or MD.
The higher the level of the person you are writing to, the more need to make your letter clear, concise, authoritative, etc. When referring complaints upwards always attach copies of previous correspondence.
If departmental managers and functional directors fail to give you satisfaction, get the top person's name and address from the customer services department. If this is not possible, call the organization's head office and ask for the Chief Executive's PA. Very large organizations will often have a whole team that looks after the CEO's correspondence, so don't worry if you can't speak to the PA her/himself - all you need at this stage is the name and address of the person at the top. You don't need to give a reason for writing, and you certainly don't need to go into detail about the complaint itself because the person you'll be speaking with won't be responsible for dealing with it. Just say: "I'm writing to the Chief Executive - would you give me the name and address please?" And that's all you say. Only the most clandestine organization will refuse to give the details you need (in which case forget about complaining and find another supplier).
If you have exhausted all avenues of complaint at the organization itself, and you are determined not to let matters go, you must then find the appropriate higher authority or regulatory body.
However, first sit down and think hard about whether your complaint and expectations are realistic. If you are too emotional about things to be objective, ask a friend or colleague for their interpretation. If you decide that you truly are getting a raw deal, next think seriously about whether to forget it - to take the FIDO approach (forget it and drive on) - for the sake of your own peace of mind. Some battles just aren't worth the fight. Could the energy you'd use in pursuing the complaint be better used to resolving the situation in a different way? Plenty of people spend lots of time and money pursuing a complaint, which they win in the end, but which costs them too dearly along the way. If the personal and emotional cost is likely to be too great, be philosophical about it; FIDO.
Having said all that, if your complaint does warrant a personal crusade, and some things are certainly worth fighting for, very many organizations are subject to a higher authority, to which you can refer your complaint.
Public services organizations - schools, councils, etc - will be part of a local government and ultimately central government hierarchy. In these structures, regional and central offices should have customer services departments to which you can refer your complaints about the local organization that's disappointed you.
Utilities and other major service organizations - for example in the energy, communications, water, transport sectors - generally have regulatory bodies which are responsible for handling unresolved complaints about the providers that they oversee. At this stage you will need clear records of everything that's happened.
Unresolved complaints about companies that are part of a larger group can be referred to the group or parent company head office. Some are more helpful than others, but generally group and parent companies are concerned if their subsidiaries are not looking after dissatisfied customers properly.
Generally look for the next level up - the regulatory body, the central office, the parent company - the organization that owns, controls or oversees the organization with which you are dissatisfied.
These simple letters examples show the format and style of effective complaints letters. While the samples deal with relatively simple minor situations, the same format can be used for more serious complex problems and complaints. Remember, don't attempt to put every detail into the letter. Keep the letter concise, short and simple; use attachments, photocopies of previous correspondence, reports, etc., to provide the background.
(use letterheaded paper showing home/business address and phone number)
name and address (of customer service department)
Faulty (xyz) product
I'm afraid that the enclosed (xyz) product doesn't work. It is the third one I've had to return this month (see attached correspondence).
I bought it from ABC stores at Newtown, Big County on (date).
I was careful to follow the instructions for use, honestly.
Other than the three I've had to return recently, I've always found your products to be excellent.
I'd be grateful if you could send a replacement and refund my postage (state amount).
I really appreciate your help.
J Smith (Mrs)
(use letterheaded paper showing home/business address and phone number)
name and address (for example to a service manager)
Outstanding service problem - contract ref (number)
I really need your help with this.
Your engineer (name if appropriate) called for the third time in the past ten days to repair our (machine and model) at the above address, and I am still without a working machine.
He was unable to carry out the repair once more because the spare part (type/description/ref) was again not compatible. (I attach copies of the service visit reports.)
Your engineers have been excellent as always, but without the correct parts they can't do the job required.
Can I ask that you look into this to ensure that the next service visit, arranged for (date), resolves the matter.
Please telephone me to let me know how you'd like to deal with this.
When the matter is resolved I'd be grateful for a suitable refund of some of my service contract costs.
I greatly appreciate your help.
J Smith (Mrs)
Responding to complaints letters is of course a different matter than doing the complaining.
If you are in a customer service position of any sort, and you receive complaints from customers, consider the following:
Firstly it is important to refer to, and be aware of, and be fully versed in your organisation's policies and procedures for dealing with customer complaints. If your organisation does not have a procedure for complaints handling then you should suggest that it produces one. And publishes it to all staff and customers. For large, complex supply or service arrangements, and for large customer accounts, it is normal and sensible for specific 'service level agreements' (SLA's) to be negotiated and published on an individual customer basis. Again, if none exists, do your best to help to establish them - your customers will thank you.
It is essential to refer to the standards and published deliverables relating to the particular complaint. Your response needs to be sympathetic, but also needs to reflect the responsibility and accountability that your organisation bears in relation to the complaint. All organisations should have a policy for dealing with complaints, especially where the complaint is justified and results from a failure to deliver a service or product to a stated and agreed quality, specification, cost or timescale. Your organisation ideally should also have guidelines for dealing with complaints that might not justified; ie., where the customer's complaint is based on an expectation that is beyond or outside what was agreed or stated in whatever constitutes the supply contract. Matters such as these, in which a complaint might not be justified, generally require pragmatic judgement since the cost and implications of resolving such matters can be significant and far-reaching.
Aside from the judgement about solutions, remedial action, or compensation, etc., it is always vital to respond to all complaints with empathy and sympathy. Remember that the person on the other end of the phone, or the writer of the complaint letter, is another human being, trying to do the best they can, with the same pressures and challenges that you have. Respect the other person. Focus on the issues and solutions, not the personality or the emotion.
You should therefore always demonstrate a willingness, and the capability, to understand a customer's feelings and situation, whether or not you actually agree with their stand-point. The demonstration of empathic understanding goes a long long way towards soothing a customer's anger and disappointment, even if you are unable to provide a response which fully meets their expectations or their initial demands.
Use phrases like, "Oh dear, I understand that must be very upsetting for you," rather than "Yes, I agree, you've been badly treated." You can understand without necessarily agreeing. There is a difference, moreover, angry and upset people need mainly to be understood.
For this reason, all communications with complaining customers must be very sympathetic and understanding. An understanding tone should also be used in writing response letters to customer complaints, and in dealing with any failure to meet expectations, whether the customer's expectations are realistic and fair, or not.
Here is a simple template example of a response letter to a customer complaint. There are many ways to alter it. Use it as a guide.
Before sending any response letter ensure that you satisfy yourself that you are operating within your organisation's guidelines covering service levels, remedial action, compensation and acceptance of liability or blame.
Name and address
I am writing with reference to (situation or complaint) of (date).
Firstly I apologise ('apologize' in US) for the inconvenience/distress/problems created by our error/failure.
We take great care to ensure that important matters such as this are properly managed/processed/implemented, although due to (give reason - be careful as to how much detail you provide - generally you need only outline the reason broadly), so on this occasion an acceptable standard has clearly not been met/we have clearly not succeeded in meeting your expectations.
In light of this, we have decided to (solution or offer), which we hope will be acceptable to you, and hope also that this will provide a basis for continuing our relationship/your continued custom.
I will call you soon to check that this meets with your approval/Please contact me should you have any further cause for concern.
Other points of note when dealing with customer complaints and complaints letters:
Always take personal responsibility for problems until they are fully resolved. Don't just 'throw it over the wall' and hope that a colleague sees it through. You must be the guardian of the complaint and look after the customer to ensure that your organisation does the right thing, even when someone else has responsibility to deal with it. Always check that the customer has been looked after, and the problem finally resolved - it's just a phone call.
Always check your policies, procedures, standing instructions, latest bulletins, etc relating to service delivery levels and complaints resolution. If procedures and standards are hazy then do your best to encourage management or directors to create and publish clearer expectations and procedures for staff and customers. When things go wrong it's normally because people don't understand what expectations are, rather than a failure of an individual, or the action or reaction of a customer.
Be careful about accepting liability if you have no guideline or policy enabling you to do so, and in any event, whereever you perceive potentially significant liability could exist, delay any decision or commitment until seeking advice from a person in suitable authority.
Always try to speak to people on the phone - even if you're writing a letter - make contact by phone as well. Voice contact is so much more reliable and effective when trying to diffuse conflict and rebuild trust.
Before you send anything - read it back to yourself and ask, "What would I think if I received this? How would I feel?" If your answers are less than positive you should re-write the letter.
If you ever find yourself using a nasty old standard customer complaints response letter, that your department has been using for ages, to the distress of your complaining customers, take responsibility for getting the standard letter replaced with something that is positive and empathic and constructive.
A complaining customer is an opportunity for the supplying organisation to improve and consolidate the relationship, and to keep the customer for life. Make sure you use it.
In responding to serious, large complaints and implications, you should initially respond with an immediate solution to resolve the current issue, and then arrange with the customer how best to develop and agree a remedial change that will prevent re-occurrence, which for large contracts should probably entail a meeting, involving relevant people from both sides. In some situations you will find that the need is actually for a fully blown re-negotiation of the service level agreement. In such cases do embrace the opportunity as a very positive one - a chance to consolidate and strengthen the relationship, and normally an opportunity to extend the length of the contract.
In dealing with complains of any sort, take heart from the fact that customers whose complaints are satisfactorily resolved, become even more loyal than they were before the complaint arose.
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