How To Write Complaint Messages That Will Get the Results You Want


March 18, 2009   •   Fact checked by Dumb Little Man

Believe it or not, most effective complaint letters or e-mails don’t sound like complaint messages. They simply state the problem calmly and confidently and anticipate that the company will comply with the request they make. Most companies want your business and will often even absorb a loss to maintain good will.

You will probably be frustrated and angry when, for example, a product doesn’t work the way it should. It’s only natural to want to take out your frustration on the manufacturer. But doing so could make matters worse. Would you want to read an emotionally charged letter full of insults? As one of my students said the other day, “I wouldn’t want to deal with a person who attacks me in a letter. I’d get defensive and put the letter at the bottom of my to-do list.”

Read the following two letters. Which one would you rather receive? Which person would you want to help?

Letter 1

Customer Service Representative,

I bought your juicer to get healthy and lose weight–not to raise my blood pressure. The three times I used the juicer, it leaked all over the place, and I was left with a mess to mop up. I’ve checked the parts, reread the directions, and even tried tightening the pieces, but the piece of crap still leaks. I want my money back now along with the money I paid for carrots, celery, and apples. The total comes to $354.46. Oh, and by the way, I won’t make the mistake of buying anything from your company again. I don’t need this aggravation. Send the money to me at the above address, and I’ll return the juicer, although I don’t know why you’d want it. If I don’t hear from your company in ten days, I’ll see you in court!

Letter 2

Dear Customer Service Representative:

On Jan. 15, I bought your juicer #N3472. Unfortunately, it leaks when I use it. I’ve checked your troubleshooting guide, but I’m unable to determine the source of the problem.

I’d either like the juicer replaced with one that works properly, or my money refunded. I’ve enclosed a copy of my sales receipt along with the juicer. Please contact me at the above address as soon as possible.

I look forward to hearing from you.

Thank you.


Obviously, Letter 1 is rude, demanding, and emotional. It contains irrelevant details and unnecessary threats. Furthermore, it makes a request that seems unreasonable: insisting that the manufacturer pay for the fruits and vegetables the customer bought.

Letter 2, on the other hand, is both firm and direct while the writer expresses confidence that the company will meet his request.

Follow these steps when you write a complaint letter, even if you’re justifiably angry:

  • Watch a movie, jog two miles, or count to 1000; do whatever it takes to calm down.
  • Jot down the facts: what you bought, when, and what went wrong.
  • Gather your sales receipts and any other information about the product, including warranties.
  • Include only necessary details.
  • Decide what you want to get from the company.
  • Make your request reasonable.

Although either of the above two letters may get results, you build a good relationship by being courteous and professional in describing the problem. After all, you’re writing to a person who has feelings, just as you do. And chances are the person you’re writing to had nothing to do with your product not working properly.

Consider also that one day your job situation changes, and you do business with the company you just insulted. What implications might that have for your relationship? Would you want to be remembered as the customer who gave you a hassle or as someone who treated you with respect?

Have you tried either of the above approaches when you complained about something? Let us know about your experiences in the comments section.

Written on 3/18/2009 by Mary Ann Gauthier. Mary Ann is a writer and an adjunct instructor of English at a private college. She teaches listening skills to her business communication students and is also working on a book about the therapeutic benefits of journaling. Photo Credit:

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