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CONSUMER CORNER: How to Complain Effectively - By Alan Marx


Complaints Key Shows Complaining Or Moaning Online
photo credit: istock: stuartmiles99
Stuart Miles


Today we will focus on the first type of complaint, typically to a company or an individual who has not met your expectations for a product or a service. The internet provides many resources that can assist you in stating your case, and those websites are easy to find. Just put the words “How to complain effectively” into your browser, and you will find more websites than you can use. Many of them deal with written complaints, but the advice they offer also applies if you decide to use an oral approach. One easy to use source can be found at  This website contains a fill-in-the-blanks sample letter, which can also be used to guide a conversation.

Tips to help you get started

Get organized. First, assemble a chronology of what happened, when it happened, and why it caused a problem. Gather any notes, documents or bills you have that relate to the matter and put them in chronological order.  Second, after reviewing the records you have assembled, create an outline of the problem. Sort your points to make the strongest case you can. At the end of the outline put a statement of what you want to accomplish.

Once you have your facts and outline organized, start drafting your letter or use the sample from the website mentioned above. Remember that facts are your strongest weapons, because well documented facts are the most difficult points for the recipient to dispute. Include brief quotes from your documents that support your case, or attach the key documents, or both.

Try very hard to let your facts do the talking for you, and weave them into your arguments as to why a correction is appropriate. It is far too easy to get incensed and use uncomplimentary adjectives, but calling the company or its consumer representative bad names will not make them want to help you. A well-run business that values its customers and its reputation is much more likely to respond to facts and a reasoned argument than to name-calling. A personal verbal attack on the employee who is dealing with you will guarantee that she or he is not going to exercise any discretion in your favor.

For more suggestions on what not to say, see the article by AARP’s Ron Burley, “7 Things You Should Never Say to Customer Service,” July 8, 2008 .

If you are sending a letter, type it. Even neat cursive writing can be hard to read, and many of us (I plead guilty) do not have neat cursive writing. If no other option is available, print your letter.

Create a folder for the matter. Put a copy of your letter with all of its attachments and your chronological documents in the folder. Include any response you receive from the company. If you receive an oral response or if you made an oral complaint, make notes that include the name and title of the person with whom you spoke, the date and time when the conversation occurred, and what was said.

If you are not satisfied with the response you receive, ask if there is anyone else at the company with whom you can discuss the matter. If you think your complaint is about a practice that will have a widespread negative effect on the company’s reputation or business future, look for the person in the company who is most likely to care. When no other name is offered, look on the internet to see who owns or runs the company. For a sole proprietor or a family business, it is easy to see who would have the strongest interest in fixing a problem. For a larger corporation and especially for a publicly traded company, you may be able to identify the customer service manager. If that is not possible, you can send your second letter to the President of the company. In a well-run company it will be forwarded to the person who is responsible for the matter. In any second letter, restate your case in calm, business-like tones and include your attachments.

Going further, if necessary
If your complaint inside the company does not get a resolution, you can take the matter outside to try to get relief. Where you go depends on the nature of the problem. In some instances you may be able to make a complaint to a professional or trade organization, to a state professional licensing board, or to an organization like the Better Business Bureau.

Although some trade organizations are focused on protecting their members against complaints and may not be of any use to a customer, occasionally there is one that will help. Take help wherever you can get it. As an example of one that was helpful, years ago we had a dispute with a dry cleaner over damage to sofa cushion fabrics that occurred when the fabric was left for cleaning. The dry cleaner was not sympathetic and offered no remedy. As my wife was leaving she noticed a sign saying that the store was a member of what was then known as the Fabricare Institute. She wrote to the Institute, describing the type of material and what had occurred. The Institute responded that its members had been warned repeatedly that the type of fabric involved was subject to destruction when certain cleaning solvents were used. Based on the letter from the Institute, she obtained a settlement. (In the interest of full disclosure, the settlement came after she filed a case against the dry cleaner in small claims court where she planned to show the Institute’s letter to the judge, but that is a story for another day...)

Some voluntary trade and professional associations offer dispute resolution processes that may be helpful. For example, the Nashville Bar Association has a procedure that is available to clients for use in disputes over attorneys’ fees. It is a voluntary arbitration program that can be used when both parties to the dispute agree to participate and to be bound by the outcome. Usually the amounts in dispute are relatively small, a few thousand dollars or less, amounts that would be eaten up if the matter went to court. The program offers an opportunity for a hearing before a panel of arbitrators, and the complainant does not need to hire an attorney to participate. When the complainant has the facts to support the claim and the attorney is unable to refute those facts or offer a reasonable explanation to distinguish them, the complainant wins.

If you have a complaint and the facts to back it up, by all means press ahead. Be polite and business-like, but be persistent.
It helps if you start with the assumption that a successful business will want to work with you to resolve a legitimate complaint. The business did not become successful by driving away its present or future customers. In these days of the internet and social media, businesses have a stronger reason than in the past to be concerned about word of mouth, because the word reaches a much larger audience. People used to just tell their friends when they were unhappy with a business. Now they tell the world through sites like Yelp or Angie’s List.

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