Being on the receiving end of malpractice, unfair treatment, inadequate services, or just plain incompetency in today's consumer marketplace is enough to make even the calmest personality react in anger. We pay for a service—either through our hard-earned money or taxes—and we expect to get that service, as it is advertised. When the reality of the ordeal falls far short of expectations, the first course of action most will take is to file a formal complaint—commonly in the form of a complaint letter.
What a complaint letter is
In the simplest of terms, a complaint letter is a method to file a formal complaint against a service provider, whether a company or an individual, in hopes of resolving a problem. It can be used as a first step in a legal process involving potential lawsuits or as a simple way to inform a manager if an employee acted in a derogatory, offensive, or incompetent manner. It is a clear statement of the events that occurred, when and where they occurred, and attached to it should be accompanying evidence—much like a police report would have.
What a complaint letter isn't
A complaint letter is not an opportunity for you to swear, threaten, or make blanket accusations. It is not an opportunity for you to berate anyone; make racist, misogynistic, or vulgar remarks; or suggest who should be hired and who should be fired. It isn't even an opportunity for you to vent your frustrations or air out your feelings over the situation, although it might be a good avenue for both.
9 mistakes to avoid
Since the point of writing a complaint letter is to have your concerns addressed fairly and quickly, here are 9 mistakes to avoid if you want your complaint letter to work.
- Don't be vague or leave out details. The best (and most effective) complaint letters are those written in a clear, concise manner, without rants, getting off topic, or vague hints. If you believe an employee acted in an unscrupulous or disrespectful manner, say so, then explain why you believe this. Basically, cut to the chase. State the exact date when the incident occurred, where it occurred, and the time it occurred—or at least, as close to the exact time as you can remember.
- Don't make unreasonable demands. Stating that you want an employee fired immediately is an example of an unreasonable demand. There are legal processes an employer must go through in order to fire an individual, or that employer might risk getting involved in a lawsuit. So, any demands you make contrary to those processes will not be met. You will also come off as "presumptuous" more than "professional" when you make unreasonable demands. Keep in mind that it is not your place to have this employee fired or otherwise disciplined—rather, it is your place to inform the employers or business owners of the employee's actions and let them decide what the best course of action is. If you are unhappy with that course of action, or feel that it is not the best one the business owner or manager could take, it is your choice to no longer frequent that place of business.
- Don't assume the reader is responsible. Depending on the channels through which complaints are handled in a particular organization, it is highly likely that the person who will be reading your letter is different from the person responsible for the problem or the incident. This will obviously vary according to each company's policy. If you make this assumption each time, it will help you to use the right language and tone and act as a sort of buffer against over-reacting to the incident. This is especially true if you are complaining about the actions of an employee—actions that are likely unknown to the managers or the business owners. In such cases, it is best to not jump to any conclusions about the business until the business owners or managers are made aware of the issue. If it is only a rogue employee acting out or not following company protocol, blaming the entire business enterprise for those actions will make you seem less professional in your observations.
- Don't write words that are angry, sarcastic, or threatening. Beyond the fact that these approaches are unprofessional, they can also prevent your complaint from reaching the right person. Many companies have policies in place allowing expletive-loaded complaints to be ignored as a way to protect their employees from abusive treatment from customers. Such approaches can also be potentially illegal, and any complaint taken as a personal threat to someone's life or property can be turned in to the police for possible prosecution. You don't want a complaint letter to land you in legal trouble, so it's best to avoid any semblance of threats against someone. If you must make threats, then threaten to take your business elsewhere, or threaten to let your social media followers know about the incident. All of this can be leverage you use within your letter to get your complaint processed.
- Don't leave out proof. If the reason for your complaint has to do with words used by an employee, you'll need to show proof of that communication and of the words being used. If it occurred on social media, take a screen shot of the employee's response and include that with your complaint letter. If the communication occurred by e-mail, have a copy of the e-mail attached. If the incident occurred in person, get a witness statement from someone who observed the interaction. If by phone, it's unlikely that you'll have recorded the conversation, although most companies do this already. Request that they review their records as documentation. Whatever the form of communication that was used during the incident or exchange of money for services, find a way to document it to provide evidence for your complaint.
- Don't forget to include copies of all relevant documents. This is particularly important if your complaint is the result of receiving fewer services or items than what was originally agreed upon when you ordered. Have copies of all relevant documents such as receipts, warranties, work orders, project proposals, service descriptions, or catalog descriptions. If you received an inferior product or service, have photographic proof of it and attach it to your letter. Even the most reasonable complaints can lose their argument if you leave out the proof. When someone's job is at stake, they are likely to go into defensive mode and say or do anything they possibly can to keep their job. In such cases, it becomes your word against theirs if you fail to provide copies of the relevant documents involved.
- Don't leave out your name and contact information. For your complaint to be properly handled, the involved parties need to know how to reach you by phone, e-mail, or both. If you have an account number, be sure to give them that information, as well. In many situations, it is likely that someone will want to call you or meet with you to speak personally about the incident.
- Don't just stamp it and mail it—send it by certified mail. By sending your complaint letter via certified mail, you will have a way to track its receipt in case the situation escalates to a lawsuit or prosecution. Certified mail also requires a recipient signature, so you have written proof stating who received the complaint and when they received it.
- Don't have grammar mistakes or typos. Leaving grammar mistakes, punctuation errors, or typos in your complaint letter could potentially have an impact on how that letter is received and what is done about your complaint. Ideally, a complaint should be a complaint, whether demonstrating English skills or not. However, this is often not the case, so don't allow these fixable problems to potentially reduce the effectiveness and the voice of your complaint.
While we all hope our consumer experiences, and experiences with government-provided services, go smoothly—life is not always smooth or easy. In cases where you believe you have been treated unfairly, have not been given the services you paid for, or have otherwise been the victim of malpractice and/or abuse, a complaint letter is a powerful option to get something done about it.
Sample complaint letter
I am writing today to bring to your attention the poor dog-sitting service I received from your company on August 25, 2017. I have been a client of your service for almost two years, and up until now, have had no negative incidents occur. I trust from my experience that this particular incident is not the standard of how you conduct business, nor the standard of pet care I know your business seeks to provide its clients.
On August 25, 2017, I returned home around 7:30 PM to find my dog roaming free in the front yard, with no caretaker in sight. As you can imagine, I was horrified, as I live near a busy highway, with traffic flowing in both directions and many dangers for a loose animal (and drivers!).
When I managed to call my dog to me and to secure her, I entered my home to find Karen, the dog-sitter your company sent over, on her phone, chatting casually. To my knowledge, she was completely unaware of my dog's exit and my return. It wasn't until she took her earbuds out that she addressed the situation at all.
I asked for an explanation and Karen said that she accidentally left the door slightly ajar after she went outdoors to retrieve her earbuds from her car. I find this to be irresponsible for a pet caretaker to do, as well as dangerous for all involved. What if someone else had come into the house while I was away?
I am concerned about the level of nonchalance I felt from Karen, in that she didn't seem too upset at the fact that she left the door ajar in the first place. I got the feeling that she thought I was overreacting.
I trust that you'll take care of this situation and let her know that your clients expect a higher standard than this from Pet Sitters, Inc. Due to the great experiences I've had from previous pet sitters you've sent, I will assume this is not your company's common practice, and request a different sitter to be sent to my house next time I order pet sitting services from you.
Thanks for your time and attention to this matter. If you need to reach me for further clarification, or to ask additional questions related to this incident, please feel free to do so. My phone number is [insert phone number here].