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Copyright by Stephen Wilbers, Ph.D.


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Complaint Letters

ďIf you must complain, do it with a cool headĒ

ďDonít just complain; do it with styleĒ


Seminars & email courses

If you must complain, do it with a cool head

By Stephen Wilbers

Author of 1,000 columns
published in the Minneapolis Star Tribune & elsewhere

Okay, youíre mad. Your delivery service failed to deliver, your airline lost your luggage, your rental car company never heard of you before, and your hotel room is the size of a walk-in closet.

You donít have time to write a complaint letter, but you remember reading in Rosalie Maggioís How to Say It that a letter is more effective than a phone call because when you write you "put something tangible on someoneís desk Ė eventually it must be dealt with."

So you sit down to write.

You want to unload, to get even, to blast away. You want to find just the right words to singe the eyebrows off the Neanderthals who think they can treat you this way. And you know how satisfying it will be to vent your wrath not only for this particular injustice, but for all the times the world has treated you with something less than the respect you deserve.

So you write the following:

"Once again I entrusted you with my luggage, and once again you let me down. Although it may come as a surprise to you, business travelers prefer to arrive with Ė rather than without Ė their luggage. Itís a pretty basic concept."

Oh, itís a good effort. Youíre so pleased with yourself that you send your message while itís hot. No need for second thoughts. If itís going by e-mail rather than paper mail, you donít even pause to address an envelope. Off it goes, and you feel so fine.

Until the next day. When you reread your masterpiece of wit and sarcasm, you realize that what sounded brilliant as you wrote it now sounds petty and vindictive. Whatís more, your acerbic tone seems more likely to decrease, rather than increase, your chances of restitution.

Hereís what you should have done:

Avoid personal attacks. If your goal is to offend someone, question that personís competence, intelligence, or integrity. But why push these buttons of vulnerability? As Charles Brusaw points out in The Business Writerís Handbook, "The reader of your letter probably had nothing to do with whatever went wrong." Rather than make an enemy, hope for an ally.

Express restrained anger. When it seems important or useful for your reader to know youíre upset, express controlled rather than unbridled anger. Remember the great theologian John Henry Cardinal Newman, who in Apologia Pro Vita Sua demonstrated that barely restrained anger is more effective than a rant.

Rely on "tact and fact." Be diplomatic and objective. As Maggio suggests, donít deny your readers "a sense of themselves as decent, generous people."

Be specific. If what you want is resolution rather than revenge, provide the necessary facts and information.

Note inconvenience. Most readers will empathize with undue hardship because they themselves have experienced it. Make this element part of your case, but donít overstate it.

Propose a solution. Tell the reader how you want the issue to be resolved. If you want your money back, say so. Be explicit about your expectations.

Be brief. A one-page letter is more likely to be read in its entirety. Stick to the point.

Wait before sending anything written in anger. Take time to cool off. Itís fine to draft in the heat of passion, but you should revise in the cold light of day.



Seminars & email courses

Donít just complain; do it with style

By Stephen Wilbers

Author of 1,000 columns
published in the Minneapolis Star Tribune & elsewhere

If youíre going to disagree with someone, do it with style. That was my conclusion when I read a 1934 complaint letter written by Ernest Oberholtzer to the Union Library Association in New York City.

Oberholtzer, or "Ober" as he is known to his friends in the conservationist community, was more than an eloquent writer and book collector. He also was the leader of a determined effort to preserve what has become our nationís most popular wilderness, the 1.1 million-acre Boundary Waters Canoe Area that runs along the border of Minnesota and Canada.

Oberís letter was written to settle a dispute regarding an unpaid invoice. It came to my attention a few weeks ago while I was helping facilitate a writersí retreat at his Rainy Lake island home.

Unlike so many complaint letters, which are barely coherent rants, Oberís is a classic example of an accomplished writer using precise command of language to deliver a message with devastating innuendo. Hereís his opening:

"I am in receipt of an entirely unwarranted form notice from your Credit Department. From the number of forwardings on it, it has evidently been sent to every address in the country except the right one.

"I am not in the slightest disturbed by any threats of credit complaints, since my credit has never been questioned by any reputable house.

"It is quite evident to me, and has been since I made the mistake of opening an account with you last winter, that there is no coordination whatever between the various branches of your business or even between two separate orders to the same customer. One might just as well be dealing with entirely different houses ignorant of the business that each is receiving."

Sound familiar? It seems that not much has changed in 72 years.

"This is by no means a fault of mine. You have been kept fully informed at all times of my address and any temporary changes but have at all times ignored my instructions and written as if you had never heard from me. Neither have you at any time rendered account of payments made.

"You will now find my check for $12.70, which you claim as due. I will ask you in return, as one courtesy, to render me a full account of all transactions, cash or on credit, had by me with your house since last January 1, showing what was paid and when and how you arrive at your computation of debt. It is quite evident to me that, unless your credit transactions are placed on a much more business-like basis, you will hopelessly prejudice your business."

I laughed as I read the last part. To tell your adversary in such polite words that you hope he will survive his own ineptitude was the coup de grace.

The only thing I would change in Oberís letter is to add a paragraph break after "computation of debt" in the last paragraph. But who am I to criticize a master?




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