Business doesn’t always go smoothly. Customers can be disappointed with a faulty product or poor service; shipments might get damaged on route, lost, or arrive late; or one business might infringe on the rights and freedoms of another. In all such cases, the offended party’s responsibility is to make the offending party aware of what went wrong and what they want done about it. Indeed, it’s their consumer right to do so and the business or organization receiving such a message should take it as valuable intelligence on customer expectations that must be met for the operation to be viable.
A claim explains what went wrong and demands compensation from the offending party, whereas a complaint explains what went wrong and merely demands correction or apology. Minor complaints are best communicated in person, on the phone, or by email (if it’s important to have them in writing) so they can be dealt with quickly. More serious complaints or claims are delivered as formal letters to create a paper trail in case they need to be used as evidence in a lawsuit.
Though some believe that a strongly worded complaint or claim is an effective way of getting what they want, a softer approach is more likely to work best (Michael, 2007, #3). In other words, if you are nice about communicating your problem with a situation or business transaction, the customer service representative (CSR) or manager dealing with it is more likely to give you what you want. Some customers may have found success bullying people who are merely doing their jobs, but not all such attempts will succeed, nor is it right from a moral standpoint, especially when the abused CSR had nothing to do with the cause of the complaint.
Ineffective complaints or claims often merely vent frustrations, issue threats, don’t say what they want or only vaguely imply it, or demand unreasonable compensation. Demanding a lifetime supply of milk from your grocery store because one carton happened to be rotten will result in nothing because the manager or CSR will dismiss it as being ridiculous opportunism. Threatening to shop elsewhere makes you sound like a lost cause and therefore not worth losing any more time or money on. Since such messages are usually aggressive (or passive-aggressive) in tone and therefore rude and offensive, the recipient may respond aggressively in turn, give the complainant much less than what they asked for (e.g., a mere apology rather than compensation or a replacement), or ignore the complaint altogether. Often the reader of such messages is not the one at fault, so a hostile message would be especially ineffective and possibly even actionable in extreme cases—i.e., liable to cause damages that the recipient could pursue compensation for in court.
Assume that a business will take your complaint or claim seriously if it’s done right — since companies in all industries are rightly afraid of losing business to negative online reviews. According to one study, even one negative review can cost a business 22% of customers and three negative reviews 59% (Arevalo, 2017). One mother’s endorsement or warning to others about a local store in a local moms group on Facebook could make or break that business. Even worse, complaints aired on Facebook or Twitter, shared widely to the point of going viral and picked up by news outlets can destroy all but the too-big-to-fail companies or at least majorly damage their brand. In the age of social media, good customer service is crucial to business survivability. A complaint provides a business with valuable information about customer expectations and an opportunity to win back a customer—as well as their social network if a good endorsement comes of it from the now-satisfied customer. Conversely, in responding poorly to a complaint, companies risk losing much more than just one customer.
Effective complaints or claims are politely worded and motivated by a desire to right wrongs and save the business relationship. They’re best if they remind the business that you’ve been a loyal customer (if that’s true) and want to keep coming back, but you need them to prove that they value your business after whatever setback prompted the complaint. Writers of such messages can end up getting more than they originally hoped to get.
Complaints and claims take the direct approach of message organization even though they arise from dissatisfaction. They follow the usual three-part message organization we’ve seen before (see §3.1 and §4.1.5 – §4.1.7 ):
- Opening: To be effective at writing a complaint or claim, be clear, precise, and polite about what you want. If you want financial compensation or a replacement product in the case of a claim, be clear about the amount or model. You could also suggest equivalent or alternative compensation if you are unlikely to get exactly what you want. If you want an error corrected or an apology in response to your complaint, be upfront about it.
- Body: The message body justifies the request with a narrative account of what should have happened versus what happened instead. Be objective in writing the account. An angry tone coming through in negative words, accusations, and exaggerations will undermine the validity of your complaint or claim. Be precise in such details as names, dates and times, locations (addresses), and product names and numbers. Wherever possible, provide and refer to evidence. For instance, you may include scans/ paper copies (not originals) of documentation such as receipts, invoices, work orders, bills of lading; emails (PDF/ printed); phone records, photographic evidence, and even video (e.g., of a damaged product).
- Closing: No matter what prompted the complaint or claim, the closing must be politely worded with action requests (e.g., a deadline) and goodwill statements. Nasty parting shots, even if merely passive-aggressive, may lower your chances of getting what you’re asking for. By complimenting the recipient’s company, however, you up your chances of getting not only what you wanted, but perhaps a little extra. In damage-control mode, the business wants you to feel compelled to tell your friends that the company really turned it around.
|Subject Line||3- to 7-word title||Refund for unwanted warranty purchase|
|1. Opening||Main action request||Greetings:
Please refund me for the $89.99 extended warranty that was charged to my Visa despite being declined at the point of sale.
|2. Body||Narrative of events justifying the claim or complaint||This past Tuesday (June 12), I purchased an Acer laptop at the Belleville location of Future Shock Computers and was asked by the sales rep if I would like to add a 3-year extended warranty to the purchase. I declined and we proceeded with the sale, which included some other accessories. When I got home and reviewed the receipt (please find the PDF scan attached), I noticed the warranty that I had declined was added to the bill after all.|
|3. Closing||Deadlines and/or submission details||Please refund the cost of the warranty to the Visa account associated with the purchase by the end of the week and let me know when you’ve done so. I have enjoyed shopping at Future Shock for the great prices and customer service. I would sincerely like to return to purchase a printer soon.
Notice that the final point in the closing suggests to the store manager that they have an opportunity to continue the business relationship if all goes well with the correction. The implication is that a special deal on the printer will smooth things over.
If a company grants what the complainant or claimant has asked for, communicating this is called an adjustment message. An adjustment letter or email is heavy on courtesy in letting the disappointed customer know that they are valued and will be (or have already been) awarded what they were asking for, and possibly even a little extra. In the case of coupons for discounts on future purchases, the little extras help win back customers’ confidence, hopefully so they will tell their friends that the store or company is worthy of their business after all.
An adjustment message takes the direct approach by immediately delivering the good news about granting the claimant’s request. Though you would probably start with an apology if this situation arose in person, starting on a purely positive note is more effective in a written message. Tone is also important here; resist the urge to shame the customer—even if they’re partly to blame or if part of you still suspects that the claim is fraudulent—with begrudging, passive-aggressive shade. If you’re going to grant the claim, write it whole-heartedly, as if others will be able to see it and judge whether your company has good customer service.
Though a routine adjustment letter might skip a message body, a more serious one may need to go into more detail about how you are complying with the request or take the time to explain what your company is doing to prevent the error again. Doing this makes the reader (customer, claimant) feel as though making the effort to write will have made a positive impact in the world, however small, because it will benefit not only the claimant but also everyone else who won’t have to go through what he/she did. Even if you have to explain how the reader can avoid this situation in the future (e.g., by using the product or service as it was intended), do so in entirely positive terms. An apology might also be appropriate in the message body (see §18.104.22.168 below).
|Subject Line||Identify the previous subject line||Re: Refund for unwanted warranty purchase|
|1. Opening||Main point about granting the request||Hello, Samantha:
Absolutely, we would be happy to refund you for the $90 warranty mistakenly charged along with your purchase of the Acer laptop. For your inconvenience, we will also offer you a $20 gift card for future purchases at our store.
|2. Body||Details of compliance and/or assurances of improved process||To receive your refund and gift card, please return to our Belleville location with your receipt and the credit card you purchased the computer with so that we can credit the same card $90. (For consumer protection reasons, we are unable to complete any transactions without the card.)
We are sorry for inconveniencing you and will speak with all sales staff about the importance of carefully checking the accuracy of any bill of sale before sending the order for payment. To ensure that this doesn’t happen again, we will also instruct sales staff to confirm with customers whether an extended warranty appearing on the sales bill is there with consent before completing any transaction.
|3. Closing||Courteous statements expressing confidence in future business relations||We appreciate your choosing Future Shock for your personal electronics and look forward to seeing you soon to credit your Visa card and provide you with the best deal in town on the printer you were looking to purchase.
Have a great day!
Of course, not all complaints or claims deserve an adjustment, so we will examine how to write those effectively in §5.4.
Apologizing is tricky because it is essential to winning back customer confidence in some situations, but also leaves you or your company open to legal action in others. For minor matters, admitting fault with an apology usually helps vindicate or validate the customer. In more serious matters, especially involving injury or damage to property or even someone’s reputation (and earning potential), a written apology might be read as admitting fault and be used as evidence in court. For this reason, it’s best to ask a manager or legal department for guidance on apologizing to a customer or other stakeholder in writing.
If apologizing is appropriate because you genuinely erred, no legal repercussions are expected, and it’s the right thing to do when trying to soothe an angry response and mend a damaged business relationship, ensure that the apology has the following four characteristics:
- Sincere: Saying “We are genuinely sorry that you were disappointed with your customer service experience” is a good first step but requires some additional assurances to prove it.
- Responsible: Own the error by admitting fault (again, only if it doesn’t open you to litigation). Say what should have happened versus what actually happened and acknowledge that you were wrong. When former Toronto mayor Rob Ford apologized for his behaviour in November 2013, for instance, it sounded like this: “That was pure stupidity. I shouldn’t have got hammered down at the Danforth. If you’re going to have a couple drinks you stay home, and that’s it. You don’t make a public spectacle of yourself” (“Some memorable Rob Ford quotes,” 2016).
- Specific: To be sincere, an apology must refer to a specific error by briefly describing it, possibly including dates, locations (see the Ford example above), and the names of people responsible or affected, if appropriate. The worst apologies are blanket, generic statements such as “We’re sorry if anyone was offended by our actions.”
- Improvement-focused: An apology is useless unless it includes some assurances that the error won’t happen again. Simply saying it won’t happen again isn’t as convincing as describing what will be done to ensure that it won’t, as well as following through on it. When Starbucks apologized for a racist incident at one of its locations in 2018, for instance, it followed through on a plan for improving customer service by shutting down all of its stores for a half-day so that employees could receive racial sensitivity training (Dangerfield, 2018).
Apologizing may even be necessary when you’re not really in the wrong, but the customer’s or public’s perception is that you are. In crisis communications, effective apologies show that you care enough about your existing and potential clientele to say and do what it takes to win back their trust and confidence in you. You can do this without falsely claiming that you made an error (if you genuinely didn’t) by saying that you apologize for the misunderstanding. Dismissing complaints and doubling down on an error, on the other hand, shows a brazen disrespect for the people your success depends on.
- If you’ve ever felt mistreated or taken advantage in a business transaction but did nothing about it, write a complaint or claim letter asking that the company correct the wrong following the guidance in §5.3.1 above. You don’t need to actually send it, but do so if you feel strongly about it and feel as though you have a reasonable chance at success.
- Put yourself in the shoes of the company that you wrote to in the previous exercise. Write a response to your message following the advice in §5.3.2 above.
Arevalo, M. (2017, March 15). The impact of online reviews on businesses. BrightLocal. https://www.brightlocal.com/2017/03/15/the-impact-of-online-reviews/
Dangerfield, K. (2018, June 11). Starbucks across Canada closing early Monday for anti-bias training: Here’s what to know. Global News. https://globalnews.ca/news/4266192/starbucks-canada-close-monday-bias-training/
Michael, P. (2007, January 28). How to complain and get a good result. Wise Bread. http://www.wisebread.com/how-to-complain-and-get-a-good-result
Some memorable Rob Ford Quotes. (2016, March 22). Toronto Sun. http://torontosun.com/2016/03/22/some-memorable-rob-ford-quotes/wcm/7a90ff13-aa15-46d3-bab3-4b61188fe00a