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Complaining 101

Today on the show I talked about how I learned to write an effective letter of complaint. And I got the tips from my Aunt Mo. Aunt Mo is not a professional writer of complaint letters, but she has been known to lend her pen to friends who need help. I once appealed to her for advice and here's what she told me:

1. Go straight to the top. My Aunt Mo believes in writing to the CEO of a company with her complaint. She doesn't really believe that the CEO him or herself actually reads the letter, but she is pretty sure someone at the management level will be designated to handle it. Aunt Mo wants her complaints to reach the eyes of someone with the power to help her.

2. Send the letter return-receipt. This costs more, but Aunt Mo thinks that if someone has to sign for your letter, it increases the chances that someone will read it.

3. Write a catchy opening line. Aunt Mo's firm rule of thumb is that the first paragraph should consist of one sentence only. Make it an attention-grabber. A couple of her examples are: "I just had the trip from hell on your airline," "Until today I've been very interested in purchasing your product," and the more general, "I'm a very dissatisfied customer."

4. Keep it short. Don't write a novel. Aunt Mo tries to keep her letters to one page.

5. Make reference to company policy. Aunt Mo knows that customer service is a big deal to most companies, so she believes in reminding the CEO (and his/her underlings) that customer service is one of their core values.

I actually used Aunt Mo's tips once when I just couldn't get a company's customer service department to listen to me. Within a week of sending the letter, I got an apologetic phone call and the DVD player I was complaining about. My letter is after the jump. How many of Aunt Mo's tips can YOU spot?

November 19, 2003

Dear Mr. Micali,

I used to be a nice person until I started tangling with your customer service department.

In August, my husband purchased a full set of Michelin tires for our car. Michelin was offering a promotion for a free DVD player, and that factored into his decision to buy Michelin tires. I promptly filled out and submitted the form. I waited about six weeks and called to find out why I hadn't received the DVD player yet. It turned out that your promotions department shipped my player to the wrong address and it was returned to your company. The gentleman who spoke with me assured me that I would get a replacement in two weeks.

Needless to say I still haven't received the player. I have called several times over the past months for an update. Each time I have been told it will take two weeks. And suddenly it turns out that you are now out of the DVD players and are waiting to be restocked. How long will it take? About two weeks.

I called again today and was told that it will now take four to six weeks because the players still have not arrived. I asked to speak to a supervisor, who could not offer me any better explanation or reassurance. What really irked me is that he assumed right away that the reason I never received my promotional item in the first place must have been my fault. Whatever happened to "the customer is always right?" I have been extremely patient and good-natured throughout this whole process, but today sent me over the edge.

Here's the bottom line — there has to be a DVD player sitting around somewhere or there has to be someone with enough clout to call JVC and get one lousy DVD player shipped to me. There has to be someone in your promotions department with enough gumption and creativity to figure out how to make this happen. Otherwise, I am forced to conclude that I can't rely on your company to tell me the truth or to satisfy me when I have a complaint. I hope that isn't the case.




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I love fiery, eloquent wrath. It's my favorite.

Sent by Sarah Lee | 2:40 PM | 7-9-2008

Fans of complaint letters might want to check out Lazlo Toth Letters. This is a book written by Don Novello (aka Lazlo Toth aka Father Guido Sarducci). This is a collection of letters and responses written to everyone from McDonalds to Richard Nixon. It is a good read not only for the book's twisted brilliance, but also provides some useful examples as to how to get responses from large corporations.

Sent by Dave Wiley | 4:28 PM | 7-9-2008

Dave Wiley-
You, my friend whom I don't really know, are awesome. :: goes to see if that book is available for my eReader ::

Sent by Sarah Lee | 5:11 PM | 7-9-2008

These are great tips, and the letter is perfect.

Sent by Tom | 5:15 PM | 7-9-2008

@Sarah Lee "You, my friend whom I don't really know"

I blush :-) Meeting cool people like you is one of the reasons I enjoy hanging around here.

"see if that book is available for my eReader "

Which one do you have? I was thinking about a Kindle, but I hate buying version 1 of anything and DRM gives me pain. On the other hand having a cheap way to grow a library that does not consume acres of wall space or trees appeals to both the geek and the environmentalist in me.

Sent by Dave Wiley | 11:03 PM | 7-9-2008

Dave Wiley-

I acutally have the Sony PS-505. I think it's their second gen device. The Kindle, to me, looked too bogged down with buttons and I have no need for the internet while I'm reading. Plus.... I'm one of those wacky Sony loyalists >_< Playstation before X-Box always.

Sent by Sarah Lee | 2:43 PM | 7-10-2008

I am renowned for my complaint letters. I live in Paris, so there is something worthy of a letter every day, and for a while I was up to about a letter a week. I got a positive response about one third of the time, no response another third, and responses that were so bad they were worse than not responding at all another third. There is a general lack of common sense here, that if you are spending X amount of money to gain a new customer, it might be worth spending a little to keep one you already have. The profit over a lifetime of purchases they can ensure by good service covers many times over any possible cost to make me happy.

I had a particularly amazing experience once with a phenomenal response. If anyone wants to hear it, I'll write more. It involves breakfast cereal so I know there are some interested BPP staff.

Mostly given up on complaints though. Partly because customer service has improved, and partly because I just don't have the time. I do maintain my rolling boycotts of supermarkets where I've had bad experiences. Like the watermelon episode...

Sent by Marc Naimark | 5:34 AM | 7-11-2008

Can we use this advice to complain to NPR about canceling the BPP?

Sent by S | 2:50 PM | 7-18-2008