Champion Complainer Offers Tips

When Maureen Knipp encounters less than satisfactory service, she doesn't just stew. No, Knipp writes a letter to the CEO of the offending company. Now, she's giving tips to amateurs.

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MIKE PESCA, host:

So, what we heard there was a fictional representation of the ultimate complaint letter. My guess is that if you take 180 pages to get to the bottom of your complaint, you're not likely to get satisfaction from customer service, a little too wordy. And in fact, that brings us to a piece of advice from a champion complaint letter writer. Her name is Maureen Knipp, and she happens to be the aunt of BPP editor Tricia McKinney. Hello, Tricia.

PATRICIA MCKINNEY: Hello.

PESCA: All right. So, I first have to just say this. Do you know what the current column by the NPR ombudsman is about?

MCKINNEY: Yes, I do. It is about whether or not it is a good idea to put one's relatives on the air.

PESCA: Should NPR interview relatives of staff members? In this case, someone on NPR interviewed another person on NPR's aunt. That was the very relation.

MCKINNEY: Yeah.

PESCA: Can I read to you the second-to-last paragraph?

MCKINNEY: If you must.

PESCA: (Reading) It is not a huge journalistic transgression, but I think the show set itself up for criticism by not taking the time to find someone other than an employee of the relative. Let this be a lesson to you, future Trish McKinney.

I don't know how she thought that, but that's why she's the ombudsman.

MCKINNEY: She somehow knows what I'm about to do. Well, listen, let me put it this way. If anybody is bothered by the fact that we are going to reference and hear from my Aunt Mo, you can direct your letters of complaint to me. Or wait, actually maybe you should go over my head, and I'll explain why in a second.

PESCA: OK. So, maybe if they listen to this and write a good letter of complaint, then they are actually saying, wait a minute, that served its purpose. And therefore, their letter has no validity. It's one of those paradoxes. Yeah. OK, so, tell me about Aunt Mo. Is she a professional complainer?

MCKINNEY: No. She is not a professional complainer, does not make money by complaining. She is a retired librarian, but she is very, very good at complaining. And she has taught me the secrets of writing a successful complaint letter. She says to me she has successfully complained and received satisfaction from companies - from a whole range of companies, including an airline.

PESCA: Who, I thought, were out of the caring-what-we-thought business.

MCKINNEY: Right. And people I know, when you have a bad experience, you don't even bother to write the complaint letter, because you think nothing is going to happen. So, she actually complained about the kind of thing that nobody would bother to write the letter about, a delayed flight at Thanksgiving, and got satisfaction. More on that in a minute. She tells me her success rate is 95 percent, which I cannot independently verify...

PESCA: Oh, the ombudsman is not going to like that.

MCKINNEY: I know, right? But the one time that I needed her help, I asked her for advice, she gave me her tips, and they worked.

PESCA: So, what was that?

MCKINNEY: I had bought - this is ridiculous, but I had bought a set of tires from Michelin. There was a promotion. You're supposed to get a DVD player with the tires. The player never came. So, when I called to complain they kept saying, yeah, yeah, in two weeks, we'll get it to you in two weeks. I kept going, two weeks, two weeks, two weeks. So, finally I got fed up. I said Aunt Mo, I am so annoyed, what do I do? She told me how to write the complaint letter.

PESCA: What'd she say?

MCKINNEY: Well, I'll tell you her advice, but I will tell you first that it worked. Within a week of sending that letter, I got a phone call to apologize, and I got my DVD player. So there you go.

PESCA: Oh my Lord. All right, all right, go through it.

MCKINNEY: The tips are very, very simple. First, you've got to get somebody to read your letter. So, for that, Aunt Mo says go straight to the top. She goes to the CEO of the company.

PESCA: That, to me, seems like it wouldn't work.

MCKINNEY: That's' what I thought, too. Seriously, but here's why, she says.

Ms. MAUREEN KNIPP: Because you have to get somebody who's in an authority position that can make a decision to do something about it. If some secretary reads it, it's going to get tossed.

PESCA: Right.

MCKINNEY: Right. So, she says, OK, go to the CEO. I'm like, really? OK, fine. She says, you know, it's not even hard to find out who the CEO is. You go to your library and ask them. I found out who the CEO of Michelin was, and I wrote my letter. So, she says now, only send...

PESCA: Was it Jacques Nasser at the time? What was his name?

MCKINNEY: I went with the CEO of Michelin-North America, and that was a guy named Micali or something like that. Anyways, she says, send the letter registered mail, because if somebody has to sign for it, they're more likely to open it and take it more seriously. It does cost money, but she says do that.

PESCA: Yeah. Unless it cost a DVD player worth of money, it's worth it.

MCKINNEY: Yeah. Exactly. So, anyway, the letter itself, she says, you have to start with a grabby opening line. The first paragraph should be only one sentence and has to be short and punchy to keep the reader reading. So, I asked her to give me three examples from her letters.

Ms. KNIPP: I've just had the trip from hell on your airline. Until today, I've been very interesting in purchasing your product. I'm a very dissatisfied customer.

MCKINNEY: You know what? I have - my letter says I used to be a nice person until I started tangling with your customer service department.

Ms. KNIPP: Excellent, excellent, excellent.

MCKINNEY: I got her approval.

PESCA: Yeah.

MCKINNEY: She also says keep the letter short, keep it sweet - not sweet actually, but she says just give the facts. Don't go into a rambling diatribe. So, the "Dear American Airlines" wouldn't have worked, but she does believe you throw in a reference to company policy. She says basically, you appeal to the CEO's business sense, so here's why.

Ms. KNIPP: Generally talk about customer service, how important is customer service in your organization. And then I always state some example about how important it is to me. It would seem to me that, you know, good customer service brings more business. Is that important?

MCKINNEY: So, those are the basics. Really super simple. So, I'm actually going to play you, in full, my Aunt Mo's letter of complaint to U.S. Airways.

Ms. KNIPP: Dear Mr. Parker, I am writing to you because I have just had the trip from hell on your airline. Yesterday, yes, Black Sunday, it took me 14 hours to get to my home after spending Thanksgiving with my family. That is simply not acceptable. I realize that this particular holiday creates challenges for any mode of travel, but it's your job to anticipate and handle these challenges, not mine. I am 71 years old and was traveling alone.

Also, I wasn't feeling well, and though that's not your concern, it certainly added to my distress. I finally reached my destination at midnight, six hours past schedule. My family's been in a service-related business for years, and I know that this kind of customer service is appalling. I believe that some kind of compensation is due me for this situation, and then I gave them my travel number, so that they would know I legitimately have a flight.

PESCA: See, I want to pay her off to stop complaining. What did U.S. Airlines - U.S. Airways do?

MCKINNEY: She got a letter of apology. She got a voucher for 200 bucks.

PESCA: That's awesome! She's so psychologically adept. I don't know if she, you know, planned it out beforehand, but appealing to the guy's business sense, that is just - you have to reflect your audience!

MCKINNEY: Right. Right. And the one thing I would add that she didn't - it isn't one of her rules, but I think you should add this. It's like, I think you should tell them what you want, specifically, what they need to do to make you happy.

PESCA: Call to action, that's another thing. All right, BPP editor and admitted nepotist, Trisha McKinney. We will post our tips on how to complain on our website. So, we give the nepotism back to you. Those tips are courtesy of Tricia's Aunt Mo, Maureen Knipp. And that is it for this hour of the BPP. We are always online at npr.org/bryantpark. I'm Mike Pesca. This is the Bryant Park Project. Please direct all letters of complaint to NPR News.

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