Customer complaint letters: A reader contest.

How to protect your pockets.
Jan. 14 2011 6:24 PM

The Art of the Gripe

Customer complaint letters: A reader contest.

Illustration by Robert Neubecker. Click image to expand.

Customer service, they say, is dead. Actually, it isn't. It's just hiding behind a call center in Manila.

True, the preliminary round of customer service is useless. You call a company's customer service number; the company reroutes you to the Philippines or India, or to a stateside American mom paid $9 an hour to field customer calls from home while her 10-month-old wails from his playpen; a recording tells you "We appreciate your call. Please stay on the line" (the obvious insincerity of "Your phone call is important to us" having infuriated so many customers that it's rapidly falling into disuse); you listen to some jazz by Chick Corea that is meant to soothe but doesn't; eventually the Filipino/Indian/American mom comes onto the line; you explain your problem; the FIAM explains in affectless tones that your problem is unsolvable; you ask for the FIAM's superior; the FIAM's superior explains in a tone of mild impatience that your problem is unsolvable; you lose your temper, say something curt, and slam down the phone.

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For weak-willed consumers (like me) this is where it ends. But those made of stronger stuff know that was merely the first, throat-clearing phase of customer service, a sorting procedure to separate dedicated complainers from schmucks. The dedicated complainer understands that the next step must be a written letter either to the company's chief executive officer or to the Better Business Bureau. This letter must be crafted with some care. If it is, the dedicated complainer will receive a phone call or letter from an "escalation specialist" on the company's elite "executive response team." The job description varies from company to company, but the function is always the same. These are the ninjas who actually want to solve your problem, and in most cases they will do so very quickly.

What makes a good complaint letter? Being one of the schmucks, I can offer no advice from personal experience. But the Web is full of persuasive-sounding advice, which I hereby distill.

1)  Don't get nasty. I know you're angry. If you weren't, you wouldn't be writing Steve Jobs! And a tone of mild, controlled exasperation—onethat communicates (but doesn't explicitly state) "I don't usually do this" (even if you really do) "but in this case I felt I had to"—can be helpful. But to elicit results you must demonstrate that you're a reasonable and intelligent person who wants to resolve this simple misunderstanding with a minimum of fuss. Companies receive lots of mail from obviously unhinged people; showing that you're calm and rational will separate you from the crowd, elicit sympathy, and get across far more powerfully than any threat you might make that you know how to pursue whatever channels necessary to get what you want.

2)  Be succinct. Brevity demonstrates that you're not some rambling pain in the ass. Also, the justice of any given customer complaint is going to be inversely proportional to the number of words required to explain it. "I paid for this item and never received it." "Your warranty says you'll fix or replace this but your retail outlet won't."  "This item does not work as advertised." Such statements are simple to understand and easy to resolve. Lengthy minute-by-minute narratives of how you discovered the problem, how that problem made you feel, etc. will likely go unread.

3)  Include relevant facts. State where you bought the item, identify the model name and serial number, give your full name, address, phone number, and e-mail address. Although you don't want to ramble, neither do you want to give the company an excuse to put off resolving your problem on the grounds that you didn't supply sufficient information.

4) Type, and follow standard formatting conventions. Handwritten letters can be hard to read, and even when they aren't your handwriting will invite your escalation specialist to psychoanalyze you. (You can't get this right. Messy = manic depressive. Neat = obsessive compulsive.)  When typing, if you fail to insert double spaces between paragraphs or if you make a point in ALL CAPS your reader will think it likely that you're a paranoid schizophrenic, and he'll probably be right.

5)  Propose a solution. The response team doesn't want to feel your pain. It wants to fix your problem. Propose a reasonable resolution and that might just happen. At the very least the company will try to give you something in the same ballpark.

Many sample and dummy complaint letters are available on the Web, but complaint-letter writing, like all writing, is less science than art. A great complaint letter will display deft use of language, admirable self-restraint, and a keen understanding of what any rational person would expect. A dash of humor may add panache, but be careful because too much, or the wrong kind, will make you seem unserious or hostile. Truth to tell, the complaint letter is a form no less demanding than the sonnet, and though its masters will consistently receive what they want from the company they complain to, they won't receive the recognition they deserve from the literary establishment and what's left of the intelligent reading public.

I therefore propose a reader contest.

Slate readers are invited to submit their best letters of customer complaint previously sent to CEOs, state attorneys general, and the Better Business Bureau. E-mail entries to thecustomer@slate.com under the subject heading "customer complaint." Your complaint letter must be real. You must supply information about how the company responded and the means for me to verify that response (i.e., the name of the person you communicated with, his or her phone number, and his or her e-mail address). You may type your complaint letter into the body of the e-mail, or attach it as a Word file, or attach an image of the original as a PDF. No other formats will be accepted. Please supply your name and know that I will publish your name should you become a finalist or the lucky winner. The deadline for entries is 5 p.m. on Tues., Jan. 18.

May the best kvetch win!

Timothy Noah is a former Slate staffer. His  book about income inequality is The Great Divergence.

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