8 Steps to Writing an Effective Complaint Letter

I’ve read my fair share of complaint letters. AND…I’ve written a few as well. I fear I’ve been on both offence and defence so often that I’ve come to realize that there is an art form to writing an effective complaint letter – one that gets money back for your client.

1. Define Your Objective

It’s important. Sounds obvious but I swear, this step is often missed by the author of the grand majority of letters I read. I imagine it’s easy to become so impassioned by the written word, the multiple sheets of foolscap just begging to be filled, that the point of the letter quickly evaporates. Ever wonder why the word “fool” is buried within the word foolscap? Before you start travelling down multiple lines of reasoning and crafting your plea, be sure to make a sticky note to yourself and place it on the top of your computer where it can’t be missed. “The point of the exercise is to get Jim and Mary their money back.” That’s it. That’s the bloody point. Leave your love of 10th-grade literature where it belongs…on a warm, cozy couch in front of a fireplace on the weekend. (insert glass of wine). 

Always end the letter defining your objective. More often than not, the reader just wants to know how to make it up to Jim and Mary so don’t leave them guessing. Be clear and concise.

2. Keep It Short

So it follows, you want to keep your letter as brief as possible without leaving out any of the really good bits that will pull at the heartstrings. (more on that later) While Jim and Mary may have had a litany of reasons they felt that they deserved to be compensated for their troubles, it’s up to you, their advisor, to sift through all of the nonsense and make a compelling point. Everyone is busy. And just because you could write a 20-page dissertation, doesn’t mean you should. The best complaint letters stick to no longer than one page and keep to the facts. The more respectful you are of someone’s time, the more apt they are to appreciate that and reciprocate in kind. This doesn’t mean you can skip facts, you do need those, just don’t be pedantic to the point that you frustrate your audience.

3. Don’t Get Emotional

I get that it’s tough. Your clients have just spent the last two hours on the phone with you telling you in great detail about every streak of mould running up their bathroom shower, the worn cushions on the hotel room couch, the fact that their guide Pedro had his meth-addicted girlfriend shot-gunning along for the ride for the entire tour and fact that they both spent 16 hours praying to the porcelain throne thanks to a dubious ceviche served on the beach in the noon-day sun. Yes…I get all that. That is an excruciating call to sit through and no matter what, at some point in your career, you will have to just sit back and listen. I’d like to say that every vacation ever had was all sunsets and double margaritas but nobody gets it perfect all the time. And, there is this weird cosmic rule, don’t know how it originated, that says…if something’s going to F*&^K up on a file, it will do so good. There is always that one booking that comes along every once and again that truly is a mess. And sometimes it won’t even be your fault. 

But because you are a kind person at heart. You empathize with Jim and Mary. They spent a lot of money on their trip and they trusted YOU with that money. The fact that their trip all went to hell as soon as they boarded the plane, no matter what, you will be to blame. At that moment, Jim and Mary will be taking all of their frustration out on you, their travel advisor.

So you become angry too. And it is now your job to get some portion of their money back. So you sit down with pen in hand and you begin to write, and write, and write. You’ve not read this article yet so you don’t know about steps 1 and 2. You call on your inner Tolstoy and you let it all out on the page. You add in every detail that Jim and Mary tell you. And you craft your letter with the vitriol normally saved for an ex-lover who cheated on you with your BFF. Sentences begin with…”And another thing” because of course, you surmise that if you offer up twenty examples of things that went wrong, well most undoubtedly, the reader will beg you to give Jim and Mary’s money back. No question, you are angry and you feel everyone should know about it. 


You add in additional comments like you knew you shouldn’t have booked with X,Y, Z company and have no idea how it ever happened.

By this point, I’m telling you. Your customer care person on the other end of the letter has completely tuned out. They are thinking about whether they should go with a hamburger or salad for dinner tonight. Sure, It’s their job to help you and any good company will. But, let me tell you. To quote a very old adage, you get more bees with honey then you do with vinegar. Time to cap that bottle.  As someone who has been on the receiving end of many of these letters, I will always try far harder to find resolution more quickly for someone who is kind and doesn’t lash out at me.

4. Never Threaten

Which brings me to a similar point. Never say things like…if you don’t find a resolution for my clients by XYZ date, I will never book with your company again. Or worse…just flat out ending your letter with the line…We are so angry, your company is dead to us.

That melodramatic tone doesn’t exactly elicit motivation from the customer service person to find a resolution. If you’ve already come to a conclusion, why would they give your clients’ money back? My momma always called that “throwing good money after bad.”

5. Add a Dash of Honey

Remind the Customer Care person why you chose their company in the first place. It never hurts to use a bit of blatant flattery. Things like…”I heard you guys were the best so I was naturally surprised to hear things happened as they did. I’m sure this is not a normal occurrence. You wouldn’t get all the rave reviews that you do if it was.”

6. Get Your Reader to Empathize With Your Plight

Guilt. Maybe it’s because I’m a Mother of two children or maybe it’s because I was raised by a mom who had nailed this tactic down to a science. But I have mastered this step to a fine art. You need a compelling story. You need to put your audience in the shoes of your client. And I know, you’d think it was obvious but one of the survival techniques employed by companies is their ability to disassociate with the plight of their client. They compartmentalize and put themselves outside of the situation. You cannot let that happen. You need to draw them back in. A well-written complaint letter will have your audience begging to give your client’s money back.

Tell them that this trip took your client’s years to save up for. Remind them that your clients were celebrating some milestone event. Describe to them just how this colossal mess up impacted their lives. Paint a picture and then plop the customer care person into the role of the protagonist. 

And remind them that you appreciate that it’s not his or her fault this happened. You aren’t blaming them. In fact, you are happy that the resolution lies within his or her hands because you know you’ve got the right person; one that will move heaven and earth to make things right.

(Again, a little more of step 5 peppered into the other steps is never a bad idea )

7. Always Create a Win/Win Scenario

The key to any successful negotiation is to allow both parties to walk away feeling victorious. I know your gut instinct is to fight to the death. You want all of your clients’ money back but you have to stop and ask yourself, is that realistic? What do you, as an unbiased observer, think is a just solution? Be fair. Know that most companies want to move on and if you make the resolution even a little bit palatable, they’ll bite. Being unreasonable can close the doors before you even get a shot at any fair and equitable judgement. You need to make a strong offer to begin with but don’t go over the top. You could say something like, “While Jim and Mary will never get a second chance at their honeymoon, I’m sure if you could meet us halfway, with an XYZ refund and a future travel credit, I’m sure I could get them to accept this.”

8. End With a Strong Call to Action

And the most critical part of any successful complaint letter, end strong. Let there be absolutely no confusion about what you’d like the outcome to be. Never, ever end your plea for reimbursement with a question mark. Be decisive. Be clear on exactly what your clients are expecting in return and be fair. The customer care person knows that their company makes mistakes from time to time. Most companies have a fund reserved to handle situations like this. The easier you can make the job of the customer care person’s job, he or she will LOVE You. We are all busy. As long as your resolution doesn’t sound completely from Mars, AND you’ve written a compelling and concise letter, chances are the company will eagerly want to put the issue to bed as well.

Sub note: Ideally, you want to accomplish your mission in the first go but if you aren’t successful, don’t give up. The gods of adjudication often favour tenacity. Ugh, I’m almost cringing as I write this as it’s a dirty secret I’d rather no one ever know. Except you of course. ‘Cause we are friends. But don’t give up. I’ve seen companies throw money at people just to get them to shut the F*(&K up. Just kidding…not.

If you liked this article and want to read more, check out But I Don’t Like Selling

And let me know in the comments below if you have any additional tips to writing a compelling complaint letter that gets results. I’d love to hear from you.

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4 years ago

WHAT IS WRONG WITH ALL CAPS????? Just Kidding. I actually react to all caps just like a do to nails scraping down a chalk board.

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