I haven’t always been a wildly successful English copywriter and proofreader. 😉 I spent over 25 years in the classroom teaching EFL here in Korea. One of the courses I frequently taught was a first-year writing course. Rather than teach academic writing, I opted to teach my students something practical they might actually use.

I taught them how to write business and casual emails. I taught them how to fill out forms in English they might actually encounter, like landing cards. We learned about the differences between formal and casual writing. One of the units in our book was on how to write a complaint letter. 

There’s a right way to do this and a wrong way. I always enjoyed teaching my students something practical—not just theoretical knowledge. I also liked to show students that I practiced what I preached. The best way to do this was to share a personal experience. 

A complaint letter isn’t about getting something off your chest

Well, for some people, it might be. Let’s face it—we only complain about something when we’re extremely angry or dissatisfied with a product or service. So much so that we feel the need to reach out to someone to receive compensation. But I want you to think about the support team that gets your email or chat message for a moment.

A picture  of an open office with over 100 people looking at computers.

It might help to remember that the person you’re writing to didn’t create your problem. They didn’t design or manufacture the product that didn’t work as you expected. They weren’t the one who provided you with less than stellar service. But they’re the one who decides if they can help you with your problem—and to what extent. Some of the complaints they deal with each day are valid—but many aren’t.

With that in mind, it’s a good idea to take a more measured approach with your next complaint letter. You might be surprised by the response you get. You may even receive a resolution to your problem that’s better than what you were hoping for.

You’ll have more luck with your next complaint letter if you follow this framework

Writing a complaint letter is easy when you have a simple framework to follow. This is the format I taught my students and used to resolve a matter with something I purchased.

  • When possible, include the reference/order number in the subject line
  • Explain the situation briefly but clearly
  • Suggest (don’t demand) a solution to the problem
  • Always use polite, formal language throughout (avoid emotional language/insults)

And that’s it. It’s best if you follow all four steps, but sometimes you’ll have to adapt your approach. In the example I’m going to share with you, I didn’t follow these four steps to a tee. But I did follow the general framework. Let’s examine these four parts of the framework in more detail.

Include the reference/order number in the subject line (when applicable)

When complaining about your incorrect order, everything is fresh in your mind. You know exactly what’s wrong. But the company you’re complaining to may fill hundreds, if not thousands of orders a week.

A screenshot of an email showing the order number in the subject line.

Whenever possible, provide the order number or billing reference number. This makes it easier for the person you’re corresponding with to find any relevant information. Remember, they didn’t fill your order or deliver it. Until they read your message, they didn’t even know you were a customer.

If you don’t have an order number or transaction number, give as many relevant details as you can. State where and when you purchased the item. The more specific the information, the easier it’ll be to investigate your complaint. It’ll also help the support team attempt to determine what went wrong and how best to remedy the situation.

Explain the situation briefly but clearly

You may be tempted to explain that you wanted to buy a specific color phone for your 16-year-old niece, who recently lost her mother to cancer. Despite the hardships that life dealt her, she got top marks in school, and you wanted to reward her, blah, blah, blah. This may all be true—but it’s irrelevant. 

A picture of a smiling teenage girl in glasses, wearing a jean jacket and gray hoodie against a blue background.

Support workers are busy, just like you and me. They don’t have time to read lengthy emails full of superfluous information. It doesn’t help them—and it doesn’t help you. Keep it as short as possible. But include enough details to help the person reading your email understand the situation.

The simplest, shortest way to do this is with one sentence. Explain what you wanted, and then explain what happened.

  • I ordered a gold iPhone, but I received a silver one.
  • I placed an order for six jars of crunchy peanut butter, but the peanut butter that arrived was creamy.

We have a short, factual explanation of the problem in these examples. It’s easy for the person receiving the complaint to determine what was expected. They also know how the company didn’t deliver on that expectation.

Suggest (don’t demand) a solution to the problem

I get it. You’re angry. Your niece’s birthday was ruined because the company sent you the wrong color phone. You demand justice!

Take a deep breath and step back from the situation for a moment. Remember, the person you’re writing to didn’t send you the wrong color phone. Also, think about how you respond to requests versus demands. 

An image of a woman sitting outdoors in a meditation pose, overlooking a lack as the sun sets.

Keep in mind that the company likely has protocols for resolving disputes. Demanding that the company send you the correct color phone and give you a 30% discount is unrealistic. It’s also likely outside the scope of solutions the support worker can offer you. 

It’s often best to suggest how you would like the situation resolved. But you can also test the waters and see what the company offers. If their proposed solution isn’t acceptable, you can always offer a counter solution.

Always use polite, formal language throughout—avoid emotional language/insults

As with the previous step, I know that you’re pissed off. Hell, it’s called a complaint letter—you want to rage and vent! Save that for online forums or friends. Ever heard the proverb, “You catch more flies with honey than vinegar”?

Again, put yourself in the other person’s shoes. Imagine receiving an expletive-filled rant insulting your intelligence and questioning your competence. How willing would you be to do your best to help that person? Or would you expend the least amount of effort possible investigating the complaint? 

Which of the following people would you be more likely to try and do a little more for?

Your company sucks! The dumbasses working in the warehouse must be high school dropouts since they can’t read a simple order form. They must be colorblind too! Who can’t tell the difference between silver and gold? Not only am I never going to do business with your company, but I’m also going to tell everyone I know how lousy your business is!

A picture of an angry man, screaming while pointing at the camera.

I ordered a gold iPhone, but I received a silver one. Could you please send me a gold iPhone ASAP and arrange for the return of the silver one?

I know which email I’d respond to first. If I were allowed to include free memory cards to unsatisfied customers, I know who’d be getting one and who wouldn’t.

The proof is in the pudding—how I used this framework to resolve a problem

About three years ago, I bought a new electric guitar. This guitar was somewhat unique. Like most electric guitars, it has magnetic pickups. They’re the part that transfers string vibrations into electrical signals. But my guitar also has piezo pickups. These pickups produce a more acoustic-like tone from an electric guitar. Unfortunately, I had some issues with those piezo pickups. 

Here is the initial letter I sent via a web form. As this was a web form on the company’s website, there was no subject line. Also, I hadn’t bought the guitar directly from the company. This company simply provided parts that were installed on my guitar. I contacted this company because the guitar manufacturer went out of business.

A picture of a Parker P38 electric guitar.

Oct 14, 2019

Hello,

In March of 2019, I purchased a new Parker P38 (with Fishman piezo pickups) here in Seoul, South Korea. A few months after purchase, the piezo pickup on the A string developed an annoying static noise when the string was plucked. I took the guitar back to the shop I purchased it from. They attempted to repair the piezo pickup but ultimately were unable to do so and ended up replacing the guitar.

Now, the piezo pickup on the high E string has stopped functioning. I took my guitar to a luthier for a setup, but he was unable to fix the problem with the piezo pickup. He said he could replace the high E string piezo if I could procure a replacement.

I have always considered Fishman to be a quality brand, but I am very disappointed with the failure of 2 different Fishman piezo pickups on 2 different Parker P38s.

I would be very interested to hear if you can offer a solution to this problem.

Sincerely,

Dean Comeau

How’d I do? As mentioned, I didn’t buy the guitar from Fishman directly, so I had no order number. I explained the problem as clearly as I could. Perhaps I could’ve been a little briefer. But I felt it was relevant to explain I’d had the same problem on two different guitars. 

I was polite and refrained from insulting or emotional language. I stated I was disappointed with the failure of two piezo pickups. But I didn’t resort to insulting the company or the person receiving my complaint. As I hadn’t purchased the guitar from Fishman, I wasn’t even sure I was entitled to a resolution. I chose to see what solution, if any, Fishman might offer.

Here’s the reply I received.

Oct 16, 2019

Hi Dean,

I’m sorry for the trouble you’ve had. Fishman had stopped making parts for Parker guitars well over 12 years ago. These guitars may have been sold as new, but that would mean the pickup systems were likely over 12 years old. It is hard to say what the cause would be at this point. If you want to email me a picture of the bridge, I’ll see if we have a saddle that will fit as a replacement. On many Parker bridges, they had us built uniquely shaped saddles for their guitars. So I can’t say if we would have a replacement without seeing the bridge.

Thanks, 

D****

No guarantees, but at least they were willing to investigate and attempt to help me out.

Oct 16, 2019

Hi D****,

Thanks for the quick reply. 

I understand that Parker guitars haven’t been manufactured in over a decade, however it still strikes me as very unusual that I’d have pickup failures on two different new guitars. 

I’ve attached a couple of pics of my bridge. As this is a lower-end Parker guitar, I believe these are fairly standard piezo pickups. I know many of the higher end Parkers have unusually shaped piezos. 

Thank you again in advance for your assistance. 

Cheers,

Dean

A close up picture of the bridge of a Parker P38 showing the piezo pickups.

Again, I received a reply within 24 hours:

Oct 17, 2019

Hi Dean,

That is a bridge that uses our Wilkinson style saddles. Thankfully we do still make those. If you want to email me a copy of your receipt and your mailing address, I’ll send you a replacement at no charge.

Thanks, 

D****

Okay, now we’re getting somewhere! They’re going to get me the part I need, and they’re not even going to charge me for shipping. They just have to determine that I actually purchased the guitar I’m claiming I bought. That seems fair. 

Even though I didn’t have an order number in my original message, I included it in my reply. Since my receipt was in Korean, I made sure to explain the relevant information. I included my phone number along with my address, knowing deliveries usually need one.

Oct 18, 2019

Hi D****,

Thank you again for your prompt response.

I bought the guitar online here in South Korea, so apologies for the receipt (attached) being in Korean. The receipt includes the date of purchase (April 4, 2019), the order number (20190404*********), my full name (Dean Comeau), the price paid (***,*** Korean won), and my partial credit card information. Hopefully, that is sufficient for proof of purchase.

If so, here’s my mailing address:

Dean Comeau

******* ******** Apts. Bldg. *** Apt. ****

*****************, Seongbuk-gu

Seoul

South Korea

02***

If you need a phone number: +82-10-****-****

Thank you again for your assistance.

Sincerely,

Dean

A screenshot of a Korean receipt for a Parker P38 electric guitar, purchased on April 4th 2019.

Another quick response.

Oct 19, 2019

Hi Dean,

No worries. I’ll mail you a couple replacement saddles just in case you need a backup. If you need further help, please let me know.

Thanks, 

D****

Wow! Two replacement saddles. If I’d only asked for one, I might have only gotten one. But this guy was offering me a backup saddle. Sweet!

Oct 21, 2019

Hello D****,

Thanks again for your help. I really appreciate the extra saddles. Hopefully, I won’t need it, but definitely some peace of mind.

Regards,

Dean

And though I was under no obligation to do so, I emailed the guy when I received the saddles. I told him I’d be installing one soon, which would hopefully resolve my problem.

Nov. 13, 2019

Hello D****,

I just wanted to let you know the saddles arrived yesterday. Hopefully, I’ll manage to get to my local shop soon to get the new piezo installed.

Thanks again for your assistance and for the extra saddle.

Regards,

Dean

A close up pic of two Fishman replacement piezo saddles.

I got a final reply.

Nov. 13, 2019

Hi Dean,

I’m glad you received the parts. If you ever need help in the future, please let us know.

Thanks, 

D****

It’s nice when things work out in the end, isn’t it?

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is how it’s done. Several students commented that they really enjoyed me sharing my real-world example with them. It helped them see that what they were learning had practical value. It wasn’t just theory that needed to be memorized for a test.

I picture of a backlit woman with her right fist raised above her, against a pale orange background.

I’m also glad to say I haven’t needed to use the provided backup after replacing that defective piezo pickup. But I like knowing that I have an extra should I ever have another piezo fail.

I did some research on this saddle model. It appears each one costs about $25–30. But they appear to be sold out on most sites at present. That backup is even more valuable than I realized.

So the next time you feel the need to write a complaint letter, why don’t you give this framework a try? What have you got to lose? You’re unlikely to receive a more satisfying resolution by being rude and aggressive. Being polite, brief and diplomatic may even get you a little something more than you hoped for.

Have you had any success with a complaint letter? Share your experience below!

3 thoughts on “How to write a complaint letter that’ll get you what you want

  1. Dean,

    Thanks for sharing. It’s good to be reminded how to write a proper complaint. Below is a bad example of a complaint. I sent this e-mail in February, 2020.

    Subject: WRONG items received!!! – Order ####

    WRONG items received!!!

    Hello,

    I purchased two Bicycle Parking Stands in my order (####, invoice attached). The tracking number provided was XXXXXXXXXX.

    I received the package today, but I received the wrong items. Instead of bicycle stands, I received two Stop Buttons. The package has the same tracking number. Photos attached.

    Request you send two bicycle stands via FASTEST shipping method to my personal address (below). I provided the address in English, and Korean, as I live in South Korea.

    (address in English)

    (address in Korean)

    Please acknowledge as soon as possible.

    Jeff Law

    1. Hey Jeff,

      Thanks for sharing.

      Honestly, it’s not that bad. You included the order & tracking numbers, and you clearly stated what you ordered and how that order wasn’t fulfilled. You made a request as to how the situation could be resolved. Aside from “WRONG” and “FASTEST” (and the excessive exclamation points 😉 ) being a little aggressive, there’s not much else wrong with it.

      I’m sure they’ve received worse!

      And I’m sure if I went back through all my correspondence over the years, I could find some less than stellar examples of complaint letters I’ve written over the years.

      Assuming you got the bicycle stands you originally ordered eventually?

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