Letter Writing. A How-To Guide to Filing a Complaint

If you’ve ever had to deal with a large corporation, government agency, or other service provider, chances are likely that you’ve encountered a problem. If you’ve complained about the problem and found yourself brushed off or ignored, you may feel that it’s time to write a complaint letter.

Complaint letters are beneficial for multiple reasons. One, your entire complaint is heard without interruption or sidetracking. Two, a complaint letter is documentation of a problem. If you can prove (by sending a copy of the letter) that you have tried to address the problem previously to no avail, supervisors, watch groups, and others are more likely to listen to your complaint. If an issue has to go to court at some point, complaint letters are part of the ‘paper trail’ that can help you prove your side of the argument.

As such, complaint letters can be extremely important, and the art of writing a complaint letter properly shouldn’t be overlooked.

Having had a tremendous amount of success with writing complaint letters when nothing else was getting through, I have decided to share some of the things I have learned along the way. Better to be a thorn in their sides than they be a thorn in yours.

Headers are important

Headers are, obviously, at the top of a letter and contain valuable information. If you don’t have a proper header, it can reflect badly on you and lead to your complaint not being addressed.

Headers should contain vital information. What is required depends on circumstance, but there are general rules.

All headers should include the date. This will be highly beneficial in case your complaint isn’t addressed. You can prove to people that you have had a problem for a documented length of time, and that you’ve addressed it in writing..

Headers should typically also include the address to which you are sending the complaint letter. This will document where you sent your complaint letter, in case further action is needed. I also recommend putting the person’s or department’s name below the company name so that they can direct your complaint letter properly.

Supercorp, Inc.
Mr. Falsted
1233 Business Way, Ste. 382
Anytown, Mystate, Zipcode+4 (if you have the +4)

Underneath the address, I like to add “Re:”. This means ‘regarding’ and contains vital information about you or your complaint. I usually include my case, customer, or complaint number, and a brief listing of the problem.

Example: Re: Customer ID: #A48-260-N8R6, package lost in transit

Use proper titles

No longer as simple as ‘Dear Sir or Madam’, you have to figure out where your complaint letter is going and who is supposed to read it. If you know the person you are writing the complaint letter to, this is where you put their name. If you do not have the name of someone that you can contact, and cannot get one (by looking on their website, talking to a secretary, asking for the name of someone’s supervisor, etc.) then you can write “To Whom it May Concern”. If you’re trying to reach a specific department, you can also write “In Department Name”, where department name would be Human Resources or Customer Service or Billing.

Now you’re ready to start your letter.

Particularly if you’ve had to use “To Whom it May Concern”, you should make sure that whomever is reading the complaint letter can send it where it needs to go without having to search through the letter themselves and try to figure out where they think your complaint should go. This should be addressed in the first paragraph.

Define your problem

Politely, and as pointedly as possible, define your problem. This tells them why you are writing a complaint letter. If you have to, briefly outline how this problem has been compounded by their lack of action.

Example: I contacted your office last week regarding a package that had not arrived. I was informed that the package had been shipped and delivered somewhere, but it did not arrive here. I have since contacted your office twice more to get some resolution to the missing package problem but have yet to receive my order, a replacement, or a refund.

Tell them how your problem has affected you.

This is where you tell them the reason for your frustration and, in effect, for your complaint letter.

Example: It has now been 5 weeks since I placed my order with your company. I expected to receive my package around ‘this date’, but it did not arrive. I have been on the phone with customer service 2 times, taking up hours of my time. Not only have I not gotten the package, they haven’t even offered to send me a replacement. I’ve had to run out and buy the supplies myself locally, costing me even more time and money. Customer service refuses to resolve the issue, nor will they let me talk to a supervisor.

Sometimes it is helpful to address the issue of customer loyalty at this time.

Example: I have used your company for 3 years and I have never had to deal with issues like this. I have always spoken highly of your company to people who are looking for the services you provide. I fully expected that my complaint would be addressed in a timely manner and I am disappointed to see that I may have supported a company that has no customer loyalty.

What do you want them to do about it?

This is the part they’re really waiting for. The way to get you to stop complaining to them. Without it, they may ignore your complaint letter entirely or get creative. If you’re feeling lucky, you can be vague and just say that you want this fixed. If you have a specific solution in mind, here is where you tell them what will make you happy. Thinly veiled threats to go to a competitor also work here.

Example: At this point, I’m seriously considering switching to Awesomecorp. I’ve already gone out and bought the supplies that your company was supposed to send me and I no longer feel comfortable relying on Supercorp after getting the runaround for nearly a month. I’m not interested in a credit or a replacement at this point. I just want my money back.

List any further action you will take if your complaint is not addressed.

Example: If I do not get a response within one week, I will be filing a complaint with the Better Business Bureau and the Attorney General’s Office.


Now is the time to smooth things down. This is how you bring it all together and let them know that you’re not just an irrational, ticked off customer on a rampage. You’re a reasonable human being and you have faith that they are too. This part should be included in probably about the first two letters. If you have to write a third, chances are good that they don’t really care if you’re a reasonable human being and you no longer have to play nice.

Example: I really enjoyed working with Supercorp and I’m disappointed to know that when I had a problem after all this time, it wasn’t addressed. I hope that this letter will help us come to a resolution so that I can get this matter behind me.

Thank you for taking the time to read this letter.


Your name here.

It is also important to give them a way to reach you so that they don’t have to look it up. You can include your address, phone number, email address, etc. below your name. By putting this information at the end of your complaint letter, you’re more likely to get a response because you’ve cut down on their work.

CC: is a powerful persuasive tool

If you have a lawyer, or if there is someone who could oversee this matter to put pressure on them to resolve the issue, you may want to CC: that person at the footer of the letter. “CC:” means “Carbon Copy” and is a throwback to the days when copies of letters were actually done with a sheet of carbon paper. It wasn’t that long ago, I actually remember carbon paper.

Some other tips

Be Succinct

I love the irony of defining ‘Succinct’. Succinctness is all about making your point with as few words as possible. The shorter your complaint letter is, the higher the chances are that they’ll finish it..

Punctuation is Key

Your complaint letter should be easy to read. It is difficult to read letters with small print or no paragraphs. It is also difficult to read letters that haven’t been run through a spell-check. Always use spell-check when writing a complaint letter. Even if you ‘never’ spell anything wrong, it will be the one time you did. If you respected them enough to send a legible letter, they should respect you enough to read it.

The fact is…

Inserting dates and other important numbers into your complaint letter lets people know that you are keeping track of their actions. Facts strengthen your position, just like putting your complaint in writing does.

Example: I placed my order with Supercorp on January 2nd of this year. I paid extra for FedEx 2 day shipping. On January 9th I contacted your company to ask about the status of my order. I called again on January 12th and was told that it had been tracked and delivered, but not to this address.

Another example: I have had to call your company, on average, 2 times per week because my cable modem keeps going down. I have been calling you, at that rate, since mid-September. In 7 weeks that’s about 14 calls and yet I’ve made 0 progress.

Back it up

Include copies of receipts, bills, or correspondence that proves your point with your complaint letter. This strengthens your paper trail. Do not send the originals. Those are yours and may be necessary in future complaints.

Be Professional.

No matter how many expletives you feel are absolutely required for your complaint letter, it is far better to speak them than write them (preferably when you’re not on the phone with the instigator). Remember the adage, “you catch more flies with honey than vinegar”? If you manage to keep your temper in check and threaten them in ways you can actually follow through on, it tells them that you mean business and it’s probably better to pick their fight elsewhere.

Poise and professionalism are a silent warning that you expect to be heard and dealt with promptly and respectfully. They are the alarm bells that tell your addressee that if they don’t listen to your complaint, there’s a good chance that someone else will. Subtle, yet blatantly obvious, they are all the proof I need that the pen is indeed mightier than the sword. If you have mastered them, you can count on being heard, understood, and respected. All of those things lead to having to write less complaint letters, and what can be better than free time not spent in frustration?

Call to follow up

It’s important to make sure that they got your letter. While this can be accomplished by sending a certified letter (and is recommended in some instances), calling to follow-up puts them on the spot. It gives you a timeline so that you can estimate how long it will take to get your complaint resolved.

Keep a copy for yourself

Always keep copies of any correspondence in case you need them later.

Did your complaint letter work?

It is always nice to go out of your way to tell someone that you appreciated a timely response or their help with a complaint. Not only does it break up their day (which is usually filled with other complaint letters), but if you ever have another issue they are more likely to remember you in a positive light. If you have another complaint in the future, try to address it to them because you’ve left them with a good impression. It takes very little time or effort to thank someone for their time and effort, and it shows professionalism and maturity when you do so…so write them a letter, send them a card, just a little something to show them that you’re a good sport. You can still be mad, but at least someone cared, even if it was because they had to.

Anything else?

As a final thought, having a good sense of humor will help you get through tedium and hair-pulling when dealing with corporations, particularly if you have to spend time and money on stamps to get something done. You don’t have to be funny in any letter, but if the vision of watching their head explode while they read the hot water their company has, in effect, dumped on their desk gives you a chuckle, by all means…laugh it up. I’ve yet to meet anyone who can deal with pencil-pushers on a regular basis without ending up a little bit cynical.

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