Complaints that Get Results (and Replies that Win You Customers)

Not happy? A couple of simple steps will help get your complaint noticed. And if you’re on the receiving end of a complaint, how you craft your response can make a big difference, too.

Four people holding up frustrated emoji faces.
(Image credit: Getty Images)

As an attorney who deals with consumer issues, I am often copied (or cc’d) on complaints readers have sent to businesses, governmental agencies and professional service providers. Some of these complaint letters are easy to read, coming right to the point, outlining what happened and the desired outcome.

Others require setting up a Ouija board and asking the spirit world to help me understand what my reader is upset about.\

You would be surprised at the FedEx deliveries from readers who have written what amounts to a short story complete with copies of all documents connected to the transaction: receipts, instruction manuals, emails, texts, transcriptions of phone calls. And, there are typically 20 cc’s as well. I do not read any of this stuff. Instead, I phone and ask for a brief explanation of what it is all about and how I can help.

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There is an art to writing an effective complaint letter or online post that not only gets results, but if handled correctly, can be a real win for all parties.

I discussed these issues with two friends of this column, business professors Lyle Sussman and David Schein. Sussman is Professor Emeritus and former Chairman and Professor of Management and Entrepreneurship, at the University of Louisville. Schein is the Cameron Endowed Chair in Management and Marketing and Director of Graduate Programs in the Cameron School of Business at the University of St. Thomas in Houston. He is also host of tremendously interesting podcast, “Saving America,” and I had the pleasure of being one of his guests on an episode about Timeshare Traps.

Both experts initially focused on one important aspect of the complaint process that is often overlooked, with potential, far-reaching, damaging consequences:

What Does Your Complaint Say About You as a Person?

Sussman: You’ve got to assume your complaint will be read by people who have no connection to the issue. In five minutes, with social media, the post could go viral and be viewed by anyone in the world.

Schein: No doubt you are upset. But ask yourself. “How does my language reflect on me as a person? Does it make me look unreasonable? Like I’m nut case, just rambling on?”

No matter how angry you are, don’t use profanity! Step back a moment and think, “What if I was applying for a job or a promotion, my name is searched and up popped this angry, rambling post?”

Flip this upside-down, and the same reasoning applies to whoever is responding to the complaint. A sarcastic, nasty reply damages your credibility.

Sussman: Show a rough draft of the complaint or response to someone whose judgment and common sense you trust. In the business world, this would be legal or public relations. Never forget that what you write could be shared with the world.

Complain to the Right Person, in Detail

One of the reasons I am copied on so many complaints is the apparent lack of a meaningful response. So, how can you increase the chances of a real person paying attention?

Schein: If you get no response, a form-letter or a nonsensical reply, then it is time to do some research and find a real person up the ladder to direct your complaint. Find out who is on the management team, locate email addresses, and politely write them.

Sussman: Your complaint must include detailed information. For example, the date you received the product, specifically what went wrong, invoice number, and reference information so that management can find you.

On the Flip Side, Respond to Complaints by Showing that You Care

From the company’s perspective, the more personal management can respond to the complaint, as opposed to a form letter, the better the chances for a positive resolution. However, a form letter response that does not specifically and individually address the issues can be damaging. It will show that your company is unconcerned with really solving problems.

Therefore, say, “We will get back to you by (date) with (the information or action requested).” The more specific the better — date, time and agenda. This shows that the letter writer has been heard.

Often we read online, “They promised to get back to me and never did.” If you promise a refund, a replacement, comp tickets, whatever, be sure it actually happens.

Schein: A well-thought-out reply can be a wonderful way of creating goodwill and help your business. But do not think of just getting someone off of your back. A nicely written reply letter or response to a post can have a positive impact well beyond this one case.

Be aware of the emotions involved. Show that we as a company care. Address the person by name, make your response personal and realize the value of empathy. You will achieve a very different and truly positive result that way.

Concluding our interview, both business professors urged, “Never be afraid to apologize, especially if the letter writer has stated that they felt disrespected. Be considerate and use paragraphs. Take your document through spell check, as nothing conveys an insult like a poorly spelled document.”

Dennis Beaver Practices law in Bakersfield and welcomes comments and questions from readers, which may be faxed to (661) 323-7993, or e-mailed to Also, visit


This article was written by and presents the views of our contributing adviser, not the Kiplinger editorial staff. You can check adviser records with the SEC or with FINRA.

H. Dennis Beaver, Esq.
Attorney at Law, Author of "You and the Law"

After attending Loyola University School of Law, H. Dennis Beaver joined California's Kern County District Attorney's Office, where he established a Consumer Fraud section. He is in the general practice of law and writes a syndicated newspaper column, "You and the Law." Through his column he offers readers in need of down-to-earth advice his help free of charge. "I know it sounds corny, but I just love to be able to use my education and experience to help, simply to help. When a reader contacts me, it is a gift."