How to Write a Complaint Letter

Tips for writing a complaint letter that gets results.

Kevin Cummings, Writing for
4-minute read
Episode #191

complaint letter

Today we're going to focus on that better writing part with a show about how to write a better complaint letter.


If you usually start letters of complaint with “Dear Stupid-head” and end them with “Threateningly yours,” they may not be as effective as you’d like. In fact, it’s probably time to reconsider your tactics when you want to complain about something. One interesting approach is to think about it as a negotiation.

When you sit down to write a letter to a company complaining that the toaster they sold you exploded and singed off your eyebrows (or whatever it is you’re upset about) you’ve initiated a conflict. 

Thoughtful negotiation is widely recognized as an appropriate way to deal with a conflict between parties. One of the most-recognized books on negotiation is Getting to Yes by Roger Fisher and William Ury of the Harvard Negotiation Project.

Fisher and Ury propose a simple four-step model for negotiation:

  1. Separate the people from the problem

  2. Focus on interests rather than positions

  3. Invent options for mutual gain

  4. Insist on using objective criteria

Although all four steps have some relevance to writing a letter of complaint, the first two are of particular value in today’s discussion.

Separate the People from the Problem

The first step—separate the people from the problem—is the most important. To return to our exploding toaster, as you’re sitting in the remains of your kitchen wondering if your eyebrows will ever grow back, you’re probably feeling pretty frustrated. It’s tempting to let this spill out onto the page, but by giving in to this temptation you are actually making it harder to get your complaint heard.

Even if you are completely justified in your anger, starting out on the attack is likely to trigger defensiveness in the person who has to read your letter. That defensiveness will make it hard for them to want to help you.

Next: More Super-Effective Tips