How to Write a Complaint Letter

What's the proper complaint letter etiquette?

Richie Frieman
6-minute read
Episode #406

When it comes to the art of writing, my good buddy Grammar Girl is the go-to expert. I hope she’ll agree with me when it comes to writing a complaint letter, a key factor is how to properly address said complaint so your point is heard and not misinterpreted. Of course, your grammar is important so you seem professional, but in a complaint letter, you also want to make sure your argument is understood clearly. Sadly, many people miss the mark and focus solely on their rage.

Despite desperately wanting to fix a problem, improper complaint letters tend to focus more on aggression rather than results. And with that, when the stomping of your feet can be heard through your letter, it can kill your argument, making you look foolish and your complaint to be tossed aside without a care. So before you huff and puff and waste your frickin’ time, check out my top three quick and dirty tips for writing complaint letters:

Tip #1: Know Your Facts

Making sure your letter is 100% fact based should be priority one for writing a proper complaint letter. Being factual also ensures that you don't come off as a raving lunatic, which last time I checked, is something to keep in mind when formulating a proper complaint. Now, don't think I don't understand where you're coming from. I've been there. Yes, you're mad and you want to make a big statement, but the last thing you want to do is make an argument that can be picked apart like scraps after Thanksgiving dinner. I know this sounds easy, but sadly many people tend to get more “creative” than factual when it comes to making a solid argument.  It seems that the madder they get the more fictional their argument becomes, just to make their story better. The same notion reminds me of James Frey elaborating the details of his life in A Million Little Pieces; he lied to make his book more interesting and after that no one could believe a word he wrote. If you sit behind a keyboard or tap away on their phone with an elaborate and questionable list of accusations with words like, "And another thing..." the last thing that will happen is you being taken seriously. Let’s be honest, folks, whenever someone says "Oh, and one more thing" it usually ends up being trivial and counterproductive to the actual argument.

Take my friend Reed, who asked me to review a complaint letter he was sending to his landlord, before he hit “send.” In this letter (aside from using every negative adjective short of a curse word), Reed outlined all the reasons why his living situation was rather sub par to say the least. Now, as someone who has seen Reed's apartment, I can attest to the fact that his building was in desperate need of major TLC, and this landlord of his could very well be the most vial human being around. However, the location was great, the rent was affordable (for the area) and so the tenants have put up with the landlord’s ways for years … until Reed came along. As much as Reed was correct with his points in his complaint letter, it was so over the top with sarcasm that no one could take his argument seriously. Again, he was right, and he made valid points, but the more outlandish he got, the less factual his complaints became and thus his argument became deflated. So, when you sit down to write down every reason why a person, or company did you wrong, go ahead and take some jabs (in fact I encourage that) but don’t let your case go so far off the rails that your enemy can say, “That never happened and here’s the real truth…”

Tip #2: Pick a Proper Target

The ancient Chinese general, military strategist, and philosopher Sun Tzu said, “Know your enemy and know yourself and you can fight a hundred battles without disaster.” I love this quote because it reminds us all that if you’re going to enter battle (or even a small disagreement) knowing the proper person to whom you’re fighting with will ultimately save you in the end, allowing you to fight again down the line. I understand that as a manners guru I shouldn’t discuss fighting or arguing, and I don’t condone aggression whatsoever, however, I do advocate sticking up for yourself and making sure you don’t get walked over. To do this, you have to fight, and you have to be willing to see a disagreement through to the bitter end, if you feel passionate about something. When writing a proper complaint letter, this mindset you must have. You can’t back down, you can’t go light, and you have to make sure the person reading it is in fact the person who will be affected by your words. If not, well, what’s the point?