Dealing With Complaints By Letter

October 3, 2013

I was recently asked by a large corporate client (who for obvious reasons will remain anonymous) to teach a half day session on letter writing with a specific emphasis on responding to client complaints. As part of my research I was sent a large number of previous client complaint letters and the responses they received from the client in return. I duly invested half a day reading through and spotted some interesting trends. I should point out that the client has millions of UK customers and their percentage of complaints is actually very low.

  • All the letters of complaint told a story in chronological order (from the date of the first issue through to the latest).
  • Just like a story they were full of clichés and embellishment to reinforce their complaint.
  • Very few of them actually stated what they wanted the company to do about their issues.
  • Most threatened either court action or referral to trading standards, or both.

The responses they received were all very professionally written and in the most part contained all of the key elements of; apology, empathy, ownership and concern. I did however notice that the replies were quite long winded as they south to address every single element of the complaint. This is where I quickly realised I could make the biggest impact with the training.

So here’s the deal:

When we write a letter of complaint we usually have one main issue, the one that has tipped us over the edge from simply being dissatisfied to being angry and/or upset. When we put pen to paper (interestingly some were hand written) or start to press the keyboard we ‘let rip’ and our emotions as well as the facts are included.

As we have taken the trouble to write a letter we may as well complain about every little niggle we have had with them since the year dot! Typically these include:

  • Telephone response times
  • Cost of calls
  • Response times generally
  • Inflexible call centre staff

I could go on and on but you get the picture.

All of these niggles are designed by the complainer to reinforce their argument about their main issue and in some cases specifically aimed and building the level of compensation that should be offered.

In trying to address every customer ‘niggle’ my clients response letters had become long winded and full of reasoning and justification for this, that and the other.  In some cases more time was spent explaining the call handling times than on the ‘big issue’ itself.

As part of the training course I handed out some complaint letters and asked the group to identify the ‘big issue’ from the annoying niggles. Then to write a letter that acknowledged the ‘niggles’ BUT was primarily focussed on addressing the ‘big issue’.

After a few hours and some practise the class were able to read a letter and quickly separate out the main issues. They could then formulate a response that directly addressed the key areas of concern. As a result of the training they think they can halve the time it currently takes to respond to complaint letters.

I love a happy customer and I love it when the client can see a clear and quick return on their training investment.

As a final point I also told them my number one letter and email business tip; “Pick up the telephone and talk to them instead.” The manager realised this was another key area of learning that they needed to address and so I am back in a few weeks to do a session on that skill too!

Many thanks

Stuart Allen

Trainer & Consultant at MTD Training

(Image by Stuart Miles at

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