How to Respond to Complaint Letters

Yesterday I had the opportunity to be a virtual “guest speaker” for a technical writing class at Iowa State University. In the follow-up discussions with the professor, I was asked additional questions about answering guest letters for the Walt Disney World Resort. More specifically, she wanted my insights on the business thinking behind answering complaints. Before I write anything further, let me make this clear: The following content does not reflect the opinions or policies of the Walt Disney World Resort. Any opinions are strictly my own. 

That said, I have no idea how Disney operates this part of its business anymore. I will stress here that my thoughts are meant to address any business correspondence, not just letters related to a certain large resort complex in Florida. I should also add that I’ve written correspondence for defense contractors, nonprofit organizations, NASA project managers, and my own personal business. What follows, then, is a composite approach based on over 20 years of writing on behalf of organizations.

Read the Whole Letter

This seems like a given. However, I’ve been caught off-guard by letters that start out badly but include some bright spot. Be certain to acknowledge that bright spot. Sometimes a customer or member of the general public has a long laundry list of points they want your organization to know about–make sure you get the whole story.

Thank Them for Writing

Courtesy first. You might not feel it, you might want to chuck the letter in the circular file. They can’t see your face or hear your rage as they thoroughly insulted an organization you happen to appreciate. Thank them for writing anyway.

Determine the Writer’s Tone

Generally this is pretty easy to do, though as we’ve learned from the internet, text is not always the most effective or efficient way to convey emotion. Still, you can look for some obvious words like “thrilled” or “enraged” to capture your correspondent’s state of mind. This is important for establishing the tone of your response. Happy people can get a happy letter. Serious people get a serious letter. Threatening people might get a serious letter or they might get referred to your Legal Department…or the authorities.

Determine the Most Important Issue

This can be a challenge, especially in a letter or email that covers multiple concerns. However, the skill of being able to “read between the lines” is critical to responding to a customer concern. They might be irritated that their flight was late, for example, but what really set them off might be how they were treated by a desk agent. How do you determine the most important issue? When in doubt, just look at what the customer spends the most words discussing. Sometimes they’ll even tell you what their biggest concern is. Regardless of how many issues are in a letter, you need to get to the heart of the matter and make certain that your organization’s response addresses that.

Evaluate Requests for Action/Service Recovery

Sometimes customers are writing just to make you aware of a negative situation. Sometimes they say they are just making you aware but make a hint that they won’t be fully satisfied unless they are given something to make them feel better. If you’re in a product or service organization, they might want a refund or something free on their next visit. If you’re in a nonprofit organization, they might want you to change a particular policy position. Some people just want an apology. Then again, some people want to sue.

So how do you decide who gets what?

Service recovery has gotten complicated, especially with the advent of the internet, where people will share their “horror stories” online with anyone who will read them. And those “horrors” could include how a company responds to their original complaint. On the flip side, if you end up being exceptionally generous with your service recovery, the recipient might share their joy online and suddenly you’ve got a hundred copycat complaints. Which is why you have to do research on a problem occasionally–were they actually there? Did they actually pay for/use the product/service? What was the opinion of the closest employee(s)? Do they have receipts? Audio? Video? And what, exactly, do they want in response to their situation? Large organizations usually have preordained responses and guidelines for handling service issues. A lot of it boils down to a constellation of proof (on the customer’s part), responsibility (on the organization’s part), and reasonableness (of the request/resolution).

Then again, sometimes an apology is sufficient.

Determine if an Issue Needs to be Escalated

If you’ve been asked to write a response to a complaint letter, that task might or might not be your regular line of work. The Walt Disney World Resort is large enough to require a whole staff of Guest Communications correspondents whose full-time role is answering letters, calls, and emails. Small businesses or even medium-sized businesses might not get that many letters, so the person who’s the best wordsmith in the office gets the job. If the issue is unusual enough, you might get some guidance from a leader on what needs to be said and how any service recovery would need to be handled.

If your regular job is responding to customer concerns, you’ve probably been given the organization’s service recovery guidelines. You also might be empowered to provide that recovery without management approval–though you might have an editor or a manager look over your work before you pull the trigger. Of course if you work at Zappos or Ritz-Carlton, you might have broader guidelines than others. If, however, the customer is requesting or demanding something that it is not in your power to give, you might need to bump the request up the chain before getting a yes–especially if you think it’s warranted.

The Goals of a Business Correspondent

Whether you call a department Guest Letters, Customer Service, or something else, the goal of the person who must provide the service is twofold:

  • Protect the interests of the organization.
  • Keep the customers happy enough to keep patronizing the business.

It can be tricky to maintain a healthy balance between these two mandates in your mind. You want to serve the customer, whose dollars support the company. On the other hand, you need to be a responsible steward of the company’s resources so that it’s not defrauded. It is possible to err or become too zealous on one side of the equation on the other. “It’s not my money” can be an invitation in your mind to give away whatever you want or make you paranoid about issuing any service recovery whatsoever. Sometimes, if you’re in doubt, it’s better to just ask a peer or manager to get another perspective.

I’m Sorry vs. I Apologize

Others have written about this. I go back and forth on the word choice. In my mind, “sorry” is more sincere than “apologize,” which is a colder, more formal word. One way or another, some folks want to hear “I’m sorry” or “I apologize” for whatever situation prompted the letter. However, depending on whom you ask, either word might get you into legal trouble because it might imply culpability. One nice word that avoids this issue entirely is regret, as in: “We regret that you had a disappointing experience with X.” Not happy with that answer? Go search “I’m sorry vs. I apologize” on Google and prepare to send a few hours sorting out the best way to say that you feel badly that something untoward happened to your customer.

How to Say No to a Request

There are any number of reasons why a customer’s request might be refused. Their service recovery request might not match the circumstances–demanding a free vacation for four because someone stubbed their toe on a door jamb, for example. They might not have enough evidence of their problem–receipts, names, dates, the malfunctioning product, medical bills, or other specific evidence. Or they might be making a policy request that is unlikely to happen, like asking a defense company to stop making machinery that could be used for war. Or, on a more subtle and realistic note, the correspondent might ask a nonprofit organization to include his or her pet sub-cause in the organization’s overall mission.

Regardless of the situation, eventually it comes down to giving someone the bad news. I’m not comfortable with that, but I’ve done it. The language can be relatively simple: “We understand that you would like us to provide you with X. However, the situation you described does not fall within our service recovery guidelines.” Or something like that. If the problem is one of insufficient evidence, you could throw in something like “Unfortunately, your letter did not include your original receipt. We would be willing to research your concern further if you will mail it to us.” If the problem is one of policy, you might need to explain why the organization will not follow the correspondent’s policy preference.

When a Response is Not Necessary

Sometimes no response is the best response. For instance, if a customer is outraged about life in general but doesn’t have any comments about your organization, don’t bother. Or maybe, again, they’ve sent some sort of rant about the state of the world and they want nothing to do with your organization. They haven’t complained about your organization, but they’re just angry? File 86.

Closing Well

Again, try to match the tone of the correspondent or try to use words that put the correspondent in the mood you want them to have. Happy people can get another thank you and a “hope you’re our customer/guest soon” sort of closing. Angry/disappointed folks  might require words to the effect of “We realize you have many choices when it comes to X, and we hope you will consider choosing us in the future.”

The Reality of Business Correspondence

On the whole, happy people don’t write letters. If I had to guess on the negative-to-positive letters I’ve read over the years, I’d say the ratio was 9:1. Treasure those compliments and make sure that specific people or departments, if they’re recognized, are informed about the happy customer. If business correspondence is your full-time job, you will learn a lot about how people argue: which approaches they’ll take to get what they want, what upsets them, etc. You’ll encounter a lot of bad language (profane, grammatically incorrect, or both). You’ll see moments of joy and of high dudgeon. The bottom line is that, from a literary point of view, you are the “voice” of your organization. You have the opportunity to represent it well, to celebrate with your fans, and maybe turn around some of your detractors. It’s an exercise in applied rhetoric, and it’s a great education in writing clearly and well.

About Bart Leahy

Freelance Technical Writer, Science Cheerleader Event & Membership Director, and an all-around nice guy. Here to help.
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1 Response to How to Respond to Complaint Letters

  1. ann kretschmer says:

    Excellent advice for writing a letter of complaint as well as responding to one.

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