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  • What is filing a complaint?

  • Why file a complaint?

  • When should you file a complaint?

  • Where should you file a complaint?

  • How do you file a complaint?

What is filing a complaint?

A complaint is a formal statement of your dissatisfaction with an issue. You are asking others to take action--action you do not have the power to take solely by yourself. A formal complaint is almost always put into writing.

Filing a complaint is an advocacy tactic designed to convince those in authority to take a specific action. With this tactic, you and your group are taking a public, official stand with respect to your dissatisfaction. Normally, you might file a complaint when other more informal or less-vigorously-applied techniques intended to produce the same action have not succeeded.

Why file a complaint?

  • If you quietly accept the status quo, you are certainly not going to resolve the issue.
  • Filing a complaint underscores the seriousness of the issue and your resolve to get action.
  • Filing a complaint can increase the visibility of your organization or group.
  • When you put something in writing, it is harder to ignore.
  • Filing a complaint will usually get people's attention, because no one wants to be the head of an organization that ignores their customers or clients' concerns --leaders like that don't stay at the head of an organization for very long.
  • Most of all, filing a complaint may lead to a fair hearing of your grievances and to your getting the action you want.

When should you file a complaint?

Should you file a complaint every time something doesn't go your way? A complaint can be filed at any time you have a grievance. However, writing a good, effective complaint letter takes time; and sometimes more informal techniques (phone calls, for examples) might be just as effective; so it's usually better to file a written complaint following unsuccessful informal tactics to get what you and your organization want.

Here are some times it might be worth the effort to file a written complaint:

  • When the issue is an especially important one to you or your group.
  • When the cost of your loss, or the intensity of your dissatisfaction, is greater than the cost of filing the complaint.
  • When you need a permanent record of your actions.
  • When actions others have taken are a clear violation of established policy or law.
  • When people have been harmed--physically or emotionally--or are at risk of being harmed.
  • When simpler tactics, such as phone calls or informal conversations have not worked.

Where should you file a complaint?

Suppose you went to a fancy restaurant for dinner one evening, and the waiter was unforgivably rude to you. Writing a complaint letter to that person is unlikely to get you an apology, or to change the way that restaurant operates. However, if you address your letter to the owner of the restaurant, your letter will have more of an impact. You will be more likely to get a positive response.

The moral to the story is that owners or heads of organizations have much more at stake in taking your complaint seriously. Their reputation or career can be affected; while for lower-level staff, their work may just be a job. And often, lower-level staff have little power to make the changes you want; it's the top executives who can do what it takes to meet your demands.

Thus, the number one rule on where to file a complaint is: Write to the Top

This means you may need to do some research to check out the decision makers on the issue. It may be an individual, who makes the decisions. Or it might be an administrative body. When you write the letter, make sure it is addressed to a specific person. Generic or impersonal letters are often ignored. They simply do not get people's attention or response the way a personal letter does.

Depending on the situation, copies of the complaint and other supporting information can be sent to other responsible parties, such as trade organizations, local media, consumer groups, or even legal firms and the state attorney general. This can often increase your influence, in the eyes of the complaint recipient.

One possible exception to this rule is if you specifically know the person who is responsible for resolving complaints, and/or also know that person to be someone who would give you a fair hearing.

How should you file a complaint?

Following these guidelines should set you on the right path:

Know where to address your complaint.

You will want to send it to the decision makers who can take the action you want. And it will help to know not only their titles and addresses, but also, if possible, something about them as people. Who are they? What are they about? And if you know something about how they have dealt with complaints in the past, so much the better.

Know what form your complaint should take.

If you are complaining to a large organization--especially a large public organization, such as a consumer commission or a housing authority--the organization may well have specific procedures for filing a complaint. These may also include specific forms for you to fill out and documentation to provide. So, it's up to you to find out what those procedures might be.

How do you find out whether specific procedures do exist? Either ask someone with experience dealing with that organization, or call and ask the organization directly. If you decide to call them yourself, you don't have to tell them your name or reason for calling yet--you may not want to tip your hand.

But if specific procedures are not in place--and often even if they are--use the following steps as a guide to filing your complaint:

Know what it is you want your complaint to accomplish.

What would you like to see happen? Just venting your frustration may make you feel a little better, but has no direction and little purpose. If you are very clear on what you want from the start, chances are it will be easier to write your letter; and the letter will be more effective, too.

Write and refine your letter.

Now, let's start putting that letter together. Here are five basic ingredients that you should include:

  • State your purpose - Start by letting the recipient know that this is a formal letter of complaint. Don't beat around the bush on this point. Put your purpose right out in the open.
  • State your reasons - State the specific reason or reasons behind your complaint. Why are you complaining? What is the substance of the complaint? What actual events happened?
  • State the importance - Show why these reasons justify your making a formal complaint at this time. What loss did you or others suffer? Who was harmed, and how? What laws might have been broken or procedures violated?

Not many people really like to complain, and you can imply or even state as much when you are writing. But perhaps your reasons are so important and so powerful that you have no other choice. If so, make this clear in your letter.

  • State your request - Make a specific request for what you want. What specific action or actions do you want the recipient to take? Are you seeking enforcement of a law; a refund or other financial compensation; a public statement; or something else? Be clear and explicit.
  • Ask for a reply - Request a written reply, by a specific date. This request both shows the recipient your seriousness of intent, and increases the recipient's accountability for acting on your request.

Making the most convincing arguments

The previously mentioned steps and ingredients of an effective complaint letter should make your complaint more successful. But we have not yet spoken about how to be most convincing in your letter itself. When you sit down and write your letter, what kinds of arguments should you use? Some arguments will be more convincing than others. And in general a recipient is more likely to be convinced if you can show that the action you are complaining about is:

  • Ilegal (an actual law is being broken)
  • In violation of established policies or agreements
  • Inconsistent with past practices
  • Inconsistent with the recipient's self interest
  • Inconsistent with the image that the recipient wishes to convey
  • Causing people to be at greater risk of harm
  • Causing actual harm to people (especially severe harm, or harm to many people)
  • Likely to result in legal, fiscal, or other sanctions against the recipient's organization
  • Likely to result in bad publicity for the recipient's organization
  • Likely to result in loss of future votes or other public support (especially true for public organizations)

Sometimes, more than one of these arguments may apply. Use them all (being careful, though, to avoid overwhelming the recipient, or "overkill"). For each argument you do use, cite the specific reasons why it is true.

More tips for successful complaint letters

  • Keep your letter short--one page, or two at the most, unless there is a very good reason to run longer. Most people will not have much time to read your letter, and are not interested in every tiny detail. So stick to the main concepts and the big ideas. If you want to enclose relevant documentation (receipts, contracts, previous correspondence), do so separately, as an attachment.
  • Make sure the recipient knows who you are, and your connection to the complaint. If you are a well-known person, or a loyal customer or supporter, don't be shy about stating your credentials. And make sure the recipient knows how to contact you--include your address and a daytime telephone number.
  • Demonstrate that you have support behind you. The more support you have, and the more powerful your supporters are, the better. One person filing a complaint may be dismissed as an exception, or worse, as an oddball; but several complaints from different people are not as easily ignored. Some ways to do this are:
    • Have several people sign your complaint letter.
    • Have several people write separate, individual complaint letters of their own.
    • Have the most powerful or credible person in your group (in the eyes of the complaint recipient) write the letter.
    • Get support from other relevant organizations, such as (for example) consumer protection agencies or other advocacy groups. (Unless these are groups you are actually filing a complaint about!) Ask them to write letters on your behalf.
    • Get political support, such as local legislative support, or even support from the state attorney general's office. Ask these supporters to follow up with phone calls or other contacts.
  • Be polite. Capitalize on the good will the recipient may have toward you or your cause. Even if there is little or none, it is still the recipient's job to deal with complaints like yours; showing politeness and respect is more likely to get you a fair hearing. (You can be polite, and still be very forceful.)
  • Avoid irrelevant criticism and especially avoid personal attacks. (This is the flip side of being polite.) Such criticism and attack is worthless 99.9% of the time, and may in fact be counterproductive. Stay away even from comments that may be perceived as insulting, as they almost never pay off. Instead, keep your comments focused on the complaint itself.
  • Should you use humor in your complaint letter? Some "experts" recommend you use a little, to convey the sense that you are an ordinary person, and to help defuse a tense or unpleasant situation. The best answer is it depends on who you are writing to, and what you are writing about. If people have become physically ill, or if actual crimes have been committed, that's not a situation to joke about. But, in a less extreme situation, a touch or two of humor, lightness or colloquialism, may help without distracting from the seriousness of your complaint.
  • Be prepared to raise the stakes. You could state in the letter that if favorable action is not received by a specific date, you will pursue the complaint to the next higher level of authority, and/or take further action not in the recipient's best interests. Will this be effective? It could be, depending on your knowledge of the next levels of authority, how likely they are to be effective for you, and how much your mention of them will influence the recipient to act.
  • Keep a copy of your letter. Letters do get lost, and you may need to send one to a higher authority. You don't want to have to start all over from scratch.

How do you follow up on your complaint?

If you don't get what you want, then it's time to regroup. Take a hard look at whether the complaint is worth pursuing further. Perhaps it is. Then some of your options will include:

Strengthen your tone

You may want to follow up your first letter with a second letter which is more strongly worded. This doesn't mean you should be emotional or insulting; you are just letting the recipient know that you mean business and that you will not give up until the issue is resolved to your satisfaction.

Strengthen your case

Did you present all the relevant evidence in your first letter? Perhaps you can make a stronger case by providing more detailed and/or more specific documentation. And if the recipient has given you reasons why favorable action has not yet been taken, here's your chance to provide additional facts and make your case airtight.

Investigate the procedures for taking the complaint to the next higher level of authority

Some organizations will have a procedure for filing complaints at higher levels of authority. Or, you may need to do some fact-finding and see who has power over the person or persons who denied your initial claim, then send a copy of your complaint to that person. Review the guidelines above to be sure you have covered all your bases.

Get more supporters and/or more powerful supporters

You may want to involve more people who are affected by the issue--the more people affected, the less likely you are to be ignored. You may also want to involve people who have some power over the decision makers, at least in their eyes. This might be a board of directors, a regulatory agency, a legal firm, or a consumer advocacy group.

More specifically, you may also want to include a "cc" line at the bottom of your letter and list appropriate agencies and individuals that you are sending copies of your complaint to. You may not even have to actually send copies to these people--just the implication that you will do so may prod some people into action. If you do in fact send copies to third parties, you will want to include a cover letter explaining the situation.

Use the media to publicize or dramatize your complaint

This is where having friends in the media can really help. Many local radio, television, and newspaper outlets have consumer action hotlines to address complaints and problems. Bad publicity can result in lost business, decreased political support, and even outright public outrage at a group or organization. Good media coverage can also increase public sympathy for your group or your cause.

All these tactics may be helpful. But if you deeply believe your complaint is legitimate and that an injustice has been done, there are few substitutes for simple persistence. People who get complaints resolved in their favor are people who just won't quit.

When you get what you want, thank those who acted on your behalf. Preferably, thank them in writing. You never know when you might need to call on these people again. But more than that; it's the right thing to do.

Contributor 
Eric Wadud

Online Resources

Effective E-mail Communication from the University of North Carolina provides tips on professional e-mail writing and communicating via e-mail. 

Using Effective Communications from UNISON is a guide to communicating effectively in both formal and informal settings. 

Complaint Writing is a guide from the New Hampshire Department of Justice that includes a sample complaint letter.

How to Write a Complaint Letter is a resource provided by Scope, an organization dedicated to assisting families and individuals with disabilities.  Their page includes a sample letter and tips to writing your own.

Print Resources

Bobo, K., Kendall, J., & Max, S.(1991). Organizing for social change: A manual for activists in the 1990s. Cabin John, MD: Seven Locks Press.

Westheimer, P. (1990). How to write complaint letters that work. Glenview, IL: Scott, Foresman.

Tunney, Bradley (2014). Communication Skills: Improve Effective Communication Skills and Learn How to Communicate & Influence People. This book provides tools and techniques to becoming a better communicator.

Phillips, Ellen. (1998). Shocked, Appalled, and Dismayed! How to Write Letters of Complaint that Get Results. This book is a guide to writing letters of complaint, specifically letters to corporations.