This heading includes longer, more detailed examples of the key concepts discussed in this section. Portions of these are adapted from Patricia Westheimer's How to Write Complaint Letters that Work (1990).
Example #1: General format for writing complaint letters
This example summarizes the rules and format of a standard complaint letter.
Mr./Mrs./Ms.______________[or other title]
[Let the recipient know this is a formal letter of complaint] (Ingredient #1 )
[State the substance of your complaint as clearly and concisely as possible. Why are you complaining? Avoid being emotional. Just stick to the pertinent facts.] ( Ingredient #2)
[Show why the reasons justify your complaint. What loss did you suffer? What harm was done? Give amounts, dates, and any other relevant information. Use a positive tone if possible. Angry, rude letters get negative, defensive reactions.] (Ingredient #3)
[State the action you expect the target to take. If you believe the target owes you something, say so. Be very clear and unambiguous at this point.] (Ingredient #4)
[Request a written reply, by a specific date. Close in a friendly, positive, manner. Assure the reader that you believe he/she will help you. Keep your letter to one page, unless it is absolutely necessary to make it longer.] (Ingredient #5)
Your Name (signature above)
Enclosures (such as copies of previous correspondence, receipts, etc.)
cc: (If you are mailing copies to third parties, state to whom they were sent
Example #2: Sample of a well-written letter of complaint
This is an example of a well-written, successful complaint letter to a business. George Jones, had trouble with an auto body repair shop. The work was sub-standard. The shop manager would not correct the problem. George called the local Chamber of Commerce and got the name of the owner of the shop. He then wrote the following letter:
November 17, 1999
Dear Mr. Burns:
I am writing to you to complain about the lack of service I received from your shop on November 10. (Ingredient #1)
I am not at all satisfied with the work your shop has done on my 1989 GMC truck. The paint job is uneven, and the running boards are still dented noticeably. I paid you in full to have these items corrected. (Ingredient #2)
Your shop manager, Frank Wilson, has not been at all helpful in this regard. He refused to consider finishing the job he started, and he refused to give me your name. Is this the way you want to do business? (Ingredient #3)
I would like you to either redo the work, or else refund my $765.58 so I can go to another shop. (Ingredient #4)
Mr. Burns, your shop's advertising guarantees 100% satisfaction. I am sure you will be willing to live up to your claims. I look forward to hearing from you within the next two weeks. (Ingredient #5)
Copy of receipt for work done on November 10th, 1992
Copy of original service agreement, November 5, 1992
Kansas City Chamber of Commerce
National Association of Auto Body Repair Shops
Whitley, Jones & Moore
George's letter is specific, reasonable and well written. He stated what the problem was, and exactly what he wanted from the body shop. The inclusion of the "cc" and a number of relevant third parties may have provoked some prompt attention, too. Two weeks later, George received a check for $765.58 in the mail, along with a written apology from Mr. Burns.
Example #3: Sample of a poorly-written letter of complaint
This is an example of a poorly written complaint letter, with analysis, followed by an example of a properly written letter.
Karen Young, the newly appointed and somewhat inexperienced head of a community coalition in Cooper County, learned of the county health clinic's plans to reduce the number of services offered, and its plans to increase fees for other basic services. Upset, she decided to write on behalf of the coalition to let the clinic know the coalition's opinion.
August 20, 1995
Cooper County Health Department
I am writing to you on behalf of the concerned citizens of the Cooper County Coalition for Health Care. Once again you are cutting the services offered by your clinic. And you plan on increasing the fees on the few services you are keeping.
This is ridiculous. Where are we supposed to go for our health care? The closest hospital is over 70 miles away! My husband just had surgery and we're $10,000 in debt. We can't afford to pay your fee increases.
Don't expect to keep your job much longer, my cousin knows the county commissioner's brother's dentist, and when he hears what you've been doing to us, he'll fire you for sure.
Karen Young, Director
This letter lacks the "five ingredients" of a complaint letter, and is therefore, ineffective. It is just asking for an unsatisfactory response, and that's what it got. The Health Department Director (also in charge of the clinic), Shelly Marks, had her secretary write a weak apology for the policy changes, and suggested Ms. Young get in contact with her government representatives.
Karen made several mistakes in her letter:
- She did not personalize the letter. "Dear Sir" could have been addressed to anyone--let alone the fact that the director of the Cooper County Health Department was a woman.
- Shelly, the director, was not at the top level of decision making when it came to deciding the clinic's budget. She had little influence on how much funding it actually received. That decision came from higher up in the government.
- Karen was not specific about what changes she wanted made, if any. It almost appears that all she wanted to do was complain about her personal problems. Life's rough.
- She makes part of the letter a personal attack, implying that the Health Department director cannot do her job, and will soon be fired.
Here's how Karen should have written the letter. First of all, she should have obtained the name, title and address of the key decision maker on this particular issue. Let's suppose it was the local representative to the state legislature. Then she could have written the following: (A copy would also be sent to Shelly Marks.)
August 20, 1995
Honorable Representative David Brenner,
This letter is a formal complaint about the proposed cuts in the budget of the Cooper County Health Clinic. These cuts are totally unacceptable to all 150 members of our coalition, as determined by a recent vote. (See membership list attached.) (Ingredient #1)
Ninety-five percent of the residents of Cooper County use the Cooper County Health Department clinic for their general health care. The proposed cuts will force many of these people to drive over 70 miles to receive necessary care. (Ingredient #2) The proposed fee increases will also put the cost of health care beyond the reach of many of our community members. (Ingredient #3)
We understand that in this day and age budget cuts are sometimes necessary. However, cutting the budget of our health clinic will have serious negative health impact for many of your constituents. We strongly urge you to restore the budget to its original level. (Ingredient #4)
We look forward to your prompt favorable action on this matter, and to your response before this matter is put to a vote. (Ingredient #5)
This letter makes the same general point, but is directed to the key decision-maker, is more professional, and is slightly less aggressive. Karen is specific about what the problem is, and what she and the coalition want done. The letter is written by someone who seems to be reasonable. She doesn't threaten anyone, although the threat of not being re-elected hangs in the air. Hopefully, Rep. Brenner will be able to make the necessary changes.
Example #4: Dot Nary: Celebrating a nation with disability rights
Twenty years ago, my husband and I traveled to California to attend a wedding. After landing in San Francisco, we rented a car, drove north, and arrived at a chain motel where we had reserved a wheelchair-accessible room.
We checked in and entered the room only to discover that I, as a wheelchair user, could get inside the door but no further due to the furniture arrangement and the narrow bathroom door. Although we’d reserved an ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990) room, the one we were assigned did not permit access beyond the entrance.
I called the manager.