How to complain when things aren’t going well: notes from the super complainer.

What is it that makes a complaint email successful? Why are some complaints ignored and others acted upon? When should you take things further and how to do this?

You wouldn’t know it from talking to me but I have an actual super power: I write shit-hot complaint letters. I get positive results almost without fail. To me, complaining comes naturally. As far as I know, I’ve always been able to do it.

I remember, as a young girl, marching in to a well known high street chemist and demanding to see the manager because a paper folder I’d bought there (a forever friends folder, obviously, because I was 11) hadn’t held up under the strain of all my school books. The manager came and refused to give me my money back but did replace the folder when I informed her I’d be taking my pocket money elsewhere if something wasn’t done.

And there, in that example of my complete over confidence in myself, I suspect, lies the heart of it: chutzpah (cheek or self-confidence in English)! Yup, I’m full of Yiddish chutzpah. But self-confidence will only get you so far. To write a successful complaint letter you have to know how to phrase it in order to ensure the outcome is the one you want.

Some people hate complaining, and fair enough, if you’re happy to live with shoddy service and sometimes being ripped off, that’s your business. But, if you’re unhappy and don’t know how to fix things, check out two of my recent complaints and the tips that follow:

1.Last week, my family stopped off for a quick meal in a popular pizza chain. It isn’t my favourite place by any means but the kids love it and the food isn’t generally terrible. This particular time though, both my husband and I were disappointed with our meals. My husband ordered a Caesar salad but found the dressing was basically salad cream. When he asked if there had been a mix up we were shown the jar it came from and the (Italian) waiter agreed that the sauce was shocking and that he wouldn’t eat it either. My risotto and salad were equally disappointing. The risotto was bland and not worth the valuable stomach space. Again, a waitress agreed she wouldn’t eat it. And the dressing on my salad was the terrible salad cream again. Ugh. A quick conversation with the manager ensued in which I, very politely (for being polite is the crux of all successful complaints), told him what had happened and that I didn’t think I should be paying for my meal. He agreed and took the price off the bill.

Had I been rude or aggressive, I wouldn’t have had my way but because I began by telling him how great the kids’ food was and how lovely the staff were, he was already on my side. He, like his staff, agreed with me that the quality (dictated by head office) was slipping and he wasn’t happy either. He totally understood when I told him I’d be writing to head office to make a more formal complaint.


The letter begins by making clear that this is a complaint, but also offers a compliment. I immediately state that my children’s meals were great, again, understanding that politeness and compliments go a long way. Then we come to the crux of the matter, my problem. In this particular letter I decided to use humour (however bad you might think my humour is!). This will make my letter slightly different from the others they receive and hopefully make the person receiving my email remember that I’m also a real person.

I left the complaint fairly open ended in this instance. I could have told the restaurant chain what I wanted (clearly a voucher for another meal) but I didn’t feel I needed to at this stage. I was fairly confident they’d respond as I expected, and they did. I received an email apologising, thanking me for taking the time to respond and offering me two free adult meals next time I return. See, now I have to return and spend more money. They win, I win. I win because I can spend less than I normally would on a restaurant my kids love, and they win because I am guaranteed to return despite a shitty previous experience.

2.My second in depth example is slightly more complicated and, truth be told, I wasn’t convinced I was going to get anywhere because I was dealing with a mobile phone shop and they are notoriously difficult to bargain with. Basically, my husband took a phone in to be repaired. They repaired it but also caused another fault in the mean time. We went back and forth a few times before husband got fed up and demanded they do something about the problem.

Husband is a good student but he isn’t a pro yet.

I didn’t like the deal they offered him (£250 of store credit) as it would basically force him to shell out a few hundred pounds to replace a phone they broke. I knew I wouldn’t get anywhere by calling the store or even by emailing the complaints department. We’d go back and forth for ages and I’d get cross. So I pulled out the big guns and emailed the top boss. I spent a few minutes googling around to get his name and email address. A very useful site is as most big companies will be listed here. A quick email was fired off (because this is my superhero skill these emails don’t take me long) and the result was an apology, and additional £150 and an offer of cash rather than store credit. So now we have £400 cash to buy a new phone rather than £250 useless store credit. I think we can agree that was an easy win.


If you read the letter you’ll see that this one is more formal than the first example. In the first, I was writing to a customer service team but here I’m writing to the CEO so the letter is more formal. I  used his title and finished off with ‘yours sincerely’. If you start with a  Dear Madam/Sir, you need to end with ‘yours faithfully’ – just a quirk of our language.

I begin with a “RE: Formal complaint” making it immediately clear what the letter is about. I dive straight in to the problem, explaining why I’ve chosen to escalate the complaint to the CEO and I clearly lay out what has happened thus far. I end the letter by stating exactly what I want to happen as a result of this communication. In this instance the company, surprisingly, not only acquiesced to my demand, they actually added additional funds to ensure a truly satisfied customer.

If you want to write equally successful letters of complaint, here are my top tips:

  1. Always be polite
  2. Always tell the truth, never exaggerate and never claim something happened to try and get something free out of a company.
  3. If there’s something to compliment, always do it. I regularly tweet or email companies to say thank you or to let them know what’s gone right. If I’m happy to complain I have to be happy to praise too.
  4. Remember, you’re dealing with a person, treat them with respect
  5. Know when to escalate to a CEO. If you’re getting nowhere with a complaint and it’s important to you, take it higher, don’t be afraid, it’s still just a human being on the end of the email.
  6. Read your email back before sending it, or better yet, get someone else to read it. Is it clear? Can the other person understand the problem?
  7. If necessary, state what you think is an acceptable solution to the problem.
  8. Finish off by making it clear you expect a response to your email.

If you have any questions, feel free to get in touch. I’d be happy to give pointers on specific issues.


Good luck!






8 thoughts on “How to complain when things aren’t going well: notes from the super complainer.

  1. Love this! I’ve always been a great complainer too. Firmly believe that you catch more flies with honey, and having worked in customer service in the past is always a bonus. It makes you realise the level of nastyness that people have to put up with!


  2. I think my Mum had this super power too!

    A few of our customers could do with remembering points 1 and 4 on your list. Especially as we are an online company, I think a lot of people forget that an actual person is reading what they’ve written. We usually try to phone the really rude ones back and they’re generally much politer over the phone! Our polite complainers almost always get what they want right away.


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