How to Write an Effective Complaint

Last week, I had cause to complain to my gym about the provision of a class. I found this relatively easy to compose because in my ‘day job’, I’m accustomed to handling complaints on behalf of a large organisation.

Using my experience of being on the receiving end, I’ve put together three general principles of effective complaining.


Regardless of how you feel, stick to the facts as much as possible

It is tempting to spell out exactly how angry or upset you feel, but an experienced complaint handler will look past any emotional language and find the facts of the case. If you consider that you must tell the organisation how you feel, keep it brief.

Here’s an example with too much emotion:

Your online system took three charges of £15 which meant I had to e-mail customer services and they put a stop on the order, so now my 86-year-old grandma will have to wait for her birthday present and I don’t know how long I’ll be waiting. It’s no good because now I can’t go and see her for another fortnight because I’m on holiday.

Now let’s focus on the facts:

I paid £15 for the item on 24 June, but I discovered your online system had taken this three times at 2:54pm, 2:56pm and 2:57pm. I e-mailed customer services. They put a stop on the order and advised me I would need to wait, but I don’t know how long. I need to find out because the item was supposed to be a birthday present. I’m disappointed because I regularly order from your company.

This version is more effective because we now know when the order was placed and that the customer is still waiting for the item.

No machine-readable author provided. Adam the atom assumed (based on copyright claims). [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)], via Wikimedia Commons
No machine-readable author provided. Adam the atom assumed (based on copyright claims). [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
Ask questions of the organisation; don’t answer them yourself

If you want to find out information in your complaint, make sure you flag up your questions as clearly as possible. Consider this example:

Why do you charge as much for a cup of boiling water as you do for a coffee? I don’t know any other company that does this and I feel it’s down to greed.

The question in this version sounds rhetorical because it’s immediately followed by the customer’s own answer. It would be much stronger as:

Why do you charge as much for a cup of boiling water as you do for a coffee?

Or if you feel you need to add extra information, place the question at the end of the sentence:

I don’t know any other company that charges for a cup of boiling water, let alone as much as for a cup of coffee. Why does your company do this?

The two versions above send a strong signal to the complaint handler that this is a question to be answered.

If something is good, say so

Organisations like to hear positive reinforcement. If there is something great in an otherwise negative situation, it doesn’t weaken your complaint to point it out.

I always pop into your shop at lunchtime. It’s always busy, but only two out of the three checkouts are ever on. The staff are always helpful and friendly, but the lack of a third cashier causes long queues.

In this instance, the handler knows that the customer has nothing against the behaviour of the staff, only that there aren’t enough at lunchtime.


When you receive a reply, have a look at the wording, especially if the response is not the one you wanted. It will probably follow this structure:

Thank you for your e-mail. We’re glad to hear you enjoy shopping with us.

We would like to be able to put on all three checkouts. Unfortunately, due to staff illness, this isn’t currently possible.

However, we understand your frustration at the queues. As such, you might be interested to know that we intend to install self-service checkouts in the next few months in addition to the staffed ones we already have.

We have here a positive statement, followed by a negative one, capped off with something else positive. This structure acknowledges there is a problem but delivers the news in such a way that the customer shouldn’t feel too let down.

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Note to self: don’t call this entry ‘The Write Stuff’

Last week, I was reminded that when you have a passion for an activity, you’ll find a way to carry it out no matter what the conditions.

I’ve subscribed to Artificial Womb, a feminist zine run by my friend Ana Hine. The format really is an old-school zine, with A4 pages of typed text and freehand drawings stapled together into a booklet. But this edition was different. The first variation to catch my eye was the return address on the envelope; it was a hospital in Kent. In this issue, Ana is candid about why she’s confined to the place at the moment.

Regardless, she somehow managed to find collaborators, write and illustrate the zine entirely by hand, photocopy the pages, and post the finished product to subscribers. On top of that, there’s a mini booklet about her former partner and a small piece of art on a separate sheet. I think that’s marvellous work under the circumstances.

You can subscribe to the zine right here.

A public-domain photo of an open notebook.
A public-domain photo of an open notebook.

Most of my fiction, poetry and even blog entries start life as pencil on paper. But last week, I also wrote a letter of my own by hand.

I have a friend in the US who goes by many aliases, but for the purposes of this entry, I’ll call her C. In March, I sent her special-edition David Bowie stamps and she replied recently with a thank-you card, two postcards, and a handwritten letter. I felt compelled to return the favour.

On one hand, I found the process of writing to be liberating in the sense that there was no urgency. Unlike an electronic message, there is no expectation of a near-instant response, so I was able to draft and redraft the letter, and also to write one of the postcards in the area depicted in its photograph.

But the process also highlighted a difference in style between her letter and mine. C would go off at tangents and ask questions, some of them rhetorical, whereas I was more inclined to create a narrative structure and answer questions rather than ask them.

So I rethought my style, and the final letter deviates radically even from its last draft, answering some of her questions and posing my own. Even with the aforementioned postcard, that ends on a cliffhanger, with the comment that a stranger had sat next to me on the bench as I was writing and that I wished he would find his own spot.

I also alerted C when I’d posted my letter, as she’d told me that mine was arriving. After our brief discussion on the matter, I don’t think I’ll flag it up next time, and simply let it be a surprise. I might also surprise you and end this entry abru

I want to be a book star.

In the early 1980s, Van Halen famously requested a bowl of M&Ms at each gig with all the brown ones removed. This was reported in the press as typical rock star behaviour, but the request fulfilled a practical purpose.

The band carried so much equipment on tour that they were worried about accidents from roadies failing to set it up correctly. By including the M&Ms clause deep in the technical part of the contract, they reasoned that if the bowl wasn’t set up as requested, there was a good chance the rest of the technical setup had been ignored as well.

While writers and poets don’t need nearly as much gear as musicians, I think I’ve been to enough literary events to know what I would like and wouldn’t like if I were ever to launch my own book. It’s not to be a diva, I’m merely thinking of practical matters.

I’ve narrowed it down to five key points:

Disabled access

When I’m organising NaNoWriMo events, one of my prime considerations is accessibility. At my hypothetical book launch, this would be a dealbreaker. Everyone ought to be able to come in and hear all about my hypothetical book.

Standing up

Many studies have shown that sitting down for extended periods is a Bad Thing. Sure, most book launches rarely last more than an hour, but multiply that figure by however many launches you’re doing, and the time soon mounts up.

I’d therefore prefer to stand up as much as possible, especially while signing. This has the added advantage that I would be physically on the same level as the reader and it feels more of a two-way conversation. Speaking of signings…

Clearly signposted queue

I went to a launch in July that was so well attended, the bookshop ran out of seats. However, when the time came for the author to sign copies, nobody thought to direct people about where to queue up. Two queues were formed, and the author had to take turn about to keep the wait as fair as possible.

Short questions

I saw a cartoon a few months ago where an academic was being interviewed on stage and the caption read something like We’ve just got time for one rambling self-indulgent question. Unfortunately, I’ve been unable to find it again.

I would have no problem answering questions, but we’d all like to remember what the start of it was by the time we reach the end. One breath, one question, or we move on to the next person.

Red wine available to all attendees

Writers and red wine go together like rock stars and cocaine. I’m sure Van Halen would agree.