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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How Low Can You Go?

Until 25 January 2015, Dundee Contemporary Arts are showing an exhibition by time-based artist Jim Campbell. Whereas a TV or computer screen has a resolution up to about two million pixels, he uses software to reduce the quality of a normal video to no more than around 1000 pixels. The viewer is expected to fill in the gaps; fortunately most viewers are particularly good at this.

Imagine all the triangles…

Look at the graphic on the right, for instance. There are only three small black circles with notches cut out of them, but your brain imagines a large white triangle just from the information it’s given.

Using this principle, his work Home Movies 1040-3 presents amateur footage so the figures are recognisable as people, but the faces are deliberately obscured. Tilted Plane gives the impression of birds or bats flapping overhead by lightbulbs momentarily switching off in sequence. Meanwhile in Gallery 2, pulsating lights reflect the emotion behind the fragments of text displayed around the walls, and those fragments tell a story.

Telling a tale in just a few words is a long-established challenge among writers. One of the most famous examples is attributed to Ernest Hemingway: For sale: baby shoes, never worn. The reader must infer what happened to the baby and why the shoes are being sold. With the advent of SMS and then Twitter, limits of 140 to 160 characters are also popular. My very first writing prize was a £20 Odeon voucher for the following: “Get down from there,” said his mum. For the first time in his life, he listened to her, the noose tightening around his neck as he jumped.

Even with slightly longer works, pulling back the word count or simplifying the action can make for a better story, as the reader has to do some of the work. In one case, I’d written a 1000-word story starting with a man being woken up by a noisy neighbour, him going to the door to investigate and finding the police there, then the police interviewing the woman and her son. The first two thirds of the story just weren’t working, so I eventually removed them. The result was a much tighter story that made the twist ending more shocking as we didn’t see the events leading up to it.

And with all that in mind, I’m going to shorten this entry by letting it end abru