Complaints that get results

Consuming Interest

October 17, 2006|By Dan Thanh Dang | Dan Thanh Dang,Sun Columnist

Ann Schmidt's problem with Donna's cafe started with a pit. More specifically, an olive pit inside a veggie burger she ordered for lunch. Slightly miffed, the 57-year-old Hamilton resident took the burger back to warn the staff.

"I wanted them to be more careful in the future," says the clinic coordinator, who frequents the Cross Keys cafe. "I could have hurt myself. But the manager only asked me if I bit down on it, and then he pointed to a disclaimer they have on the menu. He didn't even say he was sorry."

"It made me not want to go there again. I should have written them a letter."

Should have, would have, could have. In this case, a complaint letter would most certainly be far more effective at getting Schmidt's point across than avoiding Donna's for perpetuity.

FOR THE RECORD - In the Oct. 17 Consuming Interests column, the name of author Janet Rubel, who wrote 101+ Complaint Letters That Get Results, was misspelled.
The Sun regrets the error.

Handled properly, a complaint letter is incredibly useful at effecting change. It's not just about being a squeaky wheel or demanding reparations; it's about calling attention to an issue that a business owner may not be aware of or documenting a problem to take to a mediator.

"It's a way to exert and uphold your rights as a consumer," says Janet Rubel, an attorney who wrote 101+ Complaint Letters That Get Results.

The key word is "results." Almost anyone can write a letter, but it takes some practice to write one that generates results.

Start by taking a deep breath.

As satisfying as it might feel to dash off a memo belittling an employee's wee brain, threatening to sue the pants off everyone or cursing a company to the fiery pits of Hades, it will only make you look like a donkey's backside.

"I think it's OK to write a letter when you're angry as long as you don't mail it right away," says Rebecca Bowman, director of the mediation unit for the state attorney general's office.

"Go back and look at what you wrote and make sure it's the kind of letter you would respond to if you got that kind of complaint from someone.

"Vehemence, expletives or profanity make it easy to write you off as the rantings of a lunatic," Bowman says. "You want to sound reasonable. You always want to take the high road."

Once you've got your emotions in check, remember not to ramble.

Jennifer Smith, a spokesman for Lowe's Cos. Inc., says, "It's important to tell the story with details, but not with so many details or emotions that it digresses and distracts from the core issue."

Keep it short

Bowman suggests writing no more than two pages but says one is better. Rudel suggests three succinct paragraphs. The first paragraph should state your problem, the second should say what you've done to resolve the problem, and the third should say what you want the company to do about it.

"It's so important to tell the merchant how you want it resolved," Bowman says. "Return an item, repair it, a refund, a new product - you should be specific. If there are several options that would make it right for you, put in all the options.

"The point is, if you don't say what you want, it leaves the company in the position of wondering what you want and then they might offer you less than what you want."

That's the hard part. The rest is just making sure your gripe gets read.

Don't use threats. If you threaten to sue or vow never to shop there again, you've ended any dialogue before it begins. Backing a business into a corner gives it little recourse to correct the problem.

Do type your letter. If that's not possible, you may use your very best handwriting.

Don't address the letter to "To Whom it May Concern." That concerns no one. Do a little fact-checking and write to the owner of the store, the executive in charge of customer service or the CEO.

Do avoid e-mail, if possible. Some companies, including Lowe's, prefer e-mailed complaints, but in Rudel's experience, most e-mail tends to disappear in the day-to-day technology blitz.

Don't send original receipts or documents that support your complaint. Send copies and keep the originals for your records.

Do send the letter by certified mail, if possible. It costs a little extra, but you'll have documentation that the company received your letter.

Unless it's an urgent matter, give the company about 10 business days to respond before following up. If the company ignores a reasonable written request for resolution, consult the proper government agency (the attorney general's consumer office, for example), call a lawyer, or unleash your boycott and tell everyone you know about the skirmish.

All of this is not to say that Schmidt's decision to steer clear of Donna's was too hasty and emotional. She has that right, especially given that the menu disclaimer says that "olives and olive spreads may contain pits." Schmidt ordered a veggie burger, not an olive or olive spread.

But if she had written Donna Crivello, the owner of Donna's cafes, Schmidt would have found an interested ear.

Crivello frequently checks for comments and complaints from customers, who are encouraged to log on to her Web site to fill out a feedback form.

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