The Very Quick Guide To Writing An Effective Complaint Letter

Image courtesy of Danielle Kay

When the battery on your new phone blows up in your back pocket, or the hood of your car just flies up while you’re driving down the highway, or you find out your bank has opened three credit card accounts in your name, or you get bumped from your flight to make room for an airline employee… you’ve got every right to complain. But if you want your complaint to be heard, there are some best practices for presenting your case.

Before you start:

Deal with your emotions. Everything you do will be more effective if you are calm and collected. Vent to a trusted associate before engaging with the company.

Research the issue. Take this opportunity to read over the company’s policies and understand them. Search the internet to see if others have had similar problems.

Gather the appropriate materials (receipts, bills, invoices, contracts) and take careful notes, particularly if you speak to the company on the phone. Keep a running log of who you speak to and what is discussed. Include times and dates.

Decide on your preferred outcome. Your time will be better spent if you ask for something reasonable. It is a sad truth that the compensation you are entitled to might not necessarily be commensurate with your frustration. You’re more likely to get your issue resolved quickly if you remain rational and simply ask to be made whole. If you really suspect that something misleading, deceptive or illegal is going on, there are various ways to escalate beyond simply writing a complaint letter.

Anatomy of the quick, effective complaint letter

Image courtesy of Eric BEAUME


Do your best to be firm, confident and polite. Use good grammar and avoid typos. Don’t be sarcastic or write in all caps. If you are funny and charming, that’s okay, but straightforward and polite is all that is really needed. Depending on whether or not you will want to escalate your complaint, submit it to a consumer protection agency, or perhaps send it to a member of the media — the letter may have an audience beyond the company. Make sure it’s the best, most flattering representation of you and your complaint.


1. Summary
Begin with 2-3 sentences that explain both the problem and the desired resolution. Including important details like transaction number or serial numbers will help make it as easy for someone to quickly locate your records and help you. End your summary by asking for the specific, reasonable resolution that you decided on earlier in the process.

2. Full Details
If this isn’t your first contact with the company, you may want to include additional supporting details here. If the issue is serious and ongoing, a timeline is sometimes a very effective way of organizing this information.

3. Brand Relationship
If you have had a positive relationship with the company and are a good customer, it can be effective to politely mention this.

4. Next Steps
Use this section to restate your desired outcome and, optionally, set a reasonable deadline before you will take further steps to escalate your complaint.

5. Contact information
Be sure to include the best way to reach you if it’s not obvious.

6. Supporting materials
For more serious complaints, you can include copies (not originals, if this is a paper letter) of supporting documentation.

Who to CC:

As we mentioned earlier, a well-written complaint letter has an audience beyond the company you are dealing with. (When sending your complaint to other entities think about the sensitivity of the materials and redact them appropriately.)

Depending on the nature of the complaint, you can send your complaint letter to various other entities — even the media. If the complaint involves a misleading or deceptive business practice, for example, you can file your complaint with the Federal Trade Commission or your state’s attorney general.

If the complaint involves a product or vehicle safety issue, you should alert the Consumer Product Safety Commission or NHTSA (for automobiles). The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau accepts consumer complaints about various financial products and works to resolve them. If the transaction in question took place with a credit card, your credit card company may be able and willing to assist you.

You can also escalate your complaint by sending it to the upper-management of the company, even the CEO.

Want more consumer news? Visit our parent organization, Consumer Reports, for the latest on scams, recalls, and other consumer issues.