Got a Problem? Here's How to Complain Effectively

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I am a master complainer -- a consumer asset that's as much art as skill.

Years ago, when my son was a toddler, our GE (GE) washer broke, leaking water over the floor and through the basement ceiling. GE repair said they'd send someone in a week. I said, "I don't think so."

My next call was to Jack Welch's office, then GE head honcho. I announced myself as a business associate -- I owned 10 shares of GE back then -- and asked to talk to Jack. I knew I'd never be connected to the big guy. But my target was his secretary, the real consumer powerhouse in the CEO office who asked, "Is there something I can help you with?"

"My washer broke, flooded the house, and your repair department won't send someone for a week," I said.

Within 10 minutes -- I kid you not -- the senior vice president in charge of consumer blah-blah called me in McLean, Virginia, apologized for the inconvenience and promised to solve my problem pronto. The next day a repairman showed up and, when he couldn't find the problem, gave me a new washer. Done and done!

Complaints flow like New Year's Eve champagne this time of year. The Federal Trade Commission and I feel your pain, and we provide these tips.

Return to Store/Website ASAP

Time is not on your side when you have a reasonable complaint -- warranties and time limits on returns and refunds tick by faster than you think. So contact your point of purchase as soon as you discover the problem and get the complaint ball rolling. If your first contact doesn't solve the problem, start working your way up the chain of consumer command -- taking names and notes along the way. Nothing signals you're serious faster than asking a manager to spell his last name.

Contact Corporate

Studies have shown that a complaining customer who is treated fairly becomes a loyal customer. Corporate cares, so talk with the customer service department and tell your story. If you don't get results, ask to talk with supervisors and work your way to the top. I once received six, newly designed baby bottles when I finally reached the company president and told her that the older bottles were spilling milk all over my baby's face.

Use Social Media

The Internet is forever, and no company wants its good name sullied by a customer with a legitimate complaint. The trick here is to be the voice of reason, not the voice of a wacko. Calmly write the facts of your dispute and use spell check (nothing takes the wind out of a reasonable complaint faster than misspellings). But be warned: Companies have sued customers who have complained online. So make sure you fairly represent your complaint and the company's response.

Write a Letter

Writing an effective complaint letter is a talent. It should be the perfect mix of legitimate points, reasonable umbrage and the exact steps you want the company to take to solve your problem. Always include copies of relevant documents and your contact information -- name, address, phone number and email. It's also a good idea to send it certified and receipt request mail, so you have a record that the company received it.

The FTC has a letter template to help your pursuit:

[Your Address]

[Your City, State, ZIP Code]


[Name of Contact Person]


[Company Name]

[Street Address]

[City, State, ZIP Code]

Dear [Contact Person]:

On [date], I bought [or had repaired] a [name of the product with the serial or model number or service performed]. I made this purchase at [location, date, and other important details of the transaction].

Unfortunately, your product has not performed well [or the service was inadequate] because [state the problem].

To resolve the problem, I would appreciate your [state the specific action you want]. Enclosed are copies [copies, not originals] of my records [receipts, guarantees, warranties, cancelled checks, contracts, model and serial numbers, and any other documents] concerning this purchase/repair.

I look forward to your reply and a resolution to my problem. I will wait [set a time limit] before seeking third-party assistance. Please contact me at the above address or by phone [home or office numbers with area codes].


[Your Name]

[Account Number]
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