This chapter covers two closely related types of business letters: complaint letters, which request compensation for problems with purchases or services, and adjustment letters, which are the responses to complaint letters.

Be sure to check out the examples.

For related matters, see the chapter on general business-letter format and style.

Complaint Letters

A complaint letter requests some sort of compensation for defective or damaged merchandise or for inadequate or delayed services. While many complaints can be made in person, some circumstances require formal business letters. The complaint may be so complex that a phone call cannot effectively resolve the problem; or the writer may prefer the permanence, formality, and seriousness of a business letter. The essential rule in writing a complaint letter is to maintain your poise and diplomacy, no matter how justified your gripe is. Avoid making the recipient an adversary.

Note: Complaints by e-mail may not be as effective as those by regular mail so that option is not included here.

  1. Early in the letter, identify the reason you are writing—to register a complaint and to ask for some kind of compensation. Avoid leaping into the details of the problem in the first sentence.
  2. Provide a fully detailed narrative or description of the problem. This is the "evidence."
  3. State exactly what compensation you desire, either before or after the discussion of the problem or the reasons for granting the compensation. (It may be more tactful and less antagonizing to delay this statement in some cases.)
  4. Explain why your request should be granted. Presenting the evidence is not enough: state the reasons why this evidence indicates your requested should be granted.
  5. Suggest why it is in the recipient's best interest to grant your request: appeal to the recipient's sense of fairness, desire for continued business, but don't threaten. Find some way to view the problem as an honest mistake. Don't imply that the recipient deliberately committed the error or that the company has no concern for the customer. Toward the end of the letter, express confidence that the recipient will grant your request.

Adjustment Letters

Note: Adjustment communications by e-mail may not be as effective as those by regular mail so that option is not included here.

Replies to complaint letters, often called letters of "adjustment," must be handled carefully when the requested compensation cannot be granted. Refusal of compensation tests your diplomacy and tact as a writer. Here are some suggestions that may help you write either type of adjustment letter:

  1. Begin with a reference to the date of the original letter of complaint and to the purpose of your letter. If you deny the request, don't state the refusal right away unless you can do so tactfully.
  2. Express your concern over the writer's troubles and your appreciation that she or he has written you.
  3. If you deny the request, explain the reasons why the request cannot be granted in as cordial and noncombative manner as possible. If you grant the request, don't sound as if you are doing so in a begrudging way.
  4. If you deny the request, try to offer some partial or substitute compensation or offer some friendly advice (to take the sting out of the denial).
  5. Conclude the letter cordially, perhaps expressing confidence that you and the writer will continue doing business.