Sunday, January 6, 2013

How to write a polite complaint letter

Hello Polite Readers!

I have to admit, despite being a relatively complain-y person, I think I've only written three complaint letters in my life, and the letter I wrote this past week was my first time ever writing to a restaurant. Honestly, in Tucson we have so many places to eat that if someplace displeases me, I just snub them from then on. But this week something happened to me that I felt was wrong and could easily be righted in the future. Read on:

Dear Choice Greens,

I'm a big fan of your restaurant. During the summer I love to have a custom salad for an early dinner before dance classes. I also enjoy bringing out-of-town guests to your Speedway location for lunch, as it is pretty close to my house and has something for everyone. I'd say that during the warm parts of the year (so you know, about 10 out of 12 months), we eat at Choice Greens at least once a week.

During the winter or when I am sick, I love to get your grilled cheese and soup combo. In 2011 you introduced the seasonal butternut squash soup and it was amazing! I was instantly hooked and had it every time I went there for as long as it was available. I often chose Choice over other local sandwich shops just so I could have the butternut squash soup. I was sad when the season ended (maybe around March?) and eagerly looked forward to it coming back. When it returned late in 2012 I was very happy and looked forward to several months of delicious grilled cheese and butternut squash soup dinners on those rare cold winter days.

Imagine my sadness when I went into the Speedway location last night and discovered that butternut squash had been replaced by chicken noodle! Now, on the one hand I applaud you for trying out more soup options, as it is pretty hard to get a good variety of soups in Tucson (probably because of our lack of "soup weather") but on the other hand I'm disappointed that the season for butternut squash was shortened so severely! This was quite possibly the best squash soup in town, and available at such a good price. Warming, filling, and delicious! I did try the chicken soup, and I'm afraid I wasn't as impressed by it -- but then again, my experience may have been soured by my disappointment over the lack of squash. I did appreciate the plentiful chunks of chicken and the fact that the carrots were still crisp. It's pretty hard to get a good cup of chicken soup in this town where tortilla soup reigns supreme, and I can see this being a good option when I'm under the weather and want some comfort food.

In a perfect world, I'd see you adding chicken noodle to the permanent soup rotation, and letting butternut squash enjoy a long late Autumn-early Spring seasonal run. If that's not an option, perhaps when it comes back you can post "Butternut Squash Soup -- Only available through December 31st!" so I can make sure to enjoy as many servings as I can before it goes away.

Thank you for taking the time to read this!

-AJ Reardon
Tucson Resident and Squash Fan

Yes, I wrote a complaint letter about soup. In my defense, it was really good soup and due to events beyond my control, I was only able to have it a couple of times before it was removed from the menu. I felt robbed of several more months of soup dinners, and all I wanted was to know this wouldn't happen again at the end of 2013.

This letter illustrates my idea of the perfect complaint letter.

1: Start with some praise (if possible) and your history with the business (whether it's "I've been shopping here for ten years" or "This was my first visit and I'm afraid it made a poor impression).

2: Lay out your complaint. Be polite and stick to the facts. Avoid snide judgements or unrelated remarks about the employee you dealt with (your waitress's pink hair has nothing to do with the fact that she forgot your fries, and in fact, it's a nice color on her and makes her happy, so there).

3: Most importantly, offer your ideal solution. Mine was obviously to offer the soup on the previous several-months-long seasonal basis instead of only two months. Yours might be to reprimand the cashier who wrote a weird note on your receipt or to repair the pothole that damaged your car on the way out of the parking lot.

4: Did I mention to keep the tone polite? Try not to get too rude, offensive, or pedantic. You probably shouldn't break out the Webster's definition of any words unless used for humorous impact. If there was a serious problem, such as insult or injury, you can use a firm tone. Otherwise keep it light.

Why do I recommend polite letters? Because they work. The same day that I sent my letter, I had a response back from one of the co-owners. He had spoken to the manager of my preferred location and they had agreed to provide me with some of my beloved soup to heat up at home. What a sweet and generous offer! Now I can have one last meal of butternut squash soup to tide me over until the next season, and I think even better of a restaurant that I enjoy.

I didn't send my letter because I expected free soup. I sent it because I hoped others would have complained to and this would lead to a longer life for the soup in the future. I also did it because I thought it would be a great column idea. The fact that I did get free soup just helps to back up my argument. Politeness matters.

The news is full of other examples of polite letters winning over the hearts of companies, even large corporations. Over the holidays you may have seen these two:
Hasbro Makes an Easy Bake Oven for Boys
LEGO love story: How one little boy got the toy of his dreams

Do you have your own complaint letter story? Share it in the comments section! And don't forget that you can e-mail your questions and column ideas to

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