The wrong and right kind of letter
The following article highlights what you should and shouldn't do when you complain by letter.
The wrong kind of letter
In the following letter some of the words are in bold. Read below the letter to find out why the highlighted words are incorrectly written, which will help you to avoid common mistakes.
Helpful Trading Co
2 March 2008
I am really very disappointed by your shop.
I recently bought a sofa and it just was not right. It was terribly made and a complete waste of money. When I went back to complain, a shop assistant was very rude to me and she said she couldn't deal with the complaint there and then. She said I should write to the manager.
I think that I am entitled to my money back, so what I want is a full refund or if you cannot manage that, a credit note for the full ammount. I also want an apology, plus an explanation of why I was treated so badly.
Thank you for your attention. Sorry to bring this matter up.
The Manager: always write to people by name. Always ask for peoples' names and proper positions, and find out who they report to.
Disappointed: avoid general condemnation - much as it might be deserved.
Shop assistant: be more specific if you're going to complain about a member of staff. Find out their name or give a very full description.
Rude: in general it's best not to make personal complaints unless somebody really did behave extremely badly, for example, by making sexist or racist remarks.
Think: never 'think'. Find out what your rights are - and then state them, if necessary by referring to the appropriate laws. There are really only two consumer laws that are worth occasionally quoting: the Sale of Goods Act and the Supply of Goods & Services Act (1982). The Sale of Goods Act states that every product sold by a shop must be of 'satisfactory quality', 'as described' and 'fit for its purpose', if not, and prompt action is taken, people are entitled to a full refund. Otherwise, consumers are first and foremost entitled to repair or replacement goods. If for some reason these remedies are inappropriate then consumers are entitled to a suitable price reduction or a refund (which takes account of wear and tear).
The Supply of Goods & Services Act 1982 (common law in Scotland) states that a service must be done to a reasonable standard, and must be done at a reasonable cost and within a reasonable time if price and timing haven't been made explicit.
Manage: a supplier must be given the chance to make good the problem. If they can't do this, another supplier can be called in and the cost deducted from the original bill. Either of these laws could be quoted in a letter but it may be best just to leave things general by using the phrase 'under consumer law, I am entitled to..'.
Decide what you want, for example, a refund, repair or replacement goods. If you want a full refund for the faulty goods you must act quickly.
Ammount: do check spelling (amount not 'ammount'). Wrongly spelled words always make a complaint less forceful.
Want: much as it might be tempting to do so, never ask for an apology or an explanation. For some reason, businesses find it difficult to provide this, probably because the person dealing with your complaint is unlikely to be the person who caused you trouble in the first place.
Sorry: never apologise yourself. Complaining to a business (when it's justified) is doing that business a favour. It's called market research.
Finally, albeit a small point, if you address a letter to say 'Dear Sir, you should always conclude it with 'Yours faithfully'. 'Yours sincerely' should only be used when you address a letter to a named person.
The right kind of letter
Here is an example of a correctly written letter. You may wish to use it as a template for your own complaint. You can find explanations for the words in bold below.
Frances In charge
Retail support manager
Helpful Trading Co
2 March 2008
Dear Ms In charge,
I recently bought ...(give a precise description of what you bought, including colour, model and price) in your shop in Smalltown. When I tried to use this item, I discovered that... (say what went wrong and what the product did not do).
I went back to your shop and the shop assistant, Steve Helpful, said that complaints were dealt with by your department.
I have... (say what evidence you have got)
I would like you to... (tell them exactly what you want)
I believe I am entitled to this under consumer law.
I look forward to your reply within 14 days and hope this matter can be sorted out quickly.
Dear Ms In charge: if the person you're writing to is female, try and find out if they're Mrs, Miss or Ms. If you don't know, it's probably best to use 'Ms'.
I have: a receipt is useful, although not essential if you can otherwise prove you bought an item in a shop (for example, by a credit card bill). You'll also need a copy of any description made about a product if you're claiming it's not like its advert. But never send them the original evidence. Keep it safe and keep a copy.
I would like you to: if you act quickly you're entitled to reject faulty goods and get a full refund. Otherwise you're entitled to have problem goods repaired or replaced. If for some reason these remedies are inappropriate, then you're entitled to a price reduction or refund (which takes into account wear and tear of the goods).
I believe I am entitled: unless you're really sure about particular laws, it's best just to hint that you know what your legal rights are and will use them if they don't make a reasonable response.
Reply within 14 days: give them a deadline - 14 days is usually about right. Make a note in your diary, so that you can follow up the matter if you don't hear within the time stated.
Jane Citizen: unless you really are concerned about your personal safety, try and give your full name and telephone number. The sooner you start communicating using first names, the sooner your complaint will be sorted out. It makes everything much more pleasant.
The contents of this website are not intended to be a substitute for individual professional advice.
The content of this section is based on the law applying on 30 November 2012.