(image from: http://www.flickr.com/photos/tzofia/2708
I've become pretty damn good at complaining these days... something pretty sad for a 20 year old to admit.
It's not that I hate the world or that I honestly believe that I could do a better job than the next person, simply that I am exercising my rights as a civilian by alerting people when things genuinely are tedious to deal with.
Have a rude experience with a call center? Did the person serving you at the restaurant bring you a plate of oysters when you're allergic to shellfish? Did the bus driver close the door on your infant or your taxi driver nearly crash? these are the instances when you wish that you knew how to write something that could emphasize how upset you are without actually sounding like the world's biggest tool or, worse still, one of those people who would loudly tell you that you were doing your job wrong when you were fifteen, working at McDonald's and doing the right thing. (Everybody hates that guy, why does he loiter around fast food at peak hour?) This is a guide to write a letter of complaint. Not a letter of abuse. This is not a way to harass the people around you who work in customer service, public transport or for your local Government... if you really want to harass them because you could do better, I suggest you get a job yourself in customer service, public transport, local government, etc. Before I begin, I'd like to point out a few things:
1) If you're going to file a formal complaint, make sure there is legitimate reason. Think very carefully and ask yourself before you start if there was just cause in the person's behaviour, if there was any risk of safety to those around you and if it is serious enough that you can be bothered spending your time complaining about it. Put yourself in the other person's shoes for a second. Were they under a considerable amount of stress or was it a genuine mistake? if you can answer yes to either of those things, I would reconsider unless it seriously affected your safety at the time.
2) Remember that the people who read the letters are people too, they are often not directly involved with the incident so don't throw a whole lot of blame or abusive language in their direction. Profanity is never acceptable when writing a serious complaint as a) you will look as though you are in the wrong, no matter how serious the matter at hand is and b) the poor person on the other end has probably done nothing to deserve it. Imagine that this letter is a cover letter for a job. You want to sound respectable, competent and likeable as a human being, not abusive and completely out of your mind... that's the person you're writing about, remember?
3) Writing will not automatically fix things. If it's to do with customer service, they probably won't be fired (depending on their actions, of course) but they may be severely scolded. If you're writing to an MP, this is about as effective as a petition. It won't change things overnight, you won't affect their policies or their campaign, you're just expressing your point of view. If you are writing to an MP, also remember that the best way to change things politically is to vote effectively or to become involved in politics yourself.
Now that's out of the way, we can begin. Here's a scenario for a customer service complaint letter. Please note, that I have incredible respect for those who work in customer service because it is an incredibly difficult job. This is an entirely fictional situation.
This letter is being written to a restaurant in which the customer (we shall call her Trudy, for the sake of it) has been treated unfairly by the waiting staff. The waitress (who we will call Annabelle, again, just for the sake of her having a name) left poor Trudy waiting for 40 minutes before serving her in a completely empty restaurant. Trudy was taking some important business clients to this restaurant for an important business deal, having been there a few times before for similar business dinners and having impeccable service, she was incredibly embarrassed that it had taken so long for them to be seen to. The waitress sat idly, conversing with the rest of the restaurant staff for most of that time before she arrived, grunting instead of apologizing for the delay. When being reminded by the embarrassed Trudy that they had been waiting for quite some time, she shrugged and walked away with their orders. When the food arrived at the table, Trudy was served a plate of appetising looking food... but it had pork in it and Trudy was a vegetarian. Nobody else had ordered it so it was clearly the wrong meal. She alerted the waitress who took the plate back, replaced it quickly, but complained loudly to the other waiting staff that "the stupid woman should have just picked the meat out. How fussy can you get?". Within an earshot of the customers. Trudy was embarrassed by the rudeness of this particular waitress after booking such an important meal there.
Here are two examples of a complaint letter that Trudy could have written:
Dear Anonymous Restaurant,
my name is trudy and i would like to tell you how disgusted i am with the service I received on Friday.
The waitress was rude and inattentive and i was served the wrong food. She is utterly incompetent and clearly not fit to work in a restaurant with that kind of behaviour. A toddler could do better. I demand that she is terminated immediately. You have lost yourself a customer.
What's wrong with this letter? Well, for a start, it has a complete lack of detail to what actually happened. The unnamed waitress that this person is complaining about is rude, but how? There are no dates, no clear recount as to what had happened, but instead, demands and insults thrown toward this completely unidentifiable person.
Here's the second example:
Dear Anonymous Restaurant,
My name is Trudy Macdonald. I have been a loyal customer of this establishment for many business functions in the past as I have always found the atmosphere and customer service provided by your staff impeccable. However, last Friday evening (the 24th of November), I experienced some unpleasant behaviour from one of the staff members working that evening. I believe her name is Anabelle. I was there with clients for a work function and, though I understand that your staff are incredibly busy, we were left unattended for quite a long time. I asked the waitress about it but she seemed unapologetic. I dismissed this as I understand that sometimes time may escape you when you are working. When our food arrived, I was served the incorrect dish. This would normally not be a problem, but as I am a vegetarian and the dish contained meat, I asked the staff if they could replace it with the correct food. They obliged very promptly and we happily carried on with our meal. However, the waitress who had served me obviously felt as though I was being demanding and complained about my wishing to change the order rather loudly. I was incredibly disappointed as I am used to such brilliant service from this restaurant and come here rather frequently. While I understand that this kind of behaviour is not the norm, I now feel incredibly uncomfortable about holding similar business functions here in the future due to the embarrassment I was caused that evening.
I hope that this situation can be rectified as I hope to continue being a customer here. Please contact me if you would like to discuss this matter further.
ph: 0000 000
Why was this letter more effective? There are details (though not to a scary point where the reader feels overwhelmed and as though they are being attacked) on what actually happened as well as when. She is able to at least try to identify the person who she felt treated her unfairly (if you don't know a name, a vague physical description is also acceptable, but it should be very vague and lacking any kind of racial or sexist comments). The letter also has more of a structure (though this is an incredibly short letter for the purpose of example). It starts off praising the restaurant, Trudy has been a customer there before. She liked it up until this point, hence the reason she's so upset, and she should tell them accordingly. It also shows no abusive language or overly emotional descriptions of the offender's behaviour. It is also gramatically correct and free from spelling mistakes, as though she were writing an official document. This is also a way to show the person you are writing to them that you are respectful, reasonable and intelligent. There is also constant affirmation that she is only upset with the actions of one specific person, not the entire establishment. Again, this is important. Imagine how you would feel if someone came to your workplace and screamed at you incoherently for 20 minutes because of something a coworker whose name you may not even know had done. You'd feel pretty terrible, let's face it.
So the general rules for a customer service complaint would be:
1) Include details, ie. Date, time, place, names etc.
2) No abusive or overly emotional language. No matter how distressed you are, you will just come across as mentally unstable.
3) Constantly re-affirm that you are usually pleased with the service you receive from this particular establishment (unless this is your first experience, which makes things harder) and that you are only upset with one particular experience and/or person.
Contacting an MP
Now let's assume that you're writing to a local MP. Perhaps their policies or a recent remark has been offensive to you in some way. This is an entirely different kettle of fish from the first letter. You're probably not directly dealing with this person, it is more likely that your letter will be read by someone lower down on the food chain, if it is read at all. It is important to be very clear with exactly what upsets you about the policies. If they are claiming something untrue, quote facts, statistics and news articles, encylopedias, anything that can back up what you are saying factually that is a credible source. Remember to include an address for any website and claim where your material is sourced from directly after quoting them. When writing to a politician, remember to stay on topic and ONLY to discuss the thing that is actually upsetting you.... otherwise we'll be here all day. You can, however, say "I usually agree with your policies/campaigns, which is why I was so shocked to hear about.... (blah blah blah campaign)" so long as it's brief and throws you back on course within a sentence. Also remember NEVER to bring religion, race or gender into the equation, even if they do. The exception is something to do with childbirth and men because that's just physically impossible.
Remember that although your letter may not get a response or may have no affect that it is your right as a citizen to make sure you have the best political representation possible. It is important to be politically active. Not an ACTIVIST, but to be aware of what is happening around you politically and have an interest in it.
I will use a letter that I have written recently to an MP called Trevor Grace in South Australia. He is campaigning against abortion, for various reasons, but is leaving graphic posters in public places near schools (where children will see these horrific images on a daily basis) as well as frightening the general public with speculations on the topic, supported by statistics which he criticizes to make his point heard... these critical phrases are tied in with actual medical statistics, making it seem that he is speaking about things from a factual point of view. This makes what he is saying believable, but he is not a doctor and he is not speaking facts. I am using this as an example, making it shorter so it's more readable.
my name's (anonymous person). I have been alerted to your page via a facebook group protesting the existence of your campaign. Like many people, I have conflicting views on the termination of pregnancy so I decided to look thoroughly through your website.
I was disgusted by what I saw. Not by the graphic images shown on the site to illustrate the seriousness of abortion, but by the narrow viewpoint displayed and the overly emotive language used to scare people into sharing your point of view.
Now, that being said, you must understand that I do not for one second believe abortion to be an option to be taken lightly by women. I would not condone it over, say, using contraception when available or thinking of every possible path that a pregnancy could take, as I'm sure many women who do have children would also consider abortion as a pathway should they so decide to take it. However, amidst statistics and medical evidence gathered by the authors of this website, are suppositions and judgements made on the individuals who choose to have this procedure for various reasons.
My example being: "Whilst the majority of these abortions (141 out of the 162) were performed because of 'identified foetal abnormality', it is unclear how many of these babies were actually healthy babies but were aborted as a result of having a suspected or potential abnormality."
The statistic evidence is something that any person has a right to know or to find out should they have an interest in the topic. However, the speculation afterward makes me wonder what your medical qualifications are. As someone involved in the field of politics, I'm sure you are well aware of the incredible lack of help for families with disabled children. Many medical needs for these people are not covered by medicare and not every family can afford a carer on a constant basis as well as the incredibly small allowance that centerlink offer for carers of those with a disability. Unless you have a great deal of money, it is surprising that anyone could survive on such pitiful amounts to not only care for a disabled child, but for themselves and the rest of their family as well. Having carried a full-term pregnancy myself, I was at a stage where they would test my child for genetic abnormalities, disabilities, etc. like they do with any person who is pregnant at a certain stage of fetal development. It was to me, like many other people, a true concern on what I would do if my child were to be diagnosed with possible disabilities or mental illnesses. How would I care for them, I wondered, and would it be cruel to bring a child into the world knowing that they would have a shorter life expectancy and a lesser quality of life than a healthy child? As you've displayed quite graphically on your site, hospitals are frightening places, but especially for children.
Many women who become pregnant -are- financially unable to care for their children, not everybody has family or friends who can take them in to help them support their child and, frankly, the amount of money that the government provides for these people is not a great deal of money. Some families also have a few young children and need to think of the needs of their children who are already there in the world, they cannot simply neglect their other children because someone tells them not to. It's a delicate situation for all concerned and I'm sure they don't think about it with a smile and without considering the ramifications behind their actions, but rather, they care about their existing family and need to make a choice that will ensure that everybody is safe and able to be fed and cared for. Many women are raped but for various reasons, never report it. This would also come under the topic of being "emotionally unable" to care for their children. Domestic violence would be another such issue which, frankly, would greatly affect my decision on whether or not I were to carry a pregnancy full-term. You need to think from the point of view of the victim in such circumstances and ask yourself if, in the same position, you would want to bring a child into a world where they experience or witness violence on a constant basis. This is incredibly inhumane to the child in question and who would want to watch their child undergo physical abuse on a regular basis?
The government also does not help out families with one working parent unless they are already under the poverty line; "Women receive far less help than people on welfare when it comes to finding a job, the Barriers to Women's Employment, Women and the Recession Project said.
Government subsidies for help with clothes, childcare and severe dental problems are not available to women with a working husband, it said.
"The sad thing is in 1947 they could," National Foundation of Australian Women spokeswoman Marie Coleman told the newspaper.
"The Commonwealth Employment Service, set up in 1947, allowed anyone to rock up to the CES … and you would be entitled to assistance in being placed."
Today's reliance on private operators to provide support services had also been detrimental to women, she said." (- http://news.ninemsn.com.au/national/1010
You must understand that, like choosing to have a child, choosing not to have a child is a serious decision. It is something deeply personal and profound and it is not a choice that one would make lightly and without feeling persecuted by the stigma of the subject... much like the thousands of young parents like myself who are terrorized by the hospital system, social workers and society in general because people like yourself get on your pedestals and encourage that people my age (20) abstain from sex and leave our baby-making days until we're much, much older. The rise of IVF is insulting when I am harassed on a constant basis for making the responsible decision of having a child at the age at which I am physically meant to. IVF is much like abortion, only the embryos are frozen in large freezers, en masse, until the people who have left them there decide to use them. While you are preaching how cruel it is to extract an embryo for termination, wouldn't you agree that this is a much crueller practice for a human being to be subjected to? If they are, as you say, human beings with lives and feelings, why is it that people are legally able to freeze them when they are "very much alive", effectively killing them by doing so?
As a man of politics, I would suggest that you concentrate on the fields of medical health, drug rehabilitation, welfare (centerlink) available to families who are expecting children (which is incredibly lacking... I had to work until the due date of my child because I would not be offered any financial assistance to leave work when it was becoming an incredible burden) as well as those with children and one working parent or no working parents at all. I'd also encourage you to promote the care of those will mental illness and disabilities and review which kinds of medical treatments for those who are disabled can be subsidized by medicare. I am certain that the amounts of abortions undertaken would fall dramatically, should there be a safety net available to the people you have criticized so harshly.
I wish you all the best in the future as it is clear that you are incredibly passionate about human rights, as am I.
As you can see, comparing this to a complaint letter to the customer service industry, this pretty much breaks every rule I laid down for Trudy's scenario at the restaurant. Why is this ok? When writing to an MP, this is when you are meant to appeal to them emotionally. Hence the strong terms, referring to oneself as a person, as a parent, as a woman, etc. Notice that there is still no abusive language, it is still correctly spelt and laid out much like you would a school essay or a report for work. With an MP, relate to them as a person, not as a person in power. If you are outraged, say you are outraged, but have an intelligent reason why. Like I said, it is about backing up your beliefs with someone more credible than you, even if you -are- an authority on the subject... after all, how would they know?
I hope you have found this guide useful. If you need a template for a complaint or if you'd like to commission me to write a complaint for you, contact me via email: firstname.lastname@example.org