How to reply to a complaint letter with panache

Ever received a complaint in your inbox or mail box? Remember that sinking feeling as you read the words ‘I’m writing to complain about…’?

Yup, we’ve all been there at some point. One of the hazards of being in business.

So how do you react when you get a complaint? Do you squirm and feel yourself blushing because the complainant’s fully justified? Or do you get hot under the collar and splutter obscenities because the writer’s a complete idiot and doesn’t have a clue what he’s talking about?

Either way, you’ve got to suck it up and compose a reply. But where do you start?

And how do you tell a customer he’s the one at fault?

And what’s the best way to say you messed up without sounding as if you can’t run a bath let alone a business?

Worry not. All you need to do is follow the six stages below. The first and last stages are always the same. The other four stages involve making a decision about the right thing to do, then completing or changing the phrase I’ve given you to reflect your own situation.

Please don’t feel you have to copy these phrases word for word. Adapt them using a style that sounds natural to you. Treat them as a starting point.

By following these stages, you’ll end up with a professional and courteous reply that will soothe your customer’s ruffled feathers and restore confidence in your business.

The six stages of writing a great reply
to a complaint letter

Stage 1: Acknowledge the complaint

It’s vital you recognize the issue at hand in your reply, so begin with ‘Thank you…’ It may seem counter-intuitive to thank someone for a complaint, but think of it this way: your disgruntled customer has taken the time and trouble to write to you and is giving you the opportunity to learn from an awkward situation (no matter who’s at fault).

Write something like

Thank you for your letter of March 1, 2016 regarding the pine kitchen table that was delivered to you on Monday, February 29,’ or

‘Thank you for your email concerning the Band-Aid that you found last week in a can of Scrummy’s Tomato Soup.’

Start off on the right foot by being polite.

Stage 2: Apologize or show understanding

Now you need to demonstrate a little empathy. You need to tell the customer that you know he or she is upset. This approach goes a long way to calming the situation. What you write depends on who you think is at fault, so here comes your first decision:

If you or your business is the one to blame, write:

‘Firstly, I would like to apologize for the inconvenience of…’  or

‘Please accept our apologies for…’

If the customer is at fault, write:

‘I’m sorry to hear that…’ or

Your reaction is understandable…’ and then – if appropriate - tactfully ask the complainant to see your point of by writing: 'However, I hope you will understand that…’

Be careful with that last phase. You don’t want to come across as trying to wheedle out of your responsibilities, so add this only if you think it would help clarify the situation.

“Never ruin an apology with an excuse.”

Stage 3: Admit or identify the cause of the error

This is the tricky bit. If you’ve decided you’re the one who’s made the error, you need to come clean. There are a couple of ways to approach this. You could write:

Apparently, there seems to have been an oversight...’ or

‘Unfortunately, we entered the incorrect product number into our ordering system…’

You could even write something like this: ‘While we make every attempt to ensure that our products are delivered in accordance with our high standards, this unfortunate incident can occasionally happen.’

Depends on whether you want to admit other similar incidents, I suppose.

Now the even trickier bit. If you’ve decided your customer is the one who’s made the error, it’s down to you to tell all without making it sound like a rebuke. Tactfully point out the complainant’s error by writing:

May I point out, with respect, that the order you placed on 23 February was for a pine kitchen table and not an oak dining table,’ or

‘There seems to have been a miscommunication regarding…’

Stage 4: Say what action you or the customer must take (or not)

How is the situation going to be rectified? Can something be done or is it all too late? If it’s too late, what’s the alternative?

If your decision is to take action, explain what you’re going to do and when the customer can expect the results:

I will arrange today a replacement to be delivered to you. Your oak dining table should arrive within three business days.’ Or:

‘I have already instructed our finance department to amend your account. You will receive a statement showing the correct balance by the end of this week.’

If the customer is the one who has to take action, start your request like this:

In the meantime, however, would you…’ or

‘You may wish to…’ or

‘Could you please…’

It’s entirely possible that nothing can be done to rectify the situation, so be tactful and write:

Since [add your reason], I am afraid that we are unable to...’

Nothing say's I'm sorry more than corrected behavior

Stage 5: Promise better service in the future and offer compensation

If you’ve messed up, now’s the time to assure the customer you’ve learnt your lesson. You need to say how you’re going to give a better service in the future. Write something like:

I would like to assure you that, in future, we will [add your corrective action]. If you have any further questions, please do not hesitate to contact me.’ Or:

‘We will do everything in our power to ensure that this will not happen again. If I can be of assistance in any way, please call me or write to me.’

You may decide it’s appropriate to offer some form of compensation, even if the customer was at fault. Maybe he did enter the wrong product code when ordering his table, but maybe your online ordering system is totally confusing and needs to be redesigned:

‘As a gesture of goodwill, please accept the enclosed voucher.’

And if you do spot an area of improvement for your company, such as an explainer video or a downloadable ebook that explains a complex topic, user-friendly website content, pass on your suggestions to the marketing department. Your proactiveness could help prevent complaints

Stage 6: Close politely

You’ve done the hard bit. Now all you need to do is round off the letter or email with a polite close. Here are some options:

‘Once again, I would like to apologize for the inconvenience caused by this error. I hope our actions go some way to restoring your faith in us.’

‘We are very appreciative that you have taken the time to bring this to our attention and would like to thank you for purchasing our products.’

A final note. I would avoid the phrase ‘You are a valued customer’. It’s been written so many times that it has become meaningless. The customer’s going to think ‘Yeah, yeah. So why did you mess up in the first place’.

It is possible to apologize with sincerity and without grovelling. Hopefully, I’ve shown you how.

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Helen McCrone has been helping businesses communicate effectively in writing since 2004. She writes promotional copy such as websites, marketing emails, and brochures as well as marketing content such as case studies, white papers and blog posts. Born in bred and bred in England, Helen now lives in the sunshine state of Florida. She relies on yoga, her faith, her American husband and her British sense of humor to keep her sane.