It’s easy to find how-tos for writing an effective complaint letter, but during the pandemic, the trick is getting it into the right hands. With many corporations working remotely, it can be tough (if not impossible) to find contact information for a decision-maker who can deal with your issue.
I know, because I’ve been on the receiving end of poor customer service. My family became a 2020 version of “A Christmas Story,” dining on Chinese takeout when a steakhouse in Denver lost my to-go order and the snarky manager just shrugged it off and showed us the door. I wanted someone at the corporate level to hear my story, but I couldn’t find an email or phone number.
So I turned to one of my best friends, Carol Edgar in Bigfork, Mont. Why her? When Edgar’s smoke detector caught fire — I’m not making this up — with smoke pouring out and the alarm beeping, she shook the corporate tree so hard that the manufacturer flew an electrician from Spokane, Wash., to replace all her smoke detectors . . . free of charge.
Edgar, a public relations veteran specializing in customer service, wrote her first complaint letter in 1970 to James Cash Penney (the J.C. Penney) to resolve a credit card issue. Over 50 years, she has successfully tracked down the higher-ups at IBM, Xerox, Alaska Airlines, Travelers Insurance, DirecTV and, most recently, Les Schwab Tire Centers.
“Always go to the top, if you can find the top,” she says. “It’s not about threatening a lawsuit, but trying to help a company know they have a problem and how they can learn from it.” Here are some tips from Edgar and other successful sleuths for making your voice heard when a product fails or a restaurant loses your to-go order.
Aim high. Sure, many CEOs have gatekeepers who may intercept your correspondence. Then again, some don’t often hear directly from customers and are interested in their feedback.
Jarrod Holland emailed Apple chief executive Steve Jobs — and it worked. When the iPhone 4 debuted in 2010, Holland got a defective unit. After two replacement phones (one defective, the next meant for another customer and locked) and 15 different Apple customer service representatives, Holland, a publicist in Wilmington, N.C., searched online for Jobs’s email address.
“My search returned a few different addresses. I emailed all of them, mentioning I loved this product, but the experience was beyond frustrating,” he says. “Within 24 hours, I received a reply from one of his assistants. She had a brand new iPhone 4 overnighted to me directly from China. She even sent me a FedEx label to return the old phone and had FedEx pick it up at my house.”
Track down the decision-maker. There are many ways to find out who’s the boss. The simplest is to find the company’s website. Look for company leadership. You can also search online for “name of company” + “VP of customer service.” Look beyond the first page of search results, because contact information may be buried deeper.
Jeff Harry, a Chicago-based play consultant, likes LinkedIn for tracking down a top executive. His method is to search for the company, then filter by job title (for example: “customer”). Especially with a larger corporation, you’ll probably find tons of people with “customer service” in their title. Look for VP or higher, and pick several individuals to target. If you receive dozens of results, you may want to focus on the regional or district manager for your location.
Use online tools for addresses and emails. Even when you find the name of a company CEO, the email address may be hidden. A number of online tools may reveal a specific email address or company email formula, such as [email protected] or [email protected]. Harry uses Clearbit, a Google Chrome extension, while Holland opts for RocketReach. Lusha is another option. Although these services are subscription based, you can often look up a few names for free. Dun & Bradstreet lets you research companies and their basic contact information at no cost.
Look for a back door. When corporate information is elusive, find another entry point. Check out a company’s newsroom, or search online for news releases, which often contain the names of company officers. Note the name and email for the person issuing the release. Publicly traded companies also have an investor relations page, where you may find a contact. If you can’t find a specific company executive, try the media relations department. “No company wants bad press, so someone in communications may be your gateway to the corporate higher-ups,” Edgar says.
Work social media. Tempting though it may be to rant on Twitter or Facebook, you’re more likely to get results by using these platforms to connect to corporations. Both Twitter and Facebook allow for direct messaging and often elicit responses sooner than by email. If you do post your grievances, be truthful and stick to the facts. “If someone complains on Facebook or Twitter and I am in charge of monitoring a company’s social media account, I want to resolve the issue,” Holland says.
Write a real letter. Silvana Clark, a retired professional speaker in Bellingham, Wash., is a self-proclaimed “expert” at getting customer service results. “When I receive poor service or want to resolve a situation that a customer service rep can’t handle, I go straight to the top,” she says. Once Clark finds the name and corporate address, she writes a letter that she prints out and mails. Her success rate is nearly 100 percent, from getting her father his VA benefits (after writing the U.S. secretary of Veterans Affairs) to replacing a pair of running shoes that split apart with minimal use after two months when the store wouldn’t accept returns. (She mailed the shoes and a note to the company’s chief executive.)
On the other hand, Clark is also quick to contact CEOs of companies when she receives excellent service. “I’ve written the CEO of Southwest Airlines several times, thanking him for his policy of allowing more than one checked bag,” she says. Edgar is another fan of letter-writing. “I give the local level one chance, then start mailing letters to the CEO,” she says.
Try the phone. Although it often feels as if call centers are designed to make consumers give up, those with the time and the patience may connect with a decision-maker. D.C. fundraising consultant Stephanie Schwartz says phone conversations may be more effective, because they’re often taped for training purposes. Have your information on hand, and take notes. Get the representative’s full name and a reference number, if you can.
Escalate if necessary. If your problem isn’t resolved, ask for a supervisor and use the word “escalate,” as in: “I’d like to escalate this to your supervisor.” When friends recently sent Schwartz flowers through a national retailer, the blooms wilted within hours. Eight emails later came a request for her to call a customer service line. “After holding for 13 minutes and then being interrogated as if the floral disaster was my fault, I escalated my complaint to a manager, who promised a replacement bouquet,” she says. A lovely arrangement arrived the day after our interview.