A recipe for resolution failure: too many words, not enough information

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By | February 22nd, 2017

Do you suffer from verbosity? Unfortunately, this long-winded style of communication can be disastrous to advocacy efforts.

As consumer advocates we know that there is a well-tested formula to a successful mediation between a consumer and a company — and it all begins with a well-worded letter of complaint. Unfortunately, many consumers subscribe to the belief that the more words they put in that initial letter, the better their chance of success.

They could not be more wrong.

In fact, the opposite is true. Company executives (and consumer advocates) receive many letters of complaint and requests for help each day. The missives that are clear and get directly to the point are the ones that are addressed first.

For example, in order to help you, the executive at Delta Air Lines does not need to know that your husband is the president of his bowling league or that you and your fiancé met in Latvia.

These things are all very interesting (to you), but not relevant to the task at hand — resolving your problem.

You want your letter to be read. You need to catch the reader’s attention, and you want to make that reader want to help you with your problem. This is not accomplished by telling the reader about your new grandbaby who is named after your great-grandfather or how your friend Stacy told you that this same thing happened to her aunt.

Stay focused. You only have a moment to make a first impression with your letter. Make it count. If an executive receives your letter and is confronted with four pages of your story and doesn’t feel like reading a “book” at that moment — your letter goes away. Maybe permanently.

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We often see letters addressed to our advocacy site where the route to the actual complaint is long and circuitous. However, in most of these cases, when we take the time to actually read through the entire letter, we find that the consumer has a valid complaint. But the letter had been unsuccessful in conveying the right information.

One such recent case was a college student who booked nonstop flights on American Airlines. However, some time after the booking, the airline changed her flights to connecting. This entitled her to a refund, if she chose to cancel. She did. But in her drawn-out request to the airline, she mentioned so many reasons why she wanted a refund that she neglected to highlight the important part — American Airlines changed nonstop flights to connecting ones. This is the only part of her case that made her flights refundable. American Airlines rejected her request and reminded her that her flights were nonrefundable.

Per the terms of American’s contract of carriage she is entitled to a refund. It appeared that her refund request letter had not been read in its entirety, perhaps owing to its length. Faced with a very long letter, the reader may have just skimmed her request and then rejected it.

She did eventually receive her refund — after we sent a concise letter to the airline pointing out the actual reason for her request for a refund.

Often, when consumers have been through a difficult experience they want to convey every detail of the debacle. This retelling can be therapeutic in the right setting but is probably best left to sharing with your friends and family (or your therapist), not the executive from whom you want a refund. Unless you are Stephen King, your narrative is not going to keep that executive’s attention. Your letter may end up in the trash bin, instead of the “Yes” bin.

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So how can you have the best possible chance at having your letter favorably received by a customer service specialist or a company executive?

First, we can’t say often enough that it is better to write less, but say more, when approaching a company with your complaint. Stick to the relevant details and facts. Your actual issue could become obscured or completely overlooked by listing unnecessary details.

Remember to keep your complaint polite. This is also a very important part of the equation, but when writing in the heat of the moment, civility is often overlooked. We rarely see a positive response to a complaint letter when it is aggressive and accusatory in nature. Approach your letter in a cordial manner and the company will usually respond in kind.

Leave out all emotion from your letter. Think of Mr. Spock from the 1960s show Star Trek. He never let emotions get in his way of logical reasoning and problem solving. If he were to write a complaint letter, it would have been the best. He would stick to the facts, get right to the point and expect a positive conclusion. Because that is logical.

Be reasonable in what you are requesting as compensation. If your flight was delayed three hours, you are not entitled to a free round-trip flight to Hawaii (yes, this was an actual case).
We see many consumers who overvalue their damages by multiples of ten. This is a sure-fire way to have your request rejected.

Lastly, before you send your letter, put it down and leave it for a while. Come back to it later and reread it with fresh eyes. Ask yourself a few questions: Does this letter convey the problem clearly? Would I want to help this person? Do I sound civil? Is my request reasonable?

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As consumer advocates, part of our job is to encourage self-advocacy. We know that many cases can be resolved positively through this simple formula: be polite, be concise, be reasonable and keep to the relevant facts. And if for some reason that should fail, our advocacy team is always here to help you.

  • JewelEyed

    There’s a very good reason one of our teachers in high school taught us that unless you have a long work history, your resume shouldn’t be longer than a page, and that your cover letter shouldn’t be either. There are a lot of applicants (in this case, people asking for assistance) and if someone can’t quickly read it and find what they need to know, it’s going in the garbage. And you absolutely do not want your plea for help to go in *that* file.

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