Communication, Email Writing

How to Write a Polite Complaint

Selena works as a leasing agent at a large apartment community. Part of her job involves dealing with residents (or applicants) who are complaining about problems. Some of these problems are related to the apartments themselves, such as broken toilets or sliding doors that have come off their hinges. Other problems involve payments, paperwork, and background checks.

“All complaints have to be emailed to our office,” said Selena. “We need a written record that includes all the key details about the problem. Some residents want to come to the office and complain in person, but we really can’t help them that way. The reason for this is because the people working behind the desk aren’t usually the same ones who will be fixing the actual problem, especially if it’s a resident who needs something repaired.”

Selena recognizes that writing emails can be more difficult than complaining over the phone or in person, especially for some residents who aren’t fluent in English. Sometimes there are cultural differences as well. In some places, a confrontational, “in your face” style of complaining is the only way to get anybody’s attention, or it’s considered “just doing business”. Even the residents who come from the United States often believe that “the squeaky wheel gets the oil” and that they need to be loud and rude in order to get help.

“That’s not true,” said Selena. “If someone is polite and kind, we will go out of our way to make things right for them. We can also help people a lot faster when they get straight to the point instead of wasting time insulting us or rambling on and on about things that aren’t related to the issue at hand.”

Let’s start with an example of what not to do…

Dear Morons,

My sink is all f**ked up!!! I just had it fixed a few days ago!!! Then when I went to the office to complain, they told me to send an email. Well, here is the email! Is my sink going to get fixed now, or are you just going to rip me off and raise my rent again? I’m sick of living in a place where everything breaks down!!! I am going to terminate my lease as soon as possible!!!! You people are incompetent!!!! Fix my sink RIGHT NOW!!! I also want a month’s rent for free because of all the hassle!!!! You WILL be hearing from my lawyer!!!!!

—Angry Resident

Well, at least the email is formatted properly. There are too many exclamation points, it’s a little disorganized, and the swear word has been deliberately bleeped out because this is a family-friendly blog. For the most part, though, everything is written correctly.

However, not only does Angry Resident sound extremely rude, the email is missing a lot of key information that someone like Selena would need to resolve the issue.

“I need the resident’s full name, their address, and details about what exactly is wrong with their sink,” said Selena. “This email doesn’t even say if it’s the kitchen sink or the bathroom sink. When someone sends me an email like this, we end up going back and forth four or five times before I can do anything to help them. I always hope that they have calmed down by then. Our maintenance crew members don’t need someone screaming at them when they’re just trying to do their job.”

A rude complaint vs. a polite complaint

Unfortunately, almost everyone who does any type of business online has received their share of rude emails from dissatisfied customers. Angry Resident’s email is an extreme example, yet a realistic one.

In the left-hand column in the table below, you will see some common “rude customer” tactics. Then in the right-hand column, you will find some suggestions on how to improve an angry email so that it is more polite and includes all the necessary information for a satisfactory resolution to a problem.

“Rude customer” tactic…Try doing it this way…
Opening with “Dear Moron” or some other insult.Start with a formal salutation. If you have the name of a contact person, use it. If not, you can use a job title or write “To Whom It May Concern”.
Not describing the problem in detail, such as Angry Resident writing that the sink is “f**ked up”.Be specific about the problem. Include dates, account numbers, order numbers, receipts, screenshots, photos of damaged property/goods, or any other crucial information. Also, leave out the swear words—that’s not going to help.
Exaggerating about how bad a problem is, such as saying an order arrived a week late when it was only a day late.Be truthful about the problem. The person who is taking care of your complaint probably has records of receipts, shipping dates, communications, etc. and will know if you aren’t being honest.
Demanding an immediate response to your email and then bombarding them with more emails.Check the company or service provider’s policy on response time. Give their agents adequate time to look into your complaint. Also, check your Spam folder in case their response to your email ended up there.
Making negative remarks about a business and its employees.Try to keep a neutral tone instead of putting people down. If you have had negative dealings with a business or service in the past, provide details if you feel it applies to your current situation. Otherwise, focus on the present.
Making unreasonable demands, such as asking for a $200 refund for an item that costs $75.Propose a reasonable solution. If you need to request a refund, state the same amount that is on your receipt. If you are really nice and polite, you might get lucky and the company will give you a free gift (within reason).
Threatening to close your account, leave a bad online review, file a lawsuit, etc.State that you hope the problem can be resolved quickly. Save the threats for situations where you asked for help again and again, but nobody is responding, or they are making promises that they aren’t keeping.
Signing your email with “Angry Resident”, “Angry Customer”, “Your Soon-to-Be Ex-Customer”, etc.Use a polite closing salutation and be sure to include your name and contact information.

Let’s look an alternative…

Life can be frustrating, especially when you order something that arrives damaged or late, or you don’t get the level of service that you are expecting. However, the people who work for these businesses are, like Selena, usually more eager to help someone who is polite and kind. If you are upset about a situation, take a few deep breaths and try to calm down before writing an email.

Here is a very different version of Angry Resident’s email:

Dear Selena or Any Other Leasing Office Employee,

My name is Tyler Jones and I live in Apartment 1C in Building K. On Tuesday, November 28th, the garbage disposal in my kitchen sink suddenly stopped working. A maintenance worker named Dan replaced it the next day. Everything was okay for awhile, but then on Thursday, December 7th, the garbage disposal broke again.

I am upset that this has happened again. Could someone please come and fix my garbage disposal as soon as possible? I should be home every day this week before 3pm. I have attached a copy of the work order from the first time my garbage disposal was fixed. Please let me know if I need to send any additional information. My contact information is below.

Thank you,

Tyler Jones



This email is much more likely to get fast results than the first version. It is polite, and it includes information that Selena can work with.

Consider the consequences.

If you do go ahead and write a rude email that includes threats and insults, you may have to deal with some unpleasant consequences. “In our apartment community, we don’t renew the leases of residents who are difficult to deal with,” said Selena. “In the worst cases, like if a resident gets really angry and starts threatening our workers with bodily harm, we’ll call the police. But that doesn’t happen very often.”

Sometimes angry customers make good on their threats to close their account with a business, only to regret it later. Even if they open a new account with that same company, they will probably find that they have lost credits, rewards points, or access to content that they had purchased under their original account.

“But what if a business really is trying to rip me off? Should I still try to be polite?”

Jeff bought some speakers from an online retailer that arrived damaged. “I emailed them—and I was very nice,” Jeff recalled. “I also provided all the necessary information about the purchase. I got no response. I emailed them a few more times over the course of two weeks. I still got no response. I tried to call them, but the agents on the phone kept leaving me on hold. Those speakers cost $350. That’s a lot of money for me.”

Jeff finally got his money back after he sent an email where he threatened to leave negative online reviews about that retailer. “By that point, I wouldn’t say my emails were nice. I didn’t swear or act like a total jerk, but I was firm about wanting my money back. And I won’t be ordering anything from that company again!”

If you find yourself in a situation like this, it is very important to document everything. Save all receipts, invoices, and communications with the company in case you need to escalate the situation.

If you need to write an email to complain about a problem with a business or service and you want to make sure you sound polite, click the blue button below. One of our TextRanch editors can let you know if any changes are needed.

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