How to complain - and actually get your way!

Anna Powell got nowhere with a complaint to a retailer's customer service - until she tried this nifty trick and saved £180.

It's an inevitable part of modern life. Sometimes, companies do bad things. Sometimes, we all end up in phone queues, holding for 15 minutes, waiting to explain our problem yet again. And sometimes, we get nowhere.

There's no avoiding it. That's why an important way to be good with money is not to be defeated by bad customer service. 

I want to pass on a tip that has worked for me in the past. When all other options have failed, when you've been left out of pocket through no fault of your own, this can help. 

What's the tip? Simple. Sit down and write an old-fashioned letter - directly, personally, to the CEO of the company.

It isn't infallible. But it's worked for me in the past, and just sometimes, it can make the difference between no help at all, and saving a lot of money. 

Mobile phone blues

Earlier this year, I treated myself to a new phone from T-Mobile on a pricey £40 a month contract. Two weeks after my phone arrived, I spotted an article saying that this phone model wasn't shifting as fast as T-Mobile had hoped, and they had cut the cost of the contract to £30 a month. 

I checked their website, and it was true. On an 18-month contract, I was immediately £180 out of pocket compared with someone who bought the phone just a few days later. 

While T-Mobile were undoubtedly within their rights to slash the price, I felt pretty hard done by. I rang them to complain. 

Over the phone, T-Mobile's customer service were apologetic, but said they couldn't do anything - I was outside the standard cancellation period. Basically, I was stuck paying over the odds for the next year and a half, to a company I now resented.

But here comes the important bit. 

Still grumpy, I found the name of the head of T-Mobile UK from Google, and wrote him a personal letter. Before I wrote, I revised my tips on how to complain effectively.

A few days later, I got a phone call from his PA. She said that the company would like to apologise, and it would be fine to switch to the lower-priced contract immediately. 

I recommended the route to a friend who had bought the same phone - and she got the same result. Now that's what I call customer service!

John Fitzsimons looks at three simple ways to cut the money you spend on your mobile each month

Put away the pen

Before I begin my tips for how to write to a CEO, let me begin by saying when I think it's not worth doing.

It's not worth doing if you haven't already tried all the company's usual routes for complaints. Otherwise, it'll get passed to the ordinary customer service department, and you'll get ordinary customer service (and have wasted a stamp).

It's also not worth doing if you have a really important problem with a company, and might need to take legal action. Anything you put in writing at this stage could affect your case. Talk to a lawyer instead, or an ombudsman. Consumer Direct may also be able to help. 

It goes without saying that it's not worth doing if your problem is trivial. Letters like this will only be effective if you can convey to the CEO that there's something that he or she really needs to know about. 

But if you have had no luck with customer service, have been seriously inconvenienced but have no other recourse, and are genuinely upset with a company - go for it. 

If I was a CEO, frankly, I'd want to know about that!

Get writing

My tips are as follows. These are just what have worked for me in the past - you can probably improve upon them.

First of all, find the name of the company's CEO and the address of the head office. If it's not on Google, ring them up and ask. 

Next, at the risk of stating the obvious, you need to write them a proper, old-fashioned letter - not an email. Write it on a computer, then print it and sign it yourself. 

Recent question on this topic

Letters that look professional will be taken more seriously. Run a spell check and take the time to read your letter through. Use good quality white paper and envelopes.

Start by apologising for writing directly to the CEO, but say that you think they need to know about the problem. 

Include all the facts. Give a full but concise history. Reference numbers, dates and names of people you've dealt with are all very good things to include.

Don't be rude - it definitely won't help your cause. It's more likely to damage it. Instead, be polite, friendly and constructive. If anyone helped you at any point, say so.

Don't threaten to get the law or the media involved, either. Instead, say how the problem made you feel, and state exactly how the CEO can fix it.

If you are a regular customer of the company, say so. Say (this is important) that you've always been impressed by their customer service before.

Sign off by thanking the CEO, giving your telephone number, and saying that they are welcome to contact you for more details.

A template letter

Here's a template to help you:

                                                                                                            Your address

                                                                                                            Your phone number

Their address


Their reference (if you have a reference number)

Dear <name>,

  • Apologies for writing, but you feel this is a problem they should know about
  • Clear statement of the case
  • What you would like from them to fix the problem
  • Your positive previous experiences of the company
  • Thanks

Yours sincerely,

(sign here)

Your printed name

CC: If you have copied the letter to anyone, give their name and title here

Private and confidential

Finally, my favourite tip. Mark the envelope "Private and Confidential" - that way, it won't get opened by an intermediary, but should go straight to their private office. 

So go on - get writing. And good luck! 

If you have an opinion on this topic, why not start a discussion in our Complainer's Corner group about it?

This is a classic article that has recently been updated.

More: Bank error in your favour. Collect £1,000 | Complain and get your share of £204 million


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