Business Correspondence Complaint and Adjustment Letters

This section covers two closely related types of business letters: complaint letters, which request compensation for problems with purchases or services, and adjustment letters, which are the responses to complaint letters.

Note: Students enrolled in the Online Technical Writing are encouraged to take the optional reading quiz on this chapter and on the chapter on inquiry letters. (Anybody else is welcome to try it as well.)

See the following example complaint letters:

The frames and nonframes versions work only on Netscape version 3 or later. If you are using Microsoft Internet Explorer, click Plain (or download Netscape).
Example complaint letter 1: Microwave problems Plain
Example complaint letter 2: Printer problems Plain
Example complaint letter 3: Cosmetics problems Plain
Example complaint letter 4: Digital multimeter problems Plain
Example complaint letter 5: Garden polymer sprayers Plain
Example adjustment letter: Compensation for damaged freight Plain

For related matters, see the section on general business-letter format and style.

Complaint Letters

A complaint letter requests some sort of compensation for defective or damaged merchandise or for inadequate or delayed services. While many complaints can be made in person, some circumstances require formal business letters. The complaint may be so complex that a phone call may not effectively resolve the problem; or the writer may prefer the permanence, formality, and seriousness of a business letter. The essential rule in writing a complaint letter is to maintain your poise and diplomacy, no matter how justified your gripe is. Avoid making the recipient an adversary.

  1. In the letter, identify early the reason you are writing to register a complaint and to ask for some kind of compensation. Avoid leaping into the details of the problem in the first sentence.
  2. State exactly what compensation you desire, either before or after the discussion of the problem or the reasons for granting the compensation. (It may be more tactful and less antagonizing to delay this statement in some cases).
  3. Provide a fully detailed narrative or description of the problem. This is the "evidence."
  4. Explain why your request should be granted. Presenting the evidence is not enough: state the reasons why this evidence indicates your requested should be granted.
  5. Suggest why it is in the recipient's best interest to grant your request: appeal to the recipient's sense of fairness, desire for continued business, but don't threaten. Find some way to view the problem as an honest mistake. Don't imply that the recipient deliberately committed the error or that the company has no concern for the customer. Toward the end of the letter, express confidence that the recipient will grant your request.

Adjustment Letters

Replies to complaint letters, often called letters of "adjustment," must be handled carefully when the requested compensation cannot be granted. Refusal of compensation tests your diplomacy and tact as a writer. Here are some suggestions that may help you write either type of adjustment letter:

  1. Begin with a reference to the date of the original letter of complaint and to the purpose of your letter. If you deny the request, don't state the refusal right away unless you can do so tactfully.
  2. Express your concern over the writer's troubles and your appreciation that he has written you.
  3. If you deny the request, explain the reasons why the request cannot be granted in as cordial and noncombative manner as possible. If you grant the request, don't sound as if you are doing so in a begrudging way.
  4. If you deny the request, try to offer some partial or substitute compensation or offer some friendly advice (to take the sting out of the denial).
  5. Conclude the letter cordially, perhaps expressing confidence that you and the writer will continue doing business.
Return to the table of contents for the Online Technical Writing Course Guide (the online textbook for online technical communication courses at Austin Community College and other institutions worldwide).

This information is provided and maintained by David A. McMurrey. For information on use, customization, or copies, e-mail