How to write an effective complaint email

Rebecca Barton | July 10, 2023

Not many people take delight in sending a complaint email. And nobody wants to receive a grumpy, rude complaint email. The good news is that you can write your complaint in a way that’s constructive, empathetic, and positive. This can help both you and the receiver get a good outcome.

Our advice only refers to complaints about annoying or inconvenient events

Sometimes your issue may be about something that had disastrous consequences — for example, you lost a significant amount of money. This advice may not cover your situation. We are writing about more common types of complaints. For example, you’re unhappy with a product you received, or you want to share feedback on a restructure proposal, or you had a bad experience at a restaurant.

Lean in to your natural human empathy

When writing a complaint email or giving feedback, your best ally is your natural human empathy. Use this to clearly communicate your complaint.

Before you start writing your complaint, consider who is on the receiving end.

A woman looking thoughtful while sitting in front of a computer.

Consider who is receiving your email. How do you want them to feel? Image by Andrea Piacquadio / Pexels licence

Be direct and kind

After you’ve considered the receiver and the outcome, find the appropriate tone. Your tone should be friendly and direct. You want a positive outcome — so choose empathetic language to communicate how you feel and what you want.

The tone of your email will influence how your reader responds to it. A warm, friendly tone that doesn’t intimidate, isolate, or bully will yield far better results.

Remember, your best ally is your natural human empathy. Here are some examples of how to use empathetic language:

I know and understand this is a difficult time for you and the team.

I appreciate the opportunity to share my feedback.

Say: I feel disappointed because the service didn’t meet my expectations.

Instead of: Your service was terrible, and I’m really frustrated.

Four yellow faces, including 3 blurry angry faces and one highlighted smiley face.

Be direct and kind, and use your natural human empathy to communicate what you want. Image by AbsolutVision / Pixabay Licence

Use these four tips to help you structure the perfect complaint email

1. Identify your purpose straight away

Think about how to make your email stand out — the person or company receiving your email may get lots of emails every day.

Write a clear subject line

A clear subject line helps your email stand out in someone’s inbox. It also helps you build credibility if you can identify the purpose of your email straight away.

Complaint about recently purchased White Tennis Shoes

Feedback on the Admin team’s restructure proposal

Refund on order number 123456

Identify why you’re sending the email in the first sentence

Being clear and transparent about why you’re sending the email shows that you value the reader’s time.

I’m emailing to give feedback on the support I received after my procedure. Unfortunately, I’m disappointed by the lack of communication and minimal support since my procedure.

2. Provide relevant details, context, and evidence

Provide a meaningful explanation — think about what will help you to get the outcome you want.

For example, if you had a bad experience at a restaurant, provide relevant details.

This doesn’t give a meaningful explanation:

We went to your restaurant and had a bad experience.

Try to provide relevant context and details:

We heard this restaurant had an excellent reputation, so we wanted to try it out. Your food was quite expensive, so we had high expectations. However, we waited for 90 minutes for our food, and when the food came out, it was cold. Because of this, we were unhappy with our overall experience.

Explain how the bad service, product, or experience has affected you

Ask yourself if you can explain how the bad service/product/experience has affected you. This will help your reader absorb your message and understand the reasoning behind your decision. This may not always be possible — for example, your reason may be confidential.

I’ve noticed that my feedback has not been incorporated into the restructure proposal. This makes me feel unheard and undervalued.

Provide evidence to help you build credibility

Anything you can use as evidence will help you build credibility and get the outcome you want. Evidence may include receipts, photos, emails, or other communications.

3. Be clear about what outcome you want

Consider carefully what success looks like for you and the receiver. What resolution do you want? Do you want action to be taken? Or are you simply providing feedback?

If you’re complaining about a product or experience, make sure you’ve checked the returns policy or complaints resolution process.

Do they provide a refund? Or store credit?

Showing you’ve done your research suggests you’ve put time and thought into it. It will also help build your credibility, and you’ll be more likely to get the outcome you want.

Your returns policy shows that you provide either a full refund or store credit. I’d like a full refund.

I hope you’ll consider my feedback, so we can move forward in a way we’re both happy with.

I’d like to chat more about this in person.

A woman lying on her bed with her dog, smiling at her laptop.

Ending your email on a positive note will likely lead to a better outcome. Image by Nataliya Vaitkevich / Pexels licence

4. End on a positive note

The person reading your email is more likely to receive it well if you end on a positive note.

I hope my feedback can help you improve your after-care services, so others feel well taken care of and are satisfied with the product.

I appreciate you taking the time to read my feedback.

I hope you have a great day.

Next time you hesitate about giving feedback or complaining, use these tips to face your fear. You might be pleasantly surprised at the result!

Help to get your tone right

Our online resources can help you craft the perfect tone and practise your skills before you try them out.

Tone tips: A collection to bookmark

Check out: Tone matters

Insights, tips, and professional development opportunities.