Chapter 9: Complaints and Persuasive Messages
- Learn to write claims and complaints
- Understand how to respond to claims and complaints
- Discuss persuasion in writing
- Examine a basic sales message and identify its central purpose
Business doesn’t always go smoothly. Customers can be disappointed with a faulty product or poor service; shipments might get damaged on route, lost, or arrive late; or one business might infringe on the rights and freedoms of another. In all such cases, the offended party’s responsibility is to make the offending party aware of what went wrong and what they want done about it. Indeed, it’s their consumer right to do so and the business or organization receiving such a message should take it as valuable intelligence on customer expectations that must be met for the operation to be viable.
Complaints and Claims
A claim explains what went wrong and demands compensation from the offending party, whereas a complaint explains what went wrong and merely demands correction or apology. Minor complaints are best communicated in person, on the phone, or by email (if it’s important to have them in writing) so they can be dealt with quickly. More serious complaints or claims are delivered as formal letters to lay down a paper trail in case they need to be used as evidence in a lawsuit.
Though some believe that a strongly worded complaint or claim is an effective way of getting what they want, it is better to be polite when even when communicating your problem. If you are nice about communicating your problem with a situation or business transaction, the customer service representative (CSR) or manager dealing with it is more likely to give you what you want. Just because some customers have found success in bullying people who are only trying to do their jobs, not all such attempts will likewise succeed, nor is it right from a moral standpoint, especially when the abused CSR had nothing to do with the complaint.
Ineffective complaints or claims often merely vent frustrations, issue threats, don’t say what they want or only vaguely imply it, or demand completely unreasonable compensation. Such messages are usually aggressive (or passive-aggressive) in tone and therefore rude and offensive. The recipient may respond aggressively in turn, give the complainant much less than what they asked for (e.g., a mere apology rather than compensation or replacement), or ignore the complaint altogether. Often the reader of such messages is not the one at fault, so a hostile message would be especially ineffective and possibly even actionable in extreme cases—i.e., liable to cause damages that the recipient could pursue compensation for in court.
Assume that a business will take your complaint or claim seriously if it’s done right because no matter what the industry, companies are rightly afraid of losing business to negative online reviews. According to one study, even one negative review can cost a business 22% of customers and three negative reviews 59% (Arevalo, 2017). One mother’s endorsement or warning to others about a local store in a local moms’ group on Facebook could make or break that business. Even worse, complaints aired on Facebook or Twitter, shared widely to the point of going viral, and picked up by news outlets can destroy all but the too-big-to-fail companies or at least do serious damage to their brand. In this age of social media, good customer service is crucial to business survivability. A complaint provides a business with both valuable information about customer expectations and an opportunity to win back a customer—as well as their social network if a good endorsement comes of it from the now-satisfied customer—or else risk losing much more than just the one customer.
Effective complaints or claims are politely worded and motivated by a desire to right wrongs and save the business relationship. They’re best if they remind the business that you’ve been a loyal customer (if that’s true) and really want to keep coming back, but you need them to prove that they value your business after whatever setback prompted the complaint. If the writer of such messages plays their cards right, they can end up getting more than they originally bargained for.
Complaint or Claim Message Organization
Complaints and claims take the direct approach of message organization even though they arise from dissatisfaction.
- Opening: To be effective at writing a complaint or claim, be clear, precise, and polite about what you want in the opening. If you want financial compensation or a replacement product in the case of a claim, be clear about the amount or model. You could also suggest equivalent or alternative compensation if you stand a poor chance of getting exactly what you want. If you want an error-corrected or an apology in response to your complaint, be upfront about it.
- Body: The message body justifies the request with a narrative account of what should have happened versus what actually happened instead. Be objective in writing the account because an angry tone coming through in negative words, accusations, and exaggerations will only undermine the validity of your complaint or claim. Be precise with details such as names, dates and times, locations (addresses), and product names and numbers. Wherever possible, provide and refer to evidence. For instance, you may include copies (definitely not originals) of documentation such as receipts, invoices, work orders, bills of lading, emails (printed), phone records, photographic evidence, and even video (e.g., of a damaged product).
- Closing: No matter what prompted the complaint or claim, the closing must be politely worded with action requests (e.g., a deadline) and goodwill statements. Nasty parting shots, even if merely passive-aggressive, may lower your chances of getting what you’re asking for. By complimenting the recipient’s company, however, you increase your chances of getting not only what you wanted, but perhaps a little extra. In damage-control mode, the business wants you to feel compelled to tell your friends that the company really turned it around.
An example of a claim message is demonstrated in Figure 9.1.
Subject: Refund for unwanted warranty purchase
|Dear Customer Service:
Please refund me for the $89.99 extended warranty that was charged to my Visa despite being declined at the point of sale.
|Opening: Main action request.
|This past Tuesday (June 12), I purchased an Acer laptop at the Belleville location of Future Shock Computers and was asked by the sales rep if I would like to add a 3-year extended warranty to the purchase. I declined and we proceeded with the sale, which included some other accessories. When I got home and reviewed the receipt (please find the PDF scan attached), I noticed the warranty that I had declined was added to the bill after all.||Body: Narrative of events justifying the claim or complaint
|Please refund the cost of the warranty to the Visa account associated with the purchase by the end of the week and let me know when you’ve done so. I have enjoyed shopping at Future Shock for the great prices and customer service. I would sincerely like to return to purchase a printer soon.||Closing: Deadlines and/or submission details. Action regarding the information. Ends the communication on a positive note.|
Figure 9.1 | Claim Message
Notice that the final point in the closing suggests to the store manager that they have an opportunity to continue the business relationship if all goes well with the correction. The implication is that a special deal on the printer will smooth things over.
Replying to Complaints or Claims
When a company responds to the complainant or claimant, this communication is called an adjustment message. An adjustment letter or email is heavy on courtesy in letting the disappointed customer know that they are valued.
Adjustment Message Organization
An adjustment message is a written response to a claim letter. If the response is positive, the response takes the direct approach by immediately delivering the good news about granting the claimant’s request. Though you would probably start with an apology if this situation arose in person, starting on a purely positive note is more effective in a written message. Tone is also important here; resist the urge to shame the customer- even if they’re partly to blame or if part of you still suspects that the claim is fraudulent- with begrudging, passive-aggressive language.
Though a routine adjustment letter might skip a message body, a more serious one may need to go into more detail about how you are complying with the request or take the time to explain what your company is doing to prevent the error from happening again. Doing this makes the reader feel as though making the effort to write will have made a positive impact, however small because it will benefit not only them but also everyone else who won’t have to go through what they did. Even if you have to explain how the customer can avoid this situation in the future (e.g., by using the product or service as it was intended), putting the responsibility partly on their shoulders, do so in entirely positive terms.
In Figure 9.2, the writer uses the direct approach to deliver the good news immediately.
Subject: Re: Refund for unwanted warranty purchase
Absolutely, we would be happy to refund you for the $90 warranty mistakenly charged along with your purchase of the Acer laptop. For your inconvenience, we will also offer you a $20 gift card for future purchases at our store.
|Opening: Main point about granting the request.
|To receive your refund and gift card, please return to our Belleville location with your receipt and the credit card you purchased the computer with so that we can credit the same card $90. (For consumer protection reasons, we are unable to complete any transactions without the card.)||Body: Details of compliance and/or assurances of improved process.
|We are sorry for inconveniencing you and will speak with all sales staff about the importance of carefully checking the accuracy of any bill of sale before sending the order for payment. To ensure that this doesn’t happen again, we will also instruct sales staff to confirm with customers whether an extended warranty appearing on the sales bill is there with consent before completing any transaction.||Closing: Courteous statements expressing confidence in future business relations.|
|We appreciate your choosing Future Shock for your personal electronics and look forward to seeing you soon to credit your Visa card and provide you with the best deal in town on the printer you were looking to purchase.
Have a great day!
Figure 9.2 | Adjustment Message
Of course, not all complaints or claims will receive a positive response, but if it is necessary to deny a claim, it must be done politely.
Persuasion is an act or process of presenting arguments to move, motivate, or change your audience. Aristotle taught that rhetoric, or the art of public speaking, involves the faculty of observing in any given case the available means of persuasion. Persuasion can be implicit or explicit and can have both positive and negative effects. In the professional world honing persuasive strategies is vital to your livelihood when the reward is a sale, a promotion, or merely a regular paycheque.
Persuasion begins with motivation. If persuasion is a process and your audience’s action (e.g., buying a product or service) is the goal, then motivating them to accept an argument or a series of positions leading to the decision that you want them to adopt helps achieve that goal.
No matter what, you want your audience to stick around long enough to read your whole piece. How do you manage this magic trick? Simple- you appeal to them! You get to know what sparks their interest, what makes them curious, and what makes them feel understood. Aristotle provided us with three ways to appeal to an audience, and they’re called logos, pathos, and ethos. You’ll learn more about each appeal in the discussion below, but the relationship between these three appeals is also often called the rhetorical triangle as shown in Figure 9.3.
Latin for emotion, pathos is the fastest way to get your audience’s attention. People tend to have emotional responses before logical ones. Be careful though. Too much pathos can make your audience feel emotionally manipulated or angry because they’re also looking for the facts to support whatever emotional claims you might be making so they know they can trust you.
Latin for logic, logos is where those facts come in. Your audience will question the validity of your claims; the opinions you share in your writing need to be supported using science, statistics, expert perspective, and other types of logic. However, if you only rely on logos, your writing might become dry and boring, so even this should be balanced with other appeals.
Latin for ethics, ethos is what you do to prove to your audience that you can be trusted, that you are a credible source of information. (See logos.) It’s also what you do to assure them that they are good people who want to do the right thing. This is especially important when writing an argument to an audience who disagrees with you. It’s much easier to encourage a disagreeable audience to listen to your point of view if you have convinced them that you respect their opinion and that you have established credibility through the use of logos and pathos, which show that you know the topic on an intellectual and personal level.
You can also gain ethos through your use of sources. Reliable, appropriate sources act as expert voices that provide a perspective you don’t have. Layout, graphic design choices, white space, style and tone: all of these factors influence your ethos.
A sales message is the central persuasive message that intrigues, informs, persuades, calls to action, and closes the sale. Not every sales message will make a direct sale, but the goal remains. Whether your sales message is embedded in a letter, represented in a proposal, or broadcast across radio or television, the purpose stays the same.
Sales messages are often discussed in terms of reason versus emotion. Every message has elements of ethos, or credibility; pathos, or passion and enthusiasm; and logos, or logic and reason. If your sales message focuses exclusively on reason with cold, hard facts and nothing but the facts, you may appeal to some audience, but certainly not the majority. Buyers make purchase decisions on emotion as well as reason, and even if they have researched all the relevant facts about competing products, the decision may still come down to impulse, emotion, and desire. If your sales message focuses exclusively on emotion, with little or no substance, it may not be taken seriously. Finally, if your sales message does not appear to have credibility, the message will be dismissed. In the case of the sales message, you need to meet the audience’s needs that vary greatly.
In general, appeals to emotion pique curiosity and get our attention, but some attention to reason and facts should also be included. That doesn’t mean we need to spell out the technical manual on the product on the opening sale message, but basic information about design or features, in specific, concrete ways can help an audience make sense of your message and the product or service. Avoid using too many abstract terms or references, as not everyone will understand these. You want your sales message to do the work, not the audience. One common technique used in sales messages is the AIDA Pattern.
AIDA Pattern of Persuasion
A- Attention-getting Opening
When your product, service, or initiative is unknown to the reader, get their attention with a surprise opening. Your goal is to make it inviting enough for the reader to want to stay and read the whole message. The opening can only do that if it uses an original approach that connects the reader to the product, service, or initiative with its central selling feature. This feature is what distinguishes it from others of its kind; it could be a new model of (or feature on) a familiar product, a reduced price, a new technology altogether, and so on. A tired, old opening sales pitch that appears to be aimed at a totally different demographic with a product that doesn’t seem to be any different from others of its kind, however, will lose the reader at the opening pitch. One that uses one of the following techniques, however, stands a good chance of hooking the reader in to stick around and see if the pitch offers an attractive solution to one of their problems:
- Focus on the solution’s benefits:
- Imagine cooling down from your half-hour sunbath on the white-sand beach with a dip in turquoise Caribbean waters. This will be you if you book a Caribbean Sun resort vacation package today!
- What if I told you that you could increase your sales by 25% in the next quarter by using an integrated approach to social media?
- Consider a typical day in the life of a FitBit user: . . .
- Focus on the problem scenario:
- Is your hard-earned money just sitting in a chequing account losing value from inflation year after year?
- Have you ever thought about investing your money but have no idea where to start?
- Provide a surprising quotation, fact, or statistic:
- Yogi Berra once said, “If you come to a fork in the road, take it!” At Epic Adventures, any one of our Rocky Mountain hiking experiences will elevate you to the highest of your personal highs.
- The shark is the ocean’s top predator. When you’re looking to invest your hard-earned money, why would you want to swim with sharks? Go to a trusted broker at Lighthouse Financial.
- Look around the room. One in five of you will die of heart disease. Every five minutes, a Canadian aged 20 or over dies from heart disease, the second leading cause of death in the country. At the Fitness Stop, keep your heart strong with your choice of 20 different cardio machines and a variety of aerobics programs designed to work with your busy schedule.
The goal here is to get the reader thinking, “Oooh, I want that” or “I need that” without giving them an opportunity to doubt whether they really do. Of course, the attention-gaining opening is unnecessary if the reader already knows something about the product or service. If the customer comes to you asking for further details, you would just skip to the I-, D-, or A-part of the pitch that answers their questions.
I- Interest-building Body
Once you’ve got the reader’s attention in the opening, your job is now to build on that by extending the interest-building pitch further. If your opening was too busy painting a solution-oriented picture of the product to mention the company name or stress a central selling feature, now is the time to reveal both in a cohesive way. If the opening goes “What weighs nothing but is the most valuable commodity in your lives? —Time,” a cohesive bridge to the interest-building bod of the message could be “At Synaptic Communications, we will save you time by . . . .” Though you might want to save detailed product description for the next part, some description might be necessary here as you focus on how the product or service will solve the customer’s problem.
The key to making this part effective is describing how the customer will use or benefit from the product or service, placing them in the centre of the action with the “you” view.
When you log into your WebCrew account for the first time, an interactive AI guide will greet and guide you through the design options for your website step by step. You will be amazed by how easy it is to build your website from the ground up merely by answering simple multiple-choice questions about what you want and selecting from design options tailored to meet your individual needs. Your AI guide will automatically shortlist stock photo options and prepare text you can plug into your site without having to worry about permissions.
Here, the words you or your appear 11 times in 3 sentences while still sounding natural rather than like a high-pressure sales tactic.
D- Desire-building Details and Overcoming Resistance
Now that you’ve hooked the reader in and hyped-up your product, service, or idea with a central selling feature, you can expand on the product description with additional evidence supporting your previous claims. Science and the rational appeal of hard facts work well here, but the evidence must be appropriate. A pitch for a sensible car, for instance, will focus on fuel efficiency with litres per 100km or range in number of kilometres per battery charge in the case of an electric vehicle, not top speed or the time it takes to get from 0 to 100 km/h. Space permitting, you might want to focus on only two or three additional selling features since this is still a pitch rather than a product specifications (“specs”) sheet, though you can also use this space to point the reader to such details in an accompanying document or webpage.
Testimonials and guarantees are effective desire-building contributions as long as they’re believable. If someone else much like you endorses a product in an online review, you’ll be more likely to feel that you too will benefit from it. A guarantee will also make the reader feel as though they have nothing to lose if they can just return the product or cancel a service and get their money back if they don’t like it after all. Costco has been remarkably successful as a wholesaler appealing to individual grocery shoppers partly on the strength of a really generous return policy.
Rhetorically, this point in the pitch also provides an opportunity to raise and defeat objections you anticipate the reader having towards your product, service, or idea. This follows a technique called refutation, which comes just before the conclusion (“peroration”) in the six-part classical argument structure. It works to dispel any lingering doubt in the reader’s mind about the product as pitched to that point.
If the product is a herbicide being recommended as part of a lawn care strategy, for instance, the customer may have reservations about spreading harmful chemicals around their yard. A refutation that assures them that the product isn’t harmful to humans will help here, especially if it’s from a trusted source such as Canada Health or Consumer Reports. Other effective tricks in the vein of emotional appeal (complementing the evidence-based rational appeal that preceded it) include picturing a worst-case scenario resulting from not using the product. Against concerns about using a herbicide, a pitch could use scare-tactics such as talking about the spread of wild parsnip that can cause severe burns upon contact with skin and blindness if the sap gets in your eyes. By steering the customer to picturing their hapless kids running naïvely through the weeds in their backyard, crying in pain, rubbing their eyes, and going blind, you can undermine any lingering reservations a parent may have about using the herbicide.
A- Action-motivating Closing
The main point of your message directs the reader to act (e.g., buy your product or service), so its appearance at the end of the message—rather than at the beginning—is what makes an AIDA pitch indirect. If the AID-part of your pitch has the reader feeling that they have no choice but to buy the product or service, then this is the right time to tell them how and where to get it, as well as the price.
Pricing itself requires some strategy. The following are well-known techniques for increasing sales:
- Charm pricing: dropping a round number by a cent to make it end in a 99 because the casually browsing consumer brain’s left-digit bias will register a price of $29.99 as closer to $20 than $30, especially if the 99 is physically smaller in superscript ($2999).
- Prestige pricing: keeping a round number round and dropping the dollar sign for a luxury item. For instance, placing the number 70 beside a dinner option on a fancy restaurant’s menu makes it look like a higher-quality dish than if it were priced at $69.99.
- Anchoring: making a price look more attractive by leading with a higher reference price. For instance, if you want to sell a well-priced item, you would strategically place a more expensive model next to it so that the consumer has a sense of the price range they’re dealing with when they don’t otherwise know. They’ll feel like they’re getting more of a bargain with the well-priced model. Similarly, showing the regular price crossed out near the marked-down price on the price tag is really successful in increasing sales (Boachie, 2016).
If the product or service is subscription-based or relatively expensive, breaking it down to a monthly, weekly, or even daily price installment works to make it seem more manageable than giving the entire sum. Equating it to another small daily purchase also works. The cost of sponsoring a child in a drought-stricken nation sounds better when it’s equated with the cost of a cup of coffee per day. A car that’s a hundred dollars per week in lease payments sounds more doable than the entire cost, especially if you don’t have $45,000 to spend now but are convinced that you must have that car anyway. Framing the price in terms of how much the customer will save is also effective, as is brushing over it in a subordinate clause to repeat the central selling point:
For only $49.99 per month, you can go about your business all day and sleep easy at night knowing your home is safe with Consumer Reports’ top-rated home security system.
Action directions must be easy to follow to clinch customer buy-in. Customers are in familiar territory if they merely have to go to a retail location, pick the unit up off the shelf, and run it through the checkout. Online ordering and delivery is even easier. Vague directions (“See you soon!”) or a convoluted, multi-step registration and ordering process, however, will frustrate and scare the customer away. Rewards for quick action are effective, such as saying that the deal holds only while supplies last or the promo code will expire at the end of the day.
Sales pitches are effective only if they’re credible. Even one exaggerated claim can sink the entire message. Saying that your product is the best in the world, but not backing this up with any third-party endorsement or sales figures proving the claim, will undermine every other credible point you make by making your reader doubt it all (Lehman, DuFrene, & Murphy, 2013, pp. 134-143).
Common Sales Message Organization
Figure 9.4 | Sales Message
Tips for Writing Sales Messages
Your product or service may sell itself, but if you require a sales message, you may want to consider these strategies for success:
- Start with your greatest benefit. Use it in the headline, subject line, caption, or attention statement. Audiences tend to remember the information from the beginning and end of a message but have less recall about the middle points. Make your first step count by highlighting the best feature first.
- Take baby steps. One thing at a time. Promote, inform, and persuade on one product or service at a time. You want to hear “yes” and make the associated sale, and if you confuse the audience with too much information, too many options, steps to consider, or related products or service, you are more likely to hear “no” as a defensive response as the buyer tries not to make a mistake. Avoid confusion and keep it simple.
- Know your audience. The more background research you can do on your buyer, the better you can anticipate their specific wants and needs and individualize your sales message to meet them.
- Lead with emotion, follow with reason. Gain the audience’s attention with drama, humor, or novelty and follow with specific facts that establish your credibility, provide more information about the product or service, and lead to your call to action to make the sale.
These four steps can help improve your sales message and your sales. Invest your time in planning and preparation, and consider the audience’s needs as you prepare your sales message.
The essential rule in writing a claim or complaint message is to maintain your poise and diplomacy, no matter how justified your gripe is. Avoid making the audience an adversary. In sales letters, while it is important to persuade your audience, make sure that your message does not include illegal or unethical claims.
End of Chapter Activities
9a. Thinking About the Content
What are your key takeaways from this chapter? What is something you have learned or something you would like to add from your experience?
9b. Discussion Questions
- Have you ever written a letter of complaint? What motivated you to do so? Did you receive a response?
- Please consider one purchase you made recently. What motivated you to buy and why did you choose to complete the purchase? Share the results with your classmates.
- Are you more motivated by emotion or reason? Ask ten friends that question and post your results.
- Select an online advertisement that you find particularly effective or ineffective. Why does it succeed, or fail, in persuading you to want to buy the advertised product?
9c. Applying chapter concepts to a situation
Dealing with a customer claim
Fatimah is an international student who works part-time at Starmart Supercentre. After three months with the company, she is promoted from a Sales Associate to a Fulfillment Department Supervisor. Her primary responsibilities in her new role include addressing customer concerns and coordinating the tasks of the associates under her supervision.
During her first shift as a supervisor, she is called by an associate to deal with an angry customer. The customer wants to return a dress that he bought for his wife two weeks ago. He mentions that he purchased the wrong size, and it is too small for his wife. The customer is returning the dress outside of the seven business days allowed for returns, and the tag is also missing. Fatimah calmly explains to him that they are unable to accept the dress as it goes against the company’s policy.
The customer refuses to leave the store until a refund is issued because the dress is expensive, and he has no use for it. Fatimah wants to assist the customer but is fearful of going against the company’s policy.
What should Fatimah do?
9d. Writing Activity
Watch this video from TED.com on How to use rhetoric to get what you want. Summarize the video. Which technique do you normally use to persuade friends, family, teachers and you managers? Do you use the same techniques?
This chapter contains information from Business Communication for Success which is adapted from a work produced and distributed under a Creative Commons license (CC BY-NC-SA) in 2010 by a publisher who has requested that they and the original author not receive attribution. This adapted edition is produced by the University of Minnesota Libraries Publishing through the eLearning Support Initiative, Business Communication For Everyone (c) 2019 by Arley Cruthers and is licensed under a Creative Commons-Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International license, and Communication at Work by Jordan Smith is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.
Arevalo, M. (2017, March 15). The impact of online reviews on businesses. BrightLocal. Retrieved from https://www.brightlocal.com/2017/03/15/the-impact-of-online-reviews/
Boachie, P. (2016, July 21). 5 strategies of ‘psychological pricing.’ Entrepreneur. Retrieved from https://www.entrepreneur.com/article/279464