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Legal VIEW

Best to Air a Complaint the 'Write' Way

February 18, 1988|JEFFREY S. KLEIN

My grandmother always told me: "If you don't have anything nice to say, don't say anything." But that advice doesn't apply when it comes to defective goods, poor service or broken promises.

My grandmother can still complain with the best of them. And she knows that a good strong complaint to the right person is often more effective than hiring a lawyer and filing a lawsuit, especially when the amount in dispute is less than the cost of a few hours of legal counsel.

Satisfying Results

So if you've been taken, lied to, exploited or mistreated, get ready to complain. You may find the results satisfying; at least you'll know you tried.

Older Americans are the least likely to complain, according to the American Assn. of Retired Persons, which in cooperation with the Federal Trade Commission, has published a booklet titled "How to Write a Wrong, Complain Effectively and Get Results."

"Not complaining makes us unhappy with more than the shoddy product or bad service we bought. It also makes us angry with ourselves and frustrated with society," warns the booklet.

"We owe it to ourselves to complain. We owe it to the seller who might improve the business. And we owe it to others who may benefit from the complaint."

Although an oral complaint may work on the spot--for example, when your laundry comes back ripped to shreds or an airline loses your baggage--in most situations, it is best to complain in writing. This is especially true if your complaint later becomes a lawsuit, even if it is only in Small Claims Court. It is the process of creating what lawyers call a "paper trail" of correspondence and evidence you can use later to convince a judge.

Here are some tips on the art of effective complaining, from the AARP booklet and other sources:

--Complain to the right person. If your baggage is lost, complain to the airline customer-service department before you contact the Department of Transportation.

--Type the letter of complaint and include a daytime phone number where you can be reached.

--Be civil. This is no time to be sarcastic, although you want the company to know you mean business. Be calm, firm and to the point. Don't exaggerate.

--Describe the problem in sufficient detail. If you bought a defective product, include the model and make number, where you bought it, how much you paid and what is wrong with it.

--Send copies, not originals (which you should save in a safe place), of any written documentation--bill of sale, canceled checks, warranties or contracts.

--Demand a remedy. What do you want? A refund, a credit, a replacement or an apology? And when do you want it? (But give them plenty of time.)

Identify Employees

--Identify any employees who treated you rudely or made things worse.

--Show that you've done your research. List all the consumer organizations, media outlets or government agencies you intend to go to for help if your problem isn't solved. (Some possibilities: chamber of commerce, elected officials, consumer reporters, state attorney general, state department of consumer affairs or trade associations.)

--Write again. If the deadline you imposed passes without any word, write again. Mention your first letter, restate the problem and follow through with your threats. Send copies of your new letter to the appropriate agencies. Be reasonable, but if that fails, there is another option you have: Take them to court.

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