Are Funny Complaint Letters Effective?

Anyone who tries writing a funny complaint letter quickly realizes (or should) how difficult  it is to strike the correct tone—so the letter reads as amusing rather than insulting. If we misjudge the humor, our letter can sound offensive, condescending, angry or sarcastic, all of which will render it ineffective in terms of getting the result we want. However the biggest danger such efforts face is simply coming across as—not funny. The goal of a humorous complaint letter is to make it stand out and get a response. However, to do so, the letter must include all the traditional elements of a complaint; a clear description of the problem or incident, the necessary details and the request for redress. Including all these particulars and doing so in a way that is genuinely funny is truly no easy task.

Let’s look at two examples of complaints and the differences between effective and ineffective attempts at humor.

Complaints about Airline Food:

In 2010, a man traveling on Ryanair complained that he was served a chicken sandwich which suffered from being “Too rubbery,” and appeared markedly different than it did in the menu photo (as many of us do, the sandwich apparently used a photo that implied it was better looking than it was in reality). I cannot know for sure whether the man used humor when voicing his ‘rubber chicken’ complaint but what I do know is that his complaint was so angry, he was arrested by sky marshals.

We all feel angry when complaining but if we wish to complain in humor, the anger cannot be too dominant. Let’s illustrate the point by examining another complaint about airline food:

A passenger on a Virgin Atlantic flight in 2008 was so appalled by the meal he received he wrote to Sir Richard Branson (President of Virgin) and included pictures of his meal. After a polite and respectful opening, he embedded the following image and said,

"Look at this Richard. Just look at it. I imagine the same questions are racing through your brilliant mind as were racing through mine on that fateful day. What is this? Why have I been given it? You don't get to a position like yours Richard with anything less than a generous sprinkling of observational power so I KNOW you will have spotted the tomato next to the two yellow shafts of sponge on the left. Yes, it's next to the sponge shaft without the green paste. That's got to be the clue hasn't it?"

The man went on to describe the second dish: “On the left we have a piece of broccoli and some peppers in a brown, glue-like oil, and on the right the chef had prepared some mashed potato. The potato masher had obviously broken and so it was decided the next best thing would be to pass the potatoes through the digestive tract of a bird.”

Lastly, he described the shrink wrapped desert: “I needed a sugar hit. Luckily, there was a small cookie provided. It had caught my eye earlier because of its baffling presentation:  It appears to be in an evidence bag from the scene of a crime. A crime against bloody cooking. Either that or some sort of backstreet, underground cookie, purchased off a gun-toting maniac high on his own supply of yeast.”

While the anger is evident in the letter, it is far overshadowed by the humor and that is what makes the complaint so effective. How effective? The passenger received a personal call of apology from Sir Richard Branson himself.

Complaints about Feminine Hygiene Products:

The following letter was written to Procter & Gamble in 2007.

“Have you ever had a menstrual period, Mr. Thatcher? Ever suffered from "the curse"? I'm guessing you haven't. Well, my "time of the month" is starting right now. As I type, I can already feel hormonal forces violently surging through my body. Just a few minutes from now, my body will adjust and I'll be transformed into what my husband likes to call "an inbred hillbilly with knife skills." Isn't the human body amazing?

As brand manager in the feminine-hygiene division, you've no doubt seen quite a bit of research on what exactly happens during your customers' monthly visits from Aunt Flo. Therefore, you must know about the bloating, puffiness, and cramping we endure, and about our intense mood swings, crying jags, and out-of-control behavior. You surely realize it's a tough time for most women.

Which brings me to the reason for my letter. Last month, while in the throes of cramping so painful I wanted to reach inside my body and yank out my uterus, I opened an Always maxi pad, and there, printed on the adhesive backing, were these words: Have a Happy Period. Are you fucking kidding me?”

The letter went on in much the same vein. Although it is posted on various websites, it is unclear whether the woman’s letter ever got a response and there is some doubt as to whether it was ever sent to the company. Even if the letter had been sent, it is likely to have been ineffective. Why? Despite the obvious humor, the letter was laced with profanity and unnecessarily cringe-worthy, graphic descriptions (for example, of male genitalia getting shoved into a grill). Cursing and profane graphic details are just like anger in that they only distract the complaint recipient from the message of the actual complaint.

Let’s examine another letter about a similar issue, this one written by Write the Company a website devoted to posting hilarious letters to companies and the company’s response. Here is an excerpt from a letter they wrote to the makers of o.b. tampons.

“I’m writing on behalf of my friend Brooklyn…According to Brooklyn, Super size o.b. Tampons aren’t so super anymore because they’re now more like the size of a small regular. She claims they used to be the size of the current Ultra Plus. As a guy, I’m not sure what any of this means. All I know is if I’m getting the Super size of anything, I want fries and a beverage with it, too.

…I believe Brooklyn’s primary problem is related to absorption. She used the word “Monsoon” to describe her flow. At that point I wanted to do what most people do when a monsoon is coming — RUN like hell! This brings me to my next question: Is the o.b. Tampons Super size actually too small for some women? Should I suggest she insert two of them to make up for the shortfall? Why has this size worked up until now and all of a sudden she finds herself up a creek without a paddle with a monsoon on the way?”

The humor in this letter does not obscure the message of the complaint because the descriptions are funny without being offensively graphic. As a result, the company indeed responded to the complaint and the letter was even referenced in a New York Times article about o.b. and the shrinking tampon debacle.

The bottom line is that most of us should avoid using humor when writing complaint letters as we are unlikely to have the skill to do so well enough to get a result. I have performed stand-up comedy hundreds of times, yet the only humorous complaint letter I ever dared attempting was one I wrote to Tony Hsieh the CEO of Zappos.com, and I risked doing so only because my complaint was not exactly…real. You can read the letter and hear about the response here.

Have you come across funny but effective complaint letters? Feel free to share them with us in the comment section below.

Copyright 2011 Guy Winch

Follow me on Twitter @GuyWinch

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Finding Customer Service Solutions within Customer Complaints

Customer complaints provide valuable information for companies because they alert them to potentially costly problems with their products, services or procedures. Fixing these problems can improve customer service and reduce customer attrition. But companies who listen closely to customer complaints might find more than mere information—they might find inspiration too. Last month I was traveling to Orlando Florida and had an early flight back to New York City. I had already checked in online and had no luggage to check so I arrived at Orlando International Airport (MCO) an hour before my departure time and was dismayed to see a huge mass of people waiting to pass security.

I would have joined the line, except there wasn’t one. Instead, people stood in a pulsing mass letting the movement of the crowd funnel them toward the distant point at which roped lanes began forming orderly lines. Progress was slow causing many passengers to worry they would miss their flight. But with no airport personnel in sight to assist such passengers and the mood of the crowd being as it was, no one attempted to go around the mass of people to the front.

Indeed, tensions in the ‘throng’ ran high and the complaints were flying. People griped about the lack of crowd control, the stupidity of not extending the roped areas to accommodate the extra passengers or the lack of signage offering apologies for the extended wait times and crowded conditions. I heard several people pledge never to use this particular airport again.

Once I reached the civilized haven of the roped lines things improved only marginally. The TSA workers had to halt the scanners periodically because it took a while for people on the other side to retrieve their belongings. An elderly couple in front of me took minutes to pick out coins from their plastic bin (“Larry, don’t forget the dimes! They’re little! Look in the corners!”).

All in all, going through security was a customer service nightmare, one that must cost MCO untold revenue in customer attrition alone.

However, any airport executive standing in line with me that morning and actually listening to their customers would have been shocked to discover that the solution to every single one of their customer service problems was present in the complaints voiced by their customers!

1. Extend roped lines to accommodate the extra passengers waiting to go through security.

2. Include signage to apologize for the long lines and inform customers of wait times.

3. Have workers patrol the lines so they can assist passengers who are late for their flights.

The final customer service idea came to me when watching the elderly couple fish for pennies (and dimes) in the plastic bins after they had gone through the scanner:

4. Place receptacles for various charities before people go through the scanners. This will provide travelers the option of donating their change to charity and avoiding the ‘hunt & peck’ exercise to retrieve coins from the plastic bins. International travelers are often thrilled to get rid of their change and many domestic travelers will opt to donate their change as well—benefitting both the airport by having lines move quicker and many charities.

I should add that when I mentioned this idea to the TSA worker at the scanner, her eyes lit up and she rushed her supervisor over so he could take my name and write the suggestion down on a comment card. I have no way of knowing if my idea made its way to airport executives but their front-line employees certainly thought it should.

In short, companies that truly listen to their customers’ complaints will discover both information about important problems and often, the solutions to these problems as well. In many situations, such as the case at Orlando International Airport, fixes are easy to implement and cost effective.

Companies should therefore do more than just listen to customer complaints they should actively seek solutions within them.

Follow me on Twitter @GuyWinch

Copyright 2011 Guy Winch

Are Consumers Paying More Attention to Customer Service?

Airline passenger complaints rose by 25% in 2010 compared to 2009 figures according to new statistics released this week by the U.S. Department of Transportation. The top two complaint categories were the old favorites, Flight Problems (such as delays and cancellations) and Lost Luggage. But this year saw a new arrival in the number 3 spot on airline passenger’s greatest complaints hit list—Customer Service! Airline customer service complaints rose 20% in 2010 from those filed in 2009. The Department of Transportation defines customer service as: “Rude or unhelpful employees, inadequate meals or cabin service, treatment of delayed passengers.” The question is, has airline customer service deteriorated significantly from 2009 or are passengers simply speaking up more?

Most air travelers are aware there has been a continued decline in the inflight services offered to passengers over the last years. Blankets and cushions have all but disappeared, free soft-drinks have gone the way of the Dodo, and the pretzels are MIA. However, the majority of such changes occurred before 2010. Therefore, it seems to me as though passengers are speaking up more than they had before.

Filing a report with the Department of Transportation involves forms, flight numbers, names, dates  and other kinds of documentation—exactly the kind of bureaucratic paperwork that deters the vast majority of us from complaining in any circumstance. As far as I know, the Department of Transportation does not include tweets or Facebook complaints in their statistics, but if they did, the numbers would be substantially higher.

This week also saw the Apple App store release Tello, a new consumer App and website that focuses solely on customer service and the customer experience. Tello is not interested in the company’s products or services but in how companies treat their customers—pure customer service.

These trends speak to greater awareness of the importance of customer service and the customer experience in the consumer public. Such increases in attention to customer service represent a substantial shift in consumer psychology as it implies that consumer expectations of customer service are rising. Customers are expecting to be treated according to certain standards and they are willing to speak up and complain if those standards are not met.

To be sure there is still a long way to go, both for customers and especially for businesses and corporations. Many companies do not yet realize the importance of customer service and the customer experience, or how consumer expectations are shifting in this regard.

Perhaps the airlines—like their flying brethren the yellow canary—represent an early warning system. Perhaps these latest statistics are a warning to companies and especially airlines, to pay more attention to their customer service. Delta recently announced it was sending its employees to ‘charm school’ to improve their customer service. Hopefully other airlines will act swiftly as well. After all, we all know what happened to the yellow canary…

Copyright 2011 Guy Winch