How not to write a complaint letter….

I’m sure by now most of us have seen The Consumerist story about a United ticket agent that decided it was time to take a break instead of helping someone trying to get to their dying mother. I don’t want to get too far into this, but I do have a few thoughts.

First of all, my condolences to Mike and his girlfriend for their loss, and unfortunately I don’t doubt that the ticket agent was utmost unhelpful. The agent in this instance could really use some retraining regardless of whether or not she was dealing with a customer that had a dying relative.

At the same time some crucial details are missing and we’ve only heard one side of the story, so I don’t think it’s fair to draw too many conclusions. It’s also important to consider just how many people travel daily with special circumstances.

Anyway, what I’m more interested in is the complaint letter that Mike wrote to Glenn Tilton, United’s CEO. It’s a perfect example of sensationalist writing that’s perfect for The Consumerist, but otherwise would get thrown in the trash right away, had it not received so much media attention. Heck, I didn’t even read the whole letter the first time around, since I lost interest after a few paragraphs. I wrote a post a while back about writing complaint letters, and Mike’s letter in this case violates nearly every one of the “rules” I follow.

What are my issues with his letter? First, it’s too damn long. He could have just as easily written his complaint in a single paragraph. The reason it’s too long is because it’s filled with nothing but emotion. Yes, this is an extremely sad event, but those circumstances are outside of United’s control. What was within United’s control, however, were the actions of the agent, and those can easily be summarized by sticking to the facts. As much as I’m not a fan of Glenn Tilton, this is not a case in which you take a “you” attitude and basically blame it on him.

Filed Under: Media, United
  1. I don’t know, Lucky. While the point of my letters (which always follow your code!) is to get some compensation, the purpose of this letter appears to be to make a statement. I think the author specifially planned to publish it online. As such, I’m okay with this letter telling a story with emotion.

  2. You’re absolutely right, Uniter. Let me clarify: this letter is perfect for The Consumerist, which is often sensationalist and emotional in nature, but I’m just saying that outside of The Consumerist I’d consider it a pretty bad complaint letter.

    By the way, I follow the “non-emotional” guidelines even when writing a letter for *very* serious issues. There have been cases where I write VP’s about serious service issues (specificially turning down any compensation), but they’re still only a couple of pargraphs and stick to the facts.

  3. Someone dies, and they’re not supposed to get emotional? That letter is pretty much what I would expect if a member of someone’s family died. Perhaps it wasn’t to get compensation. Maybe they wanted to make a point and/or vent.

  4. footballfan412, Mike and his girlfriend have every right to get emotional. In fact, I’ve felt emotional about situations I’ve had with United where I wrote a complaint letter on more than one occasion. Nonetheless, before I wrote in to complain, I first waited a few days and then stuck to the facts, trying to present an objective case of what happened. Yes, this situation is extremely sad, but a complaint letter is no place to “vent,” in my opinion, or at least it won’t get you anywhere. When you vent, you get a complaint letter which looks like what Mike wrote: one-sided, missing facts, and containing more emotion than substance, and unless we’re talking about The Consumerist, that’s not a good thing.

    Again, I find his letter to be perfectly acceptable for The Consumerist, but it’s a perfect example of a bad “generic” letter, even under tough circumstances.

    At the end of the day United did an awful customer service job, but it’s not their fault that his girlfriend’s mother died, and with the amount of emotion in the letter, it seems like that’s what they’re inferring.

    Just my two cents…

  5. @footballfan412 — I’d agree that the letter isn’t about getting money out of United. If the author had written a matter-of-factly “business letter”, it wouldn’t have the same effect, both on Consumerist and at the executive office (he’d come across as a cold/calculating person).

    @lucky — I have flown probably over 500k miles on various airlines (mostly UA) and I haven’t written a single complaint letter. It’s not that everything always goes smoothly, but most things simply ultimately don’t warrant spending more time on it and getting worked up about it again.

    I did write a letter once to Princess Cruises for not notifying us that a cruise had been canceled (I found because I monitor things on the web and was thus able to find an alternative). Didn’t even get a reply. So I voted with my $$$ and the next two cruises didn’t go to Princess either, even though I liked them on the one trip we did with them.

  6. Lucky, no, it wasn’t United’s fault that his girlfriend’s mother died. But come on. That employee couldn’t delay their break? Or at least FAKE some compassion, for pete’s sake.

    United already has a SERIOUS image problem. This doesn’t help.

    Oliver, that was exactly my point. The letter was raw emotion, as it should be. If, as you said, he had written a “business” letter, he would come off as an opportunist, and a cold one at that.

    Instead, the letter writer let it all hang. I don’t blame him.

    Forget getting a voucher, a free flight or drink coupons. Sometimes, you just have to vent.

  7. “But come on. That employee couldn’t delay their break? Or at least FAKE some compassion, for pete’s sake.”

    And I agree with you 100%. As I stated in my post, I have no doubt that this agent was utmost unhelpful and couldn’t care less, which is unacceptable. There’s still a question as to whether or not they could have reasonably made the flight, even with the most helpful agent.

    Also, just out of curiosity (it really doesn’t matter in terms of the story, but I wonder), why did Mike have to wait in the ticketing line? I can’t think of any good reason the tickets would have to be issued at the airport….

  8. Lucky, I find it hard to believe that a really helpful agent couldn’t have checked them in (by-passing the 20 minute rule), then called the gate agent to hold that flight another few minutes.

    Speaking of the 20-minute rule, my understanding is that once you hit a certain period before a flight (20 minutes) the self check in kisosks don’t work, and you have to go to a ticketing agent to get checked in. That’s probably why he had to wait in a ticketing line.

  9. Well, that’s why I wish we’d have more details, because as it’s written: “The gentleman on the line provided me with a reservation number, informed me that I could pick up my tickets at the counter.” That doesn’t sound to me like just picking up boarding passes, and given that he called the Premier line (so is apparently a frequent flyer), I would think he’d know the difference. We’ll probably never know, but like I said above, it’s somewhat besides the point.

    A helpful agent could have checked him in quickly, but without a clear timeline it’s tough to say whether or not they would have made the flight.

    As far as holding a flight goes, that’s a whole new issue. As sad as it may be, there are so many people flying every day with emergencies or special events they absolutely have to attend, etc. I can’t count how often I’ve seen passengers in tears at the gate when they missed their flight or are IDB’ed. Furthermore, as much as I hate to say it, if airlines would hold flights for people with emergencies, don’t you envision people making up stories when they nearly miss their flight to have the flights held? We hear stories all the time of people doing stupid things to have flights held (make bomb threats, etc.), that I can’t really blame United for not wanting to delay flights, further inconveniencing other passengers that might also have important things to attend to.

    Again, I agree with you that United really doesn’t need this type of press and that this agent was no doubt a lazy, rude, heartless agent. Anyone that has read my blog for a while knows that I both praise incredible service and bitch about awful service, so please don’t see this as me defending United. I’m not. They deserve the bad press they got on this one.

  10. I think there’s a fine line, but I think getting emotional is one the best things you can do in a complaint letter.

    Of course, it’s easy to over-dramatize the situation, which one should avoid, but adding a bit of emotion to persuade the reader can be very effective.

    And what’s too much emotion? I mean, if you want to get completely technical, the original writer shouldn’t have even mentioned the purpose of his trip.

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