Writing an Email Replying to a Complaint

The Basics

Every email that we write should be professional, friendly and polite. We do this by using clear, plain English (see here for more details).

When responding to a complaint email, we also need to make sure that:

- we thank the person for raising the issue
- we apologise
- we explain clearly what action will be taken to remedy the situation
- we give a reason for the problem, if appropriate
- we do our best to retain the person who complained as a customer or client

Read the following email and then read Reply A and Reply B.

Sample A

Dear Mr Penwirth,

We have been ordering pet food supplies from you for several years. Unfortunately, we have had several problems with the recent shipments.

Generally, when we place an order, the shipment will arrive within three to five days. The past three orders, however, have all taken at least two weeks to arrive. This left us without stock for our customers. This is a serious situation as it means our customers will go elsewhere and this could be a major loss of business.

Could you explain what has caused the recent delays and could you offer a guarantee that future shipments will arrive on time?

Best regards,

Mrs Patricia Dyson
Petland Ltd

Reply A

Dear Mrs Dyson,

We have had a large number of orders recently and we have not been able to process them as quickly as we would like to.

We will try to get the next order to you on time.

Best regards,

Mr CJ Penwirth,
Customer Representative,
Pawsworth Pet Supplies Ltd

Reply B

Dear Mrs Dyson,

Thank you for your recent email and I offer my sincerest apologies on your recent late deliveries.

We have recently installed new inventory tracking software and we have faced some teething problems, which have now been resolved.

I can personally guarantee that future deliveries will be on time. We also now offer a 24-hour customer service helpline at 602 1101-1022. In addition, I would like to offer a 10% discount on the next two orders to compensate for the recent issues.

Best regards,

Mr CJ Penwirth,
Customer Representative,
Pawsworth Pet Supplies Ltd

Reply A is short and unapologetic. The reason given for the late deliveries does not sound very convincing at all. In fact, it sounds like it is likely to happen again. The original email of complaint also asked for a guarantee that the situation would not reoccur, and this was left unaddressed in the reply. Even worse, the email promised to 'try' to get the next order delivered on time. This single word changes the tone of the entire email. Customers expect a company to take action, not try to take action.

Reply B begins by doing two things. The first thing is to thank the customer for the email. Does it seem strange to thank a customer for complaining? In fact, when a customer complains, they are doing you a favour because they are pointing out a flaw in the way that you run your business. In certain industries, for every customer that complains, many others stay silent or just switch to another company without informing you why. Hence, every complaint must be taken seriously.

Second, the email offers a strong apology. A strong apology is appropriate here because the customer has lost business and lost money due the problem. Note that the Mr Penwirth uses 'I' here to make the apology more personal.

In the next paragraph, Penwirth explains the reason behind the late deliveries - new inventory software. Importantly, he can clarify that the issues have been resolved. It is not necessary to go into details, so this part of the email is short.

The third body paragraph is where Penwirth outlines the action that will be taken. There are three things that he will do. First, he guarantees that the issue will not arise again, which is what the customer asked for. Note that, once again, he uses 'I' to do this. Secondly, he introduces a new helpline. This means that it will be easy and fast to deal with any future queries. Finally, when dealing with a complaint, you should always try to give the customer something extra, something unexpected. Penwirth does this by offering discounts on the next two orders. The fact that the discount is on the next two orders instead of one is a nice touch.


Let's look in more detail at how we can structure this kind of email. We can generally use a three-part structure for any short email:

Part 1: Reason for writing
Part 2: Details
Part 3: Action

In this case, the reason for writing should acknowledge the complaint (and apologise). The details section should offer an explanation. The action section should outline what action is to be taken. This is the layout of Reply B above.

Let's see how this layout is applied to another sample email. Read the complaint and then the reply. (Note that our basic layout is also applied to the email of complaint.)

Sample B

Dear Sir/Madam,

I am writing to complain about a product that we recently purchased from you, the ZX20 office alarm system. The receipt is attached here.

We have two issues with it:

No matter how we adjust the settings, we cannot seem to fix these issues.

Please help us to solve these two issues. If you need to send a technician, you can contact me at this number to arrange it: 603 2323 1000.

Best regards,

Mr Thomas Andrews,
Assistant Manager, Security,
Verve Suites Ltd

Sample B Reply

Dear Mr Andrews,

Thank you for your feedback on our ZX20 office alarm system and I am really sorry to hear about the issues that you have faced with it. Fortunately, these issues can be solved quite easily.

Both of these issues are due to the settings. It goes off at 4:00pm when in testing mode. It goes off during thunderstorms because it is on extra-sensitive mode.

I have attached a pdf here with the steps to change these settings. However, we are also able to send a technician if anything is not clear. Feel free to contact me anytime at 07 3309-1197 to arrange this, or with any further questions.

We realise that these settings should not be turned on by default and your feedback will help us to improve further designs.

Best regards,

Alicia Heyworth,
Customer Service Representative,
Vigilancio Alarm Systems

Section 1

As before, Alicia thanks Mr Andrews for his 'feedback' (a polite way to say 'complaint') and apologises for the issue.

Section 2

She gives the reasons for the problems. It turns out to be something relatively simple - the settings.

Section 3

Alicia offers the solution - a pdf with the steps to amend the settings. She is careful also to offer the services of a technician, some customers prefer this approach, even if the problem is quite straightforward to fix.

She continues by once again indicating her appreciation to the customer for pointing out the issue.

Sample writing tasks

Reply to these emails:

Dear Council Members,

I have been a regular user of the local community library for over ten years. However, recently, I have found it very difficult to continue using it.

Because I am in a wheelchair, I rely on the wheelchair ramp to get in and out of the building. As you know, the steps are much too steep. For the past two months, the wheelchair ramp has been out of service, due to cracks that have appeared in it.

I cannot understand why it is taking so long to fix the ramp. People like me depend on it and suffer when it is out of service for so long. Please look into this matter urgently and see how it can be fixed as soon as possible.


Margaret Benwood

Dear Sirs,

I recently purchased a five-year membership in your gym on the advice of one of your salespeople. Unfortunately, I feel that the salesperson exaggerated or misrepresented the facilities available.

I was told that all of the facilities of the gym would be available 24 hours per day. This is very suitable for me as I work the late shift and wish to use the gym in the early morning. Unfortunately, only the exercise machines are available at this time, not the swimming pool, sauna or the boxing punch bags. I was also told that parking would be free after 9pm. This is not correct as there is still a fee of $3 to enter. Finally, the entire gym will be shut down for three weeks next month for renovations. I feel I should have been informed of this.

Unfortunately, I paid the entire five-year membership in advance. I now see that this was a big mistake. I would like to ask that you refund my payment immediately.

With regards,

Alice Mogg