Complaint letters: keep them short, simple, specific

Have you ever written a letter of complaint to a company and never received a reply - or found the response unsatisfactory?

There may be a better reason for this than you think. Did you give specific information about the product and the problems you encountered? Did you include your complete name and address? Were you courteous in stating your complaint?

A consumer-aid pamphlet published by Procter & Gamble in Cincinnati suggests that consumers keep these points in mind when writing a letter of complaint, inquiry, or praise:

* The letter should be short and simple, but include all the facts: specific name of the product, exact size, product type and model number, or the product code number from the packaging.

* Mention the date of purchase, name and address of the store where you made the purchase, and detailed information about how the product was used and what the results were.

* Include your name, address, and telephone number, and state specifically the hours when you can be reached.

It's also a good idea to let the company know what action, if any, you expect it to take and if the item is under warranty. Be sure you are writing to the proper company and address. (This information can often be found on the packaging, the item itself, or can be obtained from the place of purchase.) Before writing your letter, check to see if the company has a local office that you might contact for help. What you include in your letter depends on your individual situation, but incomplete or inaccurate information requires additional correspondence, which delays a response.

Robert McCleary, manager of consumer affairs at Corning Glass Works in Corning, N.Y., encourages consumers first to bring the product in question back to the store where it was purchased, if possible. This method, he explains, is often faster and more efficient since many dealers are given allowances by manufacturers to handle product-related problems. Mr. McCleary notes that many companies have built their reputations on their solid refund policies.

If this route proves ineffective, he recommends that you turn to the manufacturer to rectify the problem, stating that you have made an unsuccessful attempt to resolve the situation through the dealer. Mr. McCleary suggests writing to the attention of the customer or consumer service department, which is especially equipped to handle complaints.

Many companies have toll-free numbers listed on their packaging to facilitate prompt response to consumer needs. In some cases, particularly with a complaint, the consumer is better protected by putting it all in writing, keeping a copy, and sending it by registered mail. The product in question should be returned to the manufacturer only at the request of the company. It should be insured, and a cover letter including all the specifics of the case should be attached. All sales receipts, warranty information, and canceled checks should be available to document the case.

Much correspondence could be eliminated if consumers read their ''use and care'' booklets and product labels to be sure they haven't overlooked the answers to their problems.

The Clorox Company of Oakland, Calif., along with many other companies, encourages consumers to write to it regarding its products. Complaints and comments often bring potential or actual problems to the company's attention, Clorox says, in an information brochure, and appropriate action can be taken. All companies, large or small, depend on customers for repeat business and for recommendations to friends, so consumer input, positive or negative, benefits them, too.

A well-written letter should bring satisfactory results, but consumers can take precautionary measures before making a purchase to avoid unnecessary hassles. Corning suggests that consumers comparison shop, checking out warranties and the reliability of the seller. What is the store's return/refund policy? What is its service policy, and is the service location convenient? If you are puchasing an item as a gift, try to buy it at a store that has a branch in the vicinity of the recipient's home. Save the packaging in case the item needs to be returned.

The Better Business Bureau, Consumer Reports and trade magazines, and personal recommendations from friends can all contribute to an informed decision. Packaging that lists such information as the exact contents, possible uses of the product, weight, size, parts included, and the company's name and address also aids the consumer.

A full understanding of any contract and the consumer's obligations and rights under it is important.

Most companies will try to resolve consumer problems. However, a customer who is dissatisfied with a company's response can seek help from various state and local consumer offices, the Better Business Bureau, or various legal aid services.

A two- to three-week period might be considered a reasonable time for the company to respond, depending on the volume of mail being handled when the letter is received. Some larger companies receive as many as 1 million pieces of mail a year, including inquiries related to warranty fulfillment.

Most reputable companies want to be kept informed of product performance. Consumer complaints, compliments, suggestions, questions, and experiences can all help a company evaluate and improve its products, which benefits the consumer in the long run.

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