I’ve known about the ‘Virgin Atlantic: Mumbai to Heathrow Inflight Food‘ complaint letter ever since it went viral. Indeed I used it in one of my classes. But I have only just come across this website www.dearcustomerrelations.com, which was set up by a customer shortly after he had written ‘Britannia Hotels: probably the worst hotel company in the world’ complaint letter.
I draw your attention to it here for two reasons. First, assuming you have an average sense of humour, some of the letters are truly hilarious – enjoy. Second, to consider how an operator should respond if they receive such a letter. My thoughts on this are as follows…
- Consider the audience. The customer has put a great deal of thought and effort into writing these letters – they are typically long, detailed and deliberately sarcastic/satirical. In view of this, you should assume that this letter is not simply a piece of private correspondence, but that it will be shared with a wider, possibly global, public quite soon (especially in view of the above website). Hence a response must be made – both directly to the customer, but potentially also through any other channels the letter has been distributed.
- Apologise for the fact that the customer is upset – “We are very sorry that we have disappointed you and that you have found it necessary to write to us”. But do not assume that you will need to apologise for any, or indeed all, of the issues raised by the customer. Customers writing these letters may well include issues that are outwith your control simply to build an overwhelming case and/or to add to the satire.
- Try to establish the facts. In some cases this may be easy. For instance, if Britannia Hotels senior management did not know the state of their Primrose Hill property they should have. However, where the complaint centres around a specific service encounter, some research may be needed, in order to the employee side of the story. Do such research swiftly. It is important not to take too long to respond to the complaint letter.
- Address the facts, not the rhetoric. Specifically respond to each one of the issues raised in the letter. Where the customer has a legitimate complaint admit this and apologise. Where the customer’s complaint is unfounded, explain why you believe this to be case.
- Compensate the customer. If money has changed hands then refund the customer in full, if you have accepted that any one (or more) of the complaints is legitimate. (Some people may disagree with me on this. For instance, why should Virgin Atlantic compensate the Mumbai to Heathrow customer for the cost of the whole flight, when only the meal was below standard? My answer is that such compensation should come out of your PR budget set up for that very purpose).
- Set the right tone. This is challenging. You have to assess to what extent the customer is genuinely angry and upset. There is an inclination if you receive a ‘funny’ letter to try and be ‘funny’ in your reply. This may be OK if the customer is only mildly upset, but it is definitely not OK if the customer is truly upset. Helpfully the website linked above also has pages devoted to “Best Replies Ever” to give you some guidance on this (albeit these are mostly responses to clearly frivolous letters of complaint). If in doubt, do not to try to be humorous when responding.
- Learn from the experience. Take action to ensure the same experience is not delivered to any other customer. In the Virgin Atlantic example, Richard Branson actually got the customer in to advise him and his colleagues on airline meals.