How to complain (and get results)

Thanks to the associate who sent the link this morning to the article in today’s Seattle Times, “Firing of an e-mail? Make sure of your aim,” which offers a look at how an email exchange that lacks clarity can raise someone’s ire. (This in response to my blog posting yesterday on emailing Steve Jobs.)

I have seen my share of letters and emails on various issues and problems (even some notes of appreciation), some that are forwarded to me by execs to be routed to the right people in the product groups. I thought about what goes into a good email or snail mail note.

So here are a few tips I thought of this morning while the kids were happily eating their breakfasts and watching mindless cartoons.

Title your email appropriately. If you’re sending an email, make the subject clear and easy to understand, something like “REQUEST: Problem with Contoso Application” or include important info like “Customer Support: Ref#123456” if you have an open service request. 

Keep it to one page, two at most (front and back). I recently received a letter which was five or six pages and it took a while to piece together what the person was asking for in their message. For email, you want the main issue and message in the first couple of paragraphs (We often say at the office that you need to make your message clear in the first “pane” of the mail window, getting the reader’s attention when they open the mail or see the preview.) If you do go longer than one page, use the back of the sheet as it’s easy to lose stapled or paperclipped pages.

Be clear on who you are, what the problem is, why you’re writing and what you want. One snail mail I forwarded on to one product team was a good example: the first paragraph briefly explained about the person writing the note, the second noted the problem, the third listed out the actions to date and the fourth and final paragraph clearly called out what the customer wanted us to do about it.

Include links or pointers to more information. So many people these days detail the issues they’ve run into and the hurdles they’ve run up against to get some help on their blogs and newsgroups, so take a moment and include an online reference. More and more companies these days have people who monitor the Web and popular newsgroups for feedback, often treating these as online, early warning systems. On MSDN and TechNet, the blogs and the feedback they generate are often good coalmine canaries.

Include the best ways for the company to contact you. If you send an email, many will assume that email is the best way. Be sure to include your email address in the body of your message, as it can sometimes be lost when notes are forwarded or printed. And include your address and phone number.

Sending it off: OK, you’ve written the message, now where do you send it? If you’re looking for help on one of Microsoft’s many products that you purchased for your PC, start your search on, your first stop on getting the help you need with your Microsoft products. Microsoft provides two support requests submitted online (by email or IM chat) or by phone at no charge (see the support page for detail). See also a previous previous blog entry that includes several links to online assistance.

If that doesn’t work, look on MSDN and TechNet for people from the product teams and I’ve found that most if not all are very responsive and welcome feedback via their blogs and online forums. For instance, there’s the Product Solution Center on our Support Site and Office has the Office Discussion Group to “ask questions, share information, or exchange ideas with others, including experts from around the globe.” Xbox has the Xbox online support center and lists out their Top Troubleshooting Articles. I also like Blake’s “Ultimate List” of Microsoft Software and resources: we could certainly benefit by maintaining such a page.

If you feel like you’ve exhausted all avenues, escalate to your last contact’s manager or look for an appropriate contact via the Web: we list out information for our sales offices worldwide, our corporate headquarters and our executives.

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