The Fine Art of Persuasion via Email

This week, I’ve faced a few work challenges that I’ve had to resolve remotely as, I’m sure, have you. But as the situations in question escalated, and I found myself getting a little hot under the collar, I had to put my complaint email writing skills to the test.

As we all know, distance can encourage misunderstanding. Many of us are far bolder in writing than we would be if we were to speak face-to-face with the person we’re making our complaint to — or about. Without a proper framework, our complaint email can wind up sounding unprofessional at best,  and positively rabid at worst. This kind of communication can severely undermine our positions with clients as well as colleagues.

Fortunately, I found this hilarious and entertaining complaint letter, which was written to Richard Branson by Oliver Beale, a traveler on a Virgin flight. Sure, it’s an extreme example, and it’s a customer complaint, not a complaint to a superior, colleague or client about a teamwork-related issue, but it reminded me of the essential ingredients of an effective complaint — and put me in a better frame of mind.

What’s an effective complaint? It’s a one that supports your reputation as a dedicated professional, makes the people who need to know (your team leaders, clients, superiors, etc.) aware of hurdles you’re trying to overcome, and, most importantly, gets you a productive outcome.

The following guidelines, exemplified in the Virgin letter, usually help me keep control of any complaint email I’m writing, and give my complaint email the chance to succeed. They work for ordinary consumer complaint communications, but these points are specifically focused on writing emails complaining about work progress, difficulty you’re facing, or other work-related challenges to colleagues and clients.

Identify What You Want

Before you start formulating your email, work out what it is that you want the message to achieve. If you’re angry with a particular individual, that’s fine, but taking them down via email is neither a noble nor professional objective. It may also be unreasonable and unachievable.

Beale’s Virgin email really has one goal: to bring to the CEO’s attention how bad his customer service is. He actually mentions other examples — “which is why I continue to use it despite a series of unfortunate incidents over the last few years.” — but he stays on-topic. Rather than decrying the brand, the service on the whole, or the staff, he sticks to practical points of particular issue. This gives his message far more weight than would an email that vociferously condemned the entire establishment.

Complaint emails work best if you focus the message on the project or task at hand. If Bernie in Sales hasn’t given you the data you need, your goal is to obtain that data. If your project manager is a ham-fisted hack, your goal is to obtain the project direction you seek. Once you’ve established that goal, you can more easily choose points and language that communicate your objective.

Don’t Write When You’re Emotional

The first thing I noticed about Beale’s email is that it’s not emotional. It conveys a sense of awe, of frustrations past, of amazement. But it’s not aggressive, plaintive, defensive or arrogant.

I don’t know about you, but when I’m emotional, I’m usually at my least professional. If you want to persuade someone — through a complaint or other expression of dissatisfaction — you need to show how reasonable and measured — how professional — you are.

Writing when you’re emotional allows all kinds of inappropriate language to creep into your message. Sarcasm, haughtiness, swear words, and outrage set precisely the wrong tone, and generally arise when you’re emotional; try not to write when you’re in that mindset.

If you want to vent, write your email but don’t send it. Get all that anger out of your system, then come back the next day, once you’ve slept on it, and review your email. You’ll probably find yourself rewording much of it, if not scrapping it altogether.

Respect the Recipient — and Express That

The opening and closing lines of Beale’s email express an honest respect for the recipient: “I love your brand, I really do”, “I imagine the same questions are racing through your brilliant mind”, and so on.

This technique establishes that the writer and the recipient are on the same team — that, although a complaint message might seem to put the two parties at odds, in fact, their objective is the same: to improve the business about which the author is complaining. The author is writing out of concern, not anger.

The worst emails I’ve ever written reflected concern for myself, my reputation, and what I could achieve. The best — the most persuasive — expressed that myself and the recipient were on the same team, and we both wanted the same thing.

You don’t need to state, as the author of the Virgin complaint letter did, that you love your client’s brand, or even that you love their project. If, for example, you’ve been waiting months for a crucial input for your project, you might simply express how keen you are to see the project completed, the strategy implemented, the client’s problem solved. And ensure that throughout your message, you use respectful language.

Adopt a Reasonable Tone to Build Empathy

It’s one thing to respect your recipient; it’s another to show that you understand their position. One thing that Beale’s complaint does so well is convey that the writer is reasonable, that he understands what he can reasonably expect from airline food, and that he would expect the same for the recipient of his message: “My only question is: How can you live like this?”

The author isn’t saying that he deserves better. Instead he conveys that any reasonable human being would deserve better. He does this by appealing directly to the recipient as a human being, rather than a person in a given role or position, and by speaking honestly from a position of respect.

His language, including the repeated appeals that the author makes directly to the recipient, makes this clear: “Imagine biting into a piece of brass Richard. That would be softer on the teeth than the specimen above.”

The author shows that he knows that the recipient is human, and he respects the fact that we all have our limitations by explaining his thought process as he considered the inflight meal. His descriptions are amusing, but they also build empathy. Between the lines, he’s saying clearly that the service did not meet the reasonable expectations of an ordinary human being, and that if Richard Branson himself had been on the flight, he’d have thought the same things.

Don’t Get Personal

At the beginning of this exercise, we set an objective for your email. In supporting that objective, it’s important not to make either insinuations or specific comment about the personalities or actual people involved.

Yes, Bernie in Sales is holding up the process because he hasn’t given you the data. Your problem isn’t with Bernie (who, you may have noticed, exhibits a range of other unprofessional behaviour that’s irrelevant to your compliant, though you’re tempted to mention it). Your problem is the data.

In our example email, the writer doesn’t blame the chefs, aircraft technicians or staff. He does remark about the method by which the chef might have produced the mashed potatoes, but he doesn’t make personal comment about the chef. In this email, no one is inept, an idiot, underskilled or untalented. Those words shouldn’t be in your email, either.

Illustrate Your Points Clearly

Although Beale went so far as to take photos of the challenges he faced, I’m not necessarily advocating a graphical depiction of your complaint. But in making your point, you’ll need to explain very clearly, and without emotion, what the problems are.

Keep in mind the objective you set for your email — if the issue is getting that sales data, you might list the dates on which you made a request for that data, and how you made those requests (in a meeting, via email, in a phone call, etc.). If you made different requests to different people, or were told to seek that information elsewhere, you might also lists the contacts you’ve used to try to obtain the information, just to show that you’ve left no stone unturned in trying to obtain the data.

You might refer to the agreed project plan, you might include copies of relevant responses you’ve had from your contacts, you might attach meeting minutes — whatever you need to show exactly what the problem is.

Explain the Implications

The author of the example email makes the outcome of the issues he experienced very clear: he says he had a “splitting” headache, and was “the hungriest I’d been in my adult life”.

Explaining the implications isn’t a chance to make veiled threats or to apply histrionics to your situation. It’s time to appeal again to the reasonable side of your client or colleague, keeping in mind that you’re all playing on the same team, and you all want the best, most timely outcome possible.

Perhaps this is an opportunity to make suggestions about alternative ways in which you can obtain the information you need, or proceed without the data. Perhaps it’s an opportunity to invite suggestions and input from the recipient about how they believe you may most effectively proceed. Perhaps, as with the example email, it’s an opportunity to ask your recipient what they’d do, as the author of the example email did.

These points can make a good framework around which to write your own emails of complaint. If you can follow these guidelines, you might find over time that fighting for what you need from a location that’s remote from your team, colleagues or client becomes less daunting and more of a problem-solving experience. I hope you’ll also find that it’s more productive.

What advice can you give from your experience in writing emails of complaint — and getting results — from afar?

Photo credit: stock.xchng user januszek