Saturday, October 22, 2011

George Mindling Column 02-10-2006

The Bedbug Letter

Note: The following article was published in the Charlotte Sun Herald, but has been omitted from their on-line archives

Sending an irate letter has always been a wonderful way to blow off steam. That’s exactly how some executives view complaint letters they receive but have no intention of addressing, especially if responding to the letter will needlessly cost them money. The executive concept is to simply throw some oil on the troubled waters with a response that shows remorse and regret and go on about business as usual without changing anything. The oil is called “The Bedbug Letter.”

Variations of the letter have been around for years, and have even been a subject of a book by John Bear, “Send the Jerk the Bedbug Letter!” The original story, according to Snopes.com, dates back to 1889 when a Mr. Phineas P. Jenkins wrote a letter to George M. Pullman complaining about bedbugs found in his railway coach. Mr. Pullman’s response letter to Mr. Jenkins was heartfelt and apologetic, but unfortunately also inadvertently included the memo Pullman had written to his secretary. The memo said: “Sarah – Send this S.O.B. the bedbug letter!”

According to Rosalie Maggio, author of “How to Say It,” a secretary’s bible, the city of St. Paul, Minnesota, receives over two thousand complaints a month. She also mentions a multifoods corporation that receives over three hundred thousand complaints a year.

No executive in this day and age of instant communication wants to be the recipient of damaging negative publicity. One of the first actions Bill Cobb took as the new President of eBay North America was to put his e-mail address on the site to address complaints. He also reduced the automated e-mail responses and replaced them with real people answering the e-mails.

If you complain about a problem or poor service, how do you know if the response letter you get back is a real response or simply a “Bedbug Letter?” Not every letter you write or e-mail you send will stand out from the others that may also have been sent. Maggio suggests putting yourself in the place of the person receiving your complaint letter. Unless your goal is to just blow off steam or get revenge, a little thought about what you say may make a considerable difference in what the response will be.

First, be factual, and have your supporting documentation ready. Include copies that are appropriate. State clearly what action or solution you expect as a result of your complaint. If possible, give a reasonable deadline for action. If you have names of witnesses or any other details about the incident to support your complaint, include them in your letter. There are several other variations of what to include Maggio says, but make sure to express confidence that the matter will be taken care of to your satisfaction.

State the problem briefly and fairly, but avoid accusations, sarcasm, or abuse, and do not threaten to sue. Leave that announcement to your attorney. Unless, of course, all you really want to get is a “Bedbug Letter.”

George Mindling

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