Even the savviest consumer has a problem with a good or service on occasion. It is a consumer’s right to complain when there is a genuine problem. In some situations, it is also a consumer’s responsibility. A problem can’t be fixed if no one knows it exists. In this series of three lessons, students learn how to effectively seek redress for a consumer problem. In the first lesson, they are given tips for seeking redress from a seller of a good or service via personal visits, telephone calls an letters. They write a letter in an effort to resolve a consumer problem they or someone they know has experienced. Lessons 2 ad 3 focus on what to do when a consumer is unable to get a problem resolved with a seller. A variety of options are presented in both the public and private arena. Students must select sources of outside help that would be appropriate in hypothetical situations they are given.
- Summarize the basic strategy for resolving a consumer complaint.
- Write an effective complaint letter for a consumer problem.
- Analyze the economic costs and benefits associated with consumer complaints.
Have the students share examples of occasions when they, their friends or family members were not happy with a purchase they made. Potential situations include a scratched CD, a rude salesperson, poor quality food in a restaurant, a leaky pipe in an apartment, or a car repair that didn’t correct the problem.
All of the examples above were accidents, mistakes, etc. by a seller or a seller's representative. Also try to also draw out examples where the dissatisfaction may have been caused by consumer error. For example, an article of clothing in the wrong color or size, electronic gear that doesn't have all the desired features, or the wrong CD.
What steps, if any, did the buyers take to address their dissatisfaction? [Responses will vary greatly depending on the nature of the problem. Actions will generally be contact that falls into one of these groups:
1) sellers/manufacturers of the goods and services
2) private organizations such as trade associations or consumer groups
3) government entities including consumer protection agencies and the court system.]
Why do you think consumers take action when they are unhappy with a purchase? [Consumers don't want to lose money, they wanted the problem fixed, and they wanted other consumers to avoid a similar experience.]
Why do you think some people choose not to take action to address consumer problems? [A common reason given is that it isn’t worth the time, effort and money. Some students may admit that a buyer didn’t know what to do.]
What was the result in each of the situations? Was the consumer ultimately satisfied? Why or why not?
End the discussion by pointing out that even the savviest consumer has a problem with a good or service on occasion. It is a consumer's right to complain when there is a genuine problem. It may also be a consumer’s responsibility. A problem can’t be fixed if no one knows it exists. In the next few class periods, the students are going to learn how to effectively make a consumer complaint.
[NOTE: During this discussion and the rest of the lesson, opportunities may arise to make some key points on how to prepare in advance for--as well as avoid--potential consumer problems. For example:
Ask about a seller’s return policy before you make a purchase. Most reputable businesses are willing to make exchanges and refunds on merchandise if a consumer has kept the receipt and the return of a purchase is made in a timely fashion—typically 30 days. Some even allow exchanges without a receipt, though they may refuse to refund your money in these cases.
Get into the habit of saving contracts, sales receipts, canceled checks, owner’s manuals and warranties. If you have a problem, these documents provide proof where and when you made the purchase, the price you paid and what you were promised.
Read and follow product and service instructions. The use or care of a product may affect a consumer’s warranty protections.]
The following Web links from the Federal Citizen Information Center (FCIC) will help students prepare their consumer complaint letters.
Corporate Consumer Contacts: This page contains a directory of several hundred corporations.
Car Manufacturers: This page provides a directory of car manufacturers.
Sample Complaint Letter and Email: This page provides a sample complaint letter for corporations.
Consumer Action Handbook: This free resource that provides yearly information related to consumer action.
- Corporate Consumer Contacts: This page contains a directory of several hundred corporations.
Online Letter Generator: This ReadWriteThink page assists students in creating a professional looking letter.
Satisfaction Please! Checklist: This EconEdLink page provides a checklist for students as they create their complaint letters.
Assessment Rubric for Complaint Letters: This rubric helps educators to assess the complaint letters completed by their students.
Have the students read the lesson text summarizing the basic steps in the consumer process and how to write a complaint letter. Step 1 focuses on contacting the seller via a personal visit or phone call. Step 2 suggests going higher up to a national headquarters of a seller or the manufacturer of a product. Students are told they will learn about Step 3 – getting help from an outside organization such as a consumer group or a government protection office – in the two lessons that follow this first one.
If a manager can’t help, this is probably the time to go higher up—to a national headquarters for a seller or to the manufacturer of the product. Many companies have a special customer relations or consumer affairs department for solving consumer problems. You may be able to find a toll-free number or address for this office on the product label or other papers included with your purchase. If this is not the case:
* The Federal Citizen Information Center (FCIS) maintains an online directory of several hundred corporations. A separate listing of auto manufacturers is maintained at Their Car Manufacturer site.
* Try doing a Web search for a company Web site. Look for a “Contact Us” link that provides phone numbers and addresses.
* Dial the directory of toll-free numbers at 1-800-555-1212 to find out if the company has a toll-free number listed.
* Ask your local librarian to help you. Most public libraries have reference books with contact information for corporations.
In the section on writing a complaint letter, advantages of a written communication are noted along with the kind of information that should be included in a letter. The students are also told that a good complaint letter is clear, brief, honest and non-threatening. The following pages provide information related to creating a good complaint letter.
- Corporate Consumer Contacts : This page contains a directory of several hundred corporations.
- Car Manufacturers : This page provides a directory of car manufacturers.
- Sample Complaint Letter and Email : This page provides a sample complaint letter for corporations.
- Consumer Action Handbook : This free resource that provides yearly information related to consumer action.
Have the students reflect on what they have learned regarding the complaint process. Discuss:
1. At the beginning of this lesson, you gave examples of some consumer problems you and people you know have experienced. Think of specific cases and identify advice in this lesson that might have changed the outcome.
2. An important element of economics is considering the benefits and costs when making choices. What are the benefits and costs a consumer considers when making the decision to file a complaint? [Consumer complaints require an investment of time, effort and possibly money with no guarantee that a problem can be resolved. On the other hand, a complaint can increase customer satisfaction. In some cases, a complaint may prevent other consumers from being harmed by a safety hazard or disreputable business.]
3. What are the benefits and costs of complaints to businesses? [Some business resources must be used for resolving problems versus other activities such as advertising, research and development. From a positive prospective, savvy businesses use complaint information to improve their goods and services--this may help them attract new and keep current customers. Complaints about safety hazards may help businesses avoid lawsuits. Reputable businesses also appreciate complaints that help shut down dishonest competitors.]
4. This lesson emphasizes the point that consumers have an obligation to complain if fraud, deception or a safety hazard is involved that might harm other consumers. Can you think of situations when a consumer might choose not to complain? [A consumer might decide that the time, money or effort involved in making a complaint outweighs the potential outcome. This might occur when a purchase is small, such as a pack of stale gum. It might also happen with a T-shirt purchased while on vacation from a street vender who would be nearly impossible to locate. If a company has gone out of business, a consumer may realize the chance of resolution is very small.]
The students write a complaint letter concerning a consumer problem they or someone they know has experienced. They are told:
If you need an address for a company, use the resources in Step 2: Going Higher Up.
Be sure to include all elements of a letter that are appropriate as listed earlier in this lesson.
The Sample Complaint Letter will also help you prepare your communication.
You should visit the Online Letter Generator (They select the “Business Letter” option after entering a name). If you prefer, you can have students use word processing software they already know how to use.
A few students may have difficulty identifying a consumer problem for their letter. Some hypothetical problems you might suggest to them are:
You used a telephone or online service to order eight concert tickets. When the tickets arrived, the seats were not together.
A camera purchased via the Internet or a mail order catalog never arrives. Your check for the camera has been cashed.
A CD player purchased from your local Radio Shack doesn’t work one month after you bought it. The local store where you made your purchase has closed.
You buy a desk from a local store. When it arrives, you are charged $75 for delivery. You were told delivery would be free when you made the purchase.
A deposit you made via an ATM machine is not credited to your checking account. Checks are coming back marked “insufficient funds.” The bank and the persons to whom you wrote the checks are charging you penalties for the bad checks.
You are at a store in the mall looking for a gift for your mother. A salesperson whose tag says “Ruth” provides courteous service to everyone but you. When you asked for the price of an item, she says she doesn’t know and walks away.
You purchase a waterproof watch you found advertised in a magazine. The first time you wear it while swimming, water gets in and the watch stops working. The watch has a one-year warranty and you have only owned it for two months.
The lock on the door to your apartment building is broken. You contacted the manager of the building to get it fixed but nothing has happened. After two weeks of waiting, you decide it is time to contact the owner of the building.
You buy a six-pack of cola. Yuck! One of the bottles has a dead bug in it.
While visiting your favorite theme park, you bought a shirt. Though you followed the directions on the care label, the shirt shrunk during the first washing. The theme park is so far away that you don't want to drive there to resolve the problem.
For these hypothetical situations, tell the students they can make up any missing details such as date of purchase, product brand and price. But they should research a real seller address. Library reference books and the Internet will be helpful in finding this information. Once they have finished, have the students check their work on the Satisfaction Please! Checklist.
This rubric will assist you in assessing your student’s complaint letters.
Have the students:
Working in teams of three, role play situations in which a complaint is taken to a salesperson and then a manager. They write a paragraph or two reporting how they felt about the experience.
- Write a letter giving a business positive feedback. They might thank a salesperson who was especially helpful during a shopping experience or note how pleased they were with a company’s product.
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