Pro Complainer Shares Secrets
By Dale Hopper, Associated Press Writer
ALEXANDRIA, Va. (AP-12/26/98) -- Other people might have cried, yelled
or gone home defeated. Ellen Phillips wrote a letter.
Her husband was out of town, she was out of cash, and a grocer in
Hattiesburg, Miss., that day in 1964 wouldn't let her write a check for
diapers and food.
So Mrs. Phillips carted her infant daughter back to their house, two
blocks away, scribbled out her plea, and returned to hand it to the
The check was approved and a career was launched.
Ellen's Poison Pen Inc. now helps hundreds of others voice their wrath
through ghostwritten letters of complaint. In January, Vintage Books
will publish Mrs. Phillips' secrets in "Shocked, Appalled, and
Dismayed! How to Write Letters of Complaint That Get Results."
She advises prospective complainers to write to the top official of the
company in question and grab his or her attention in the first
sentence. For example: "I am shocked and appalled by my most recent
experience with your airline."
Next, explain the bad experience and back it up, using polite language,
with receipts and documentation, she said. And send copies to several
agencies that might help.
Then keep at it. Companies don't always buckle at the first sign of
criticism, no matter how professionally it is tailored.
"I get vicarious enjoyment from writing the letters," Mrs. Phillips said
during an interview at her home office in Alexandria. "I truly did not
think people would pay me for this."
She charges $20 per 100 words and $50 per hour for preparation. It's
money well spent, according to some of her clients.
Carol Guiles, a drama teacher in Fairfax County, is on her third
go-around with Poison Pen.
The first time, Mrs. Phillips' letter persuaded college administrators
to give Mrs. Guiles credit for courses taken at a different university,
The second time, a doctor apologized for a five-day delay getting a
call-in prescription to the drug store.
Now, Mrs. Guiles' husband is trying to convince a school district that
he did, indeed, work there from 1969-71 so he can get retirement credit.
"I thought I could handle it by phone and I was wrong," Mrs. Guiles
said. "It's nice to look at in writing. It makes you have faith in
Mrs. Phillips, who retired in December from teaching English to junior
high school students, sees herself as a consumer crusader with no
tolerance for poor quality.
"I figured somebody somewhere has to be accountable for things," Mrs.
Phillips said. "I felt it was my responsibility as a consumer to let
them know I was not a happy camper. It was their responsibility to
Mrs. Phillips' life as a professional complainer developed gradually.
At first, she just did it for herself, wracking up free airline tickets
and free carpet cleanings.
Thrilled by her victories, she crowed about them at school and attracted
"I'm very mouthy," Mrs. Phillips said. "I never made any bones of the
fact that this is something I did when I got ticked off about a product
or service I found inferior. I never minded bragging."