In his book The Everything Store, author Brad Stone recounts the reaction Jeff Bezos sometimes has when a customer emails him at jeff@amazon.com to complain. Namely, he forwards the message to his leadership team "with a one-character addition: a question mark." 

Getting a question mark email is "a ticking bomb" that "elicits waves of panic," according to Stone, as Amazon employees scramble to explain what went wrong--and make it right.

Good story, right? What's even better is how you can leverage it for yourself when you have a bad customer experience at just about any big company. If you send the right kind of email to the company's CEO, you can often generate their version of a "question mark email," and resolve your issue.

Below you'll find a model email you can adapt to start the process, plus examples of how it works and links to additional case studies that back it up. Next time you have a difficult customer experience, give it a try.

The model email

When you have a customer service issue that you can't resolve, you don't want to be dealing with a low- or mid-level employee to fix your issue. Instead, you want someone with enough power to skip over the bureaucratic rules and make things right.

That's why the most effective complain-to-the-CEO emails are short and level-headed, and pay respect to the CEO's time constraints. Importantly, they also frame the issue as something that affects the CEO and the company, as opposed to something that only affects you.

(Finding the email address is pretty simple. If you get stuck, look for contacts on the company's media relations site, and plug the CEO's name into the same email convention you see listed for their press people.)

Here's an effective example email, based on a real message that I sent to the CEO of a multibillion-dollar company recently after I bought a defective lawn mower.

Dear CEO:

I was excited to buy one of your products recently, but when I got home, it didn't work. Based on a comment your customer service agent made when I called, it seems your company might know that some of these products are defective, but continues to ship them anyway.

Your company won't replace the defective product, so I will no longer be a customer. Should you wish to investigate this matter, your agent gave me file number #12345ABC.

Jane Wilson
Former Customer

Let's break this email down. There are three keys that make it most effective.

1. It's cordial, direct--and makes the CEO's problem clear.

The CEO doesn't have to work to figure out the point. You're not abusive, and you don't make empty threats. Instead, you're really doing him or her a favor--notifying about a potential minefield, if the company might be knowingly sending defective products.

2. It includes your specific problem.

You've kept it short and sweet. You normally don't need to include a lot of details here; save that for whomever the CEO directs to look into your issue. However, if you have a reference number or a serial number, be sure to include it.

3. It's 100 percent truthful.

Finally, you've chosen your words carefully, so you can raise an appropriate alarm, but you also don't overstate the facts. If you're tempted to exaggerate, remember that any customer service calls you had were likely recorded. Don't make untrue statements that will undermine your cause.

The question mark

By making your e-mail largely about the company's problem, as opposed to solely about your issue, you've stacked the odds in your favor. A smart CEO will wonder not only about your case, but also whether there are bigger issues he or she needs to get out in front of.

(For example, in my case, the first customer service agent I talked to said something like, "I should have known," when I read him the serial number on my real-life defective product; I took that as enough evidence to tip off the CEO that his company "might" be knowingly selling a batch of defective products.)

With luck, the CEO will forward your email to someone on his team with a simple direction--his or her version of a question mark, like "please look into this."

The recipient, who is now working at the direction of the top boss, will likely spring into action. He or she is now directed to do two things: (a) check into whether there's a supply problem, but also (b) look into your specific case. You even provided the reference number!

Does it work?

In my real-life recent case, it sure worked. I wound up having a 15-minute phone conversation with the company's vice-president of product development. He gave me the equivalent of a free lawn mower and told me he was changing a company policy based on my issue.

I don't think I should name the company here, because I don't want anyone to think I'm used my Inc.com column as leverage in my personal life. However, I've compiled 11 brief case studies where other people sent very similar messages to the CEOs of other major companies, with amazingly successful results.

Among them: both Steve Jobs and Tim Cook at Apple, plus the CEOs of Bank of America, Dell, Ford, and Toyota, and others. By laying out your problem to the top executive--and hopefully doing so in a way that highlights the degree to which your issue could be part of a bigger problem--you can get the results you want and deserve. (You can read the examples here.)

Have you tried emailing the CEO of a major company to prompt the equivalent of a Jeff Bezos 'Queston Mark' email? Let us know how it worked in the comments.

Published on: Jun 1, 2017
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