How To Write an Effective Demand Letter

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What Is A Demand Letter?

For many years–decades, really–those close to me have agreed that while I may be a jack of all trades, I am truly master of at least one: Writing what we often refer to as a Poison Pen Letter. For the purpose of this post, though, it seemed important to point out that what I do…does not actually fit the Poison Pen definition. Those are designed to be malicious, are often anonymous, and usually do not require any specific action of the recipient. My letters, by contrast, are hardly ever anonymous, contain nothing malicious or fabricated, and definitely aim to produce some specific action by the recipient.

Hence the somewhat more accurate term of Demand Letter: I, the writer, demand that you, the bad person, firm, or agency, to act (or to cease acting) as follows…for such and such reasons…and here is your motivation, you bad critter, you!

While not every such letter I have written has produced the desired results, enough have done so to provide a clear template for others who may need to write their own demand letters. True, formal versions of such letters are most often drafted by lawyers, but there is no magical requirement that one be a member of the Bar to get the job done. In our family’s case, were a publisher to be interested, there is enough material for an entire book on this topic. Demand Letters for Dummies, or some such.

Nor is the concept new to our own society, although our own Declaration of Independence could certainly be viewed as a Demand Letter which stated our position and attempted to make it clear to to England that we Americans were disinclined to continue in the role of royal doormats.

The Ultimate Demand Letter To The King Of England
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When Does A Letter Become Advisable?

You might want to consider writing a letter of this nature whenever the results of NOT writing will have clearly negative consequences. Some examples from our own family’s experience include the time when an inappropriate entry on my wife’s credit report was blocking our purchase of a home…the time when my stepdaughter was frighteningly close to having her family’s home literally stolen by a mortgage company…the time when certain personnel connected with the medical clinic we use were trying to cut off important medications my wife must have (sure, I’ve had my own medical crises to deal with now and again, but Pam’s needs are ongoing)….

Why Should You Write The Letter Personally?

After all, attorneys get paid to do this sort of thing, don’t they? Yes. Indeed they do. And there are many instances where use of an attorney is most advisable. If you know that nothing you do will ever have any effect on the party or parties you are trying to influence, or you know that you will never have the confidence to take your own pen in hand (so to speak in this computer word processing age), then by all means do use an attorney for the task. We have done so on several occasions, usually (and sadly) when that was the only way a particularly problematic family member would pay any attention. True, we’re not all cut out for a particular task, be it writing or truck driving.

Nonetheless, there are several specific and powerful reasons to handle it yourself whenever possible:

1. Speed. If time is of the essence, a letter can be crafted within hours and on its way almost immediately.

2. Leaving a door open. A letter from an attorney pretty much announces to the world that negotiations are over. It goes beyond “talk to the hand” to “talk to the man” (or woman, if your lawyer is a lady), and there is seldom any turning back (though we’ve even accomplished that on very rare occasion).

3. Flexibility. If you know your target audience well, you can–as an individual–use written “triggers” that your attorney would avoid, such as veiled references to childhood incidents (with family or friends).

4. Precision. If you really know your recipient, you can “tailor the hit” in a way the average attorney simply could not manage, ever.

5. Innuendo. Attorneys are not geared to the use of veiled innuendo, while this is one of the most potent weapons in the arsenal of the individual writer skilled in its use.

6. Cost. Obviously, the price of a stamp beats paying a lawyer any day.

Who Is NOT A Good Target For A Demand Letter?

This part is simple: Don’t even think about using this technique on people or entities who are not highly intelligent. Why? Simply because they either (a) won’t comprehend the consequences you are outlining for them, or (b) they will assume you’ll drop the whole thing, never go beyond the writing of letters, and thus the next step–such as an actual lawsuit or whatever–will become necessary anyway.

Nor is it usually worth the effort of tackling an entity so huge and uncaring that your letter would be less than a single flea roaming around on an entire elephant. Pam (my wife) and I did face that situation in early 2006, before she was my wife. She had been receiving SSI disability payments and Medicaid assistance for prescriptions and visits to the doctor since before we met in 1996, but a Federal caseworker had suddenly decided to arbitrarily cut her monthly payment….from over $600 to barely $400. Said caseworker even implied that Pam was a welfare fraud case–highly insulting to Pam, to say the least, and also highly untrue.

In that case, a Demand Letter would have accomplished absolutely nothing. We did shock that caseworker to her toes by getting married, moving Pam into my home (she had been sharing a house with her adult son for the previous year), and telling the Government to take their assistance money and, um, recycle it.

But on the other hand don’t be too quick to assume an entity is too big to be influenced. The entire Federal government? Well, yeah, probably them. Most likely. But just a few years back, we did defeat a huge, ginormous mortgage company (name changed for my protection; let’s call it Biggityco). And now we get to the most useful part of the Hub, i.e., an example that might illustrate a few helpful principles.

The Pen Is Mightier Than The Sword….and Even If Not….

Okay, so I’m NOT sure the pen is always mightier than the sword…but it is most certainly trickier, sneakier, and can reach people and places far, far beyond the length of your sword arm. The long arm of the Law? Try the long arm of the pen!

A few years back, we got a frantic call from Pam’s eldest daughter. She, her husband, and their four boys were in danger of losing their home to foreclosure. Okay, so we fronted them a payment, sent it directly to the lender. That should have ended the matter, yet turned out to be barely the beginning. We had heard of unethical, giant mortgage loan companies illegally stealing houses back from their own customers to resell. Over the next few weeks, we realized we were smack dab in the middle of just such a mess.

My stepdaughter is married to a fine man, a legal immigrant from Mexico. We know he’s legal because a little of our own money went toward his successful efforts to become a citizen of these United States. He’s also an extremely hard worker and one of the most conscientious fathers we know. But he carries one liability: His recognizably ethnic last name, which we came to suspect was the reason he and his wife became Biggityco targets.

In the end, we wound up forwarding a total of three payments to this company, none of which they admitted ever receiving. Unfortunately for them, we had sent each payment via Express Mail, being careful to retain the tracking data that proved who in their building (in the Midwest) had actually received the money. We had also sent the money in certified funds, i.e. bank checks.

At first, though, even that was not enough to get the Biggityco regional office to straighten up and fly right. It seemed clear that a Demand Letter would fall on deaf ears as well–note the admonition not to waste your efforts on dim people? Thus, a bit of research was in order.

Major Hint: Internet search engines such as Google and Yahoo are MARVELOUS for this sort of thing! I didn’t hit on all the “perfect” search terms instantly, but a day or two of digging turned up two enormously important chunks of information.

Info chunk #1: The name, snail mail, and email address of the Biggityco Vice President responsible for fixing problems like ours. NOT fixing it would put his job directly on the line, thank you very much.

Info chunk #2: A number of Internet entries regarding a super helpful class action lawsuit…that had been settled out of court just 6 months earlier for millions…in which Biggityco had been shown to go after homeowners without the means to fight back! In other words, racially targeting ethnic minorities, “losing” their payments, and foreclosing on their homes.

When I found that, I began to smile. Not a pretty smile, you understand. In our kids’ case, Biggityco had decided to profile (and pick on) a helpless member of a minority, a young dude who probably didn’t even speak much English. Easy pickings. Unfortunately for them, the wife’s mother and stepfather were lifelong Caucasian citizens with twin lifetime records of defending the underdog, college degrees, bad attitudes (oh, we do! we do!), and an ability to write….and one more thing: Pam’s own stepmom, even then in her seventies, had for more than 40 years worked for a firm that places a lot of business with Biggityco! She has AWARDS on her wall from Biggityco! Biggityco has even flown her in to their national headquarters to honor her efforts on their behalf.

In the words of Biggityco’s Executive Officer…”Ooooops!!!” (It probably never got that far, but it’s what he should have said…!)

What finally turned the tide, then, was an extensive certified snail mail focusing on the company’s primary vulnerabilities and directed to the appropriate Vice President that said something like:

    1. Here’s the situation to date.

    2. Gee whiz, Mr. V.P. Sir, this sounds disturbingly like the race-related class action suit your firm just settled. Oh, but we’re sure it couldn’t be that. It must be coincidence. Biggityco would never make that mistake again…would they?

(In other words, I played the race card, turned it back on them…and then ADDED to it:)

    Or…it couldn’t be because of the Choctaw blood from my wife’s side? No, surely not….

The point of this (in your own words, if you use it) was to paint a picture in Mr. V.P.’s mind, of another terrible, expensive, bad-publicity debacle…and all his fault if he didn’t head it off.

    3. Oh my, we don’t have any idea if your mail clerk lost these payments accidentally or someone is doing this deliberately (oh, surely not!)...but your help is desperately needed! Here the idea is to avoid attacking the V.P.’s male ego. If he feels pushed to the wall, he may feel compelled to fight back. But since I’ve painted the danger while still appealing to him as the good guy….

    4. My mother in law, Mrs. —-, is really puzzled by this. She has received all these awards while promoting your firm, and this…. Just a little extra pressure, knowing that consequences could include not only us being on the prod, but an additional generation as well, and one that is directly connected to Biggityco.

How did this wording impact the V.P. recipient? He fixed the entire problem within days! From the family’s first appeal to the very end took several weeks, but once that fully researched and crafted snail maill was fired off, things happened in a hurry. One payment was “magically” found. A few days later, the other payments were also found. End of story. We’re certain the young folks’ Biggityco mortgage file now has a big red flag on it, DO NOT MESS WITH THIS ONE!!

Naturally, one does need to actually write these letters for them to have any effect. As the promoters of the Lottery point out, “You cannot win if you do not play.”

The Possibilities Are Endless

The Biggityco Mortgage example is far from the only case we’ve handled via Demand Letter. Just the most complex one. A few others include: Straightening out a medical clinic that was inappropriately messing with Pam’s necessary medications by getting the Hospital Administrator on our side…persuading a correspondence art company to simply drop my debt to them when my financial situation became impossible (years later I signed up again, paid in full, and completed the course)…convincing an attorney to remove a negative entry from a credit report rather than face implied negative publicity…and plenty more.

One last item for now: On many of these letters, I include an entry at the bottom of the page (or pages):

cc: Howe, McLeod, and Van Wagenen

This again involves implication. The intelligent reader will guess that a carbon copy has been forwarded to a law firm. That’s not entirely wrong, either. Howe was my mother’s maiden name, McLeod my paternal grandmother’s maiden name, and Van Wagenen my maternal grandmother’s maiden name. Since their bloodlines are all emobdied in me, and since Great Grandfather Howe really was an attorney…well, I figure they really have all been notified! (GRANDFATHER Herbert Crombie Howe was not an attorney, but he DID know how to write, as did Mom….!)

Final final note: This topic, perhaps more than any other, can generate a huge number of questions applicable to the details of diferent situations. Feel free to ask questions in your Comments; I will be more than happy to address them as I can.

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