The Oldest Written Customer Service Complaint in History

Customer service complaints are nothing new. People have always been dissatisfied with the quality of goods or services they receive and have always sought ways to express their grievances and demand compensation. But what is the oldest customer service complaint in history? How did people complain before the advent of phones, emails, or social media?

The answer lies in a clay tablet that was discovered in the ancient city of Ur, in what is now southern Iraq. The tablet dates back to around 1750 BCE and contains a complaint from a customer named Nanni to a merchant named Ea-nasir. Written in Akkadian cuneiform, one of the oldest forms of writing, the tablet is considered to be the oldest known written complaint. It is currently kept in the British Museum.

What was the complaint about?

Nanni was a customer of Ea-Nasir, a copper trader who belonged to a guild of merchants based in Dilmun, a trading hub in the Persian Gulf. Ea-Nasir would travel to Dilmun to buy copper and then sell it in Mesopotamia. On one occasion, he had agreed to sell copper ingots to Nanni, who sent his servant with the money to complete the transaction.

However, Nanni was not happy with the copper he received. He claimed that it was of poor quality and not what he had ordered. He also complained that his servant had been treated rudely by Ea-Nasir, who refused to take back the copper or refund the money. Nanni also accused Ea-Nasir of delaying and misdirecting another delivery of copper that he had paid for.

In response, Nanni wrote a letter to Ea-Nasir on a clay tablet and sent it back to him. The letter is full of anger and frustration and shows how Nanni felt cheated and disrespected by Ea-Nasir.

Cuneiform clay tablet to the merchant Ea-Nasir, complaining about delivery of the wrong grade of copper. ca. 1750 BCE. Currently in the British Museum.

There is a translation of the tablet in Letters from Mesopotamia: Official, Business and Private Letters on Clay Tablets from Two Millenni by Assyriologist A. Leo Oppenheim. The translation states the following:

Tell Ea-Nasir: Nanni sends the following message:
When you came, you said to me as follows: “I will give Gimil-Sin (when he comes) fine quality copper ingots.” You left then but you did not do what you promised me. You put ingots which were not good before my messenger (Sit-Sin) and said: “If you want to take them, take them; if you do not want to take them, go away!”
What do you take me for, that you treat somebody like me with such contempt? I have sent as messenger gentlemen like us to collect the bag with my money (deposited with you) but you have treated me with contempt by sending them back to me empty-handed several times, and that through enemy territory. Is there anyone among the merchants who trade with Telmun who has treated me in this way? You alone treat my messenger with contempt! On account of that one (trifling) mina of silver which I owe(?) you, you feel free to speak in such a way, while I have given to the palace on your behalf 1,080 pounds of copper, and umi-abum has likewise given 1,080 pounds of copper, apart from what we both have had written on a sealed tablet to be kept in the temple of Samas.
How have you treated me for that copper? You have withheld my money bag from me in enemy territory; it is now up to you to restore (my money) to me in full. Take cognizance that (from now on) I will not accept here any copper from you that is not of fine quality. I shall (from now on) select and take the ingots individually in my own yard, and I shall exercise against you my right of rejection because you have treated me with contempt.

How did Ea-Nasir react?

There is no record to know for sure how Ea-Nasir reacted to Nanni’s complaint, or whether he ever replied or resolved the issue. However, we can say that Ea-Nasir was not a very good businessman, and that he received many other complaints from his customers.  Curiously, this was not an isolated incident involving Ea-Nasir. Archaeologists discovered over a dozen similar “letters” within Ea-nasir’s residence. It became evident that Ea-Nasir had gained a reputation for failing to deliver products that had been paid for or for mistakenly sending them to the wrong recipients.

For example, one tablet from a man named Arbituram reads:

… you have given the copper… and give the silver and its profit to Nigga-Nanna. I have made you issue a tablet. Why have you not given me the copper? If you do not give it, I will recall your pledges. Good copper, give again and again. Send me a man. Why have you not given me the copper? If you do not give it, I will recall your pledges. Good copper, give again and again. Send me a man.

Another tablet from an unnamed customer says:

You have given bad ingots again and again.

These tablets suggest that Ea-Nasir was either dishonest or incompetent, or both. He may have been trying to cheat his customers by selling them low-quality copper at high prices, or he may have been unable to secure enough good copper from his suppliers in Dilmun. Either way, he did not seem to care much about his reputation or customer satisfaction.

At the beginning of his career, Ea-Nasir was buying and selling for the palace at Ur and was considered a good credit risk. But at one point, he began spending more time in Dilmun, causing his creditors to write him nasty letters asking where their stuff was.

Based on more than a dozen surviving tablets squirreled away in his own house, archaeologists have discovered that Ea-Nasir was a big-shot copper trader, dealing mostly in wholesale ingots, but also in the finished metal products and, on occasion, textiles and foodstuffs.

What can we learn from this ancient complaint?

The discovery of multiple complaint tablets offers a glimpse into the frustrations and grievances faced by customers, emphasizing the importance of fair trade and ethical business practices, even in ancient times. It shows us that people have always had expectations and standards for the goods and services they buy, and that they have always sought ways to voice their opinions and seek justice when they feel wronged.

It also shows us that customer service complaints are not just a modern phenomenon, but a universal human experience that transcends time and culture. No matter how much technology changes, people will always want to be treated fairly and respectfully by those they do business with.

The complaint tablet also reminds us of the importance of good customer service and communication skills for any business owner or professional. Ea-Nasir may have been able to avoid many of his problems if he had been more honest, courteous, and responsive to his customers’ needs and concerns. He may have also been able to retain more customers and earn more profits if he had delivered on his promises and provided high-quality products.

The complaint tablet has become an internet meme due to its seemingly anachronistic nature, with Forbes stating that it bore resemblance to many modern customer complaints for poor service in the modern era. It has been recognized by the Guinness World Records as the “Oldest Written Customer Complaint”.

Thanks to his miserably failed business dealings, Ea-Nasir will go down as one of the worst but also best-known business magnates in history.

20 thoughts on “The Oldest Written Customer Service Complaint in History

  1. Sanchita Ghosh

    Wow! Such a long customer complaint almost 3800 years ago! Greed caught up with the traders even in ancient times. Thanks for this share,

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Wow… Almost 4000 years ago humans were not only doing business across long distance but were vocal when short changed.
    This instance is contemporary of Mahabharata period but we have no material to prove the existence of Kauravas and Pandavas.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Atish Bhattacharya

    Very very informative. Had no idea.
    Thanks for such enlightening article.
    Looking forward to more such informative and interesting write-ups.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. This is really fascinating ~ to know that human nature, and especially business nature, remains relatively unchanged. Thanks for bringing this up, it is amazing to have such an account.

    Liked by 1 person

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