Art of Positive Complaining
Positive strategies to show you how to
win the compensation you deserve
To positively complain,
you need to ignore your perspective on your problem and
instead present things from the perspective of the person
you're complaining to.
This person is almost surely overworked, and has heard
every story and complaint many times before.
Make it easy, simple, and a positive experience for them
to generously respond to your complaint.
Part one of a multi part series on complaining - additional
parts to be published in the following weeks - see links on
the right hand side.
Most of us only complain when
something (very) bad has been done to us; when there's a major
shortfall between what was promised and what we experienced.
As such, we are usually infected with a feeling of moral
But swallow those
understandable feelings of outrage. You'll catch more flies with
honey than with vinegar, and your complaint will be more
successful if you phrase it in positive and 'win win' terms.
Here's why, and here's how.
The Art and Science of
Effective - and Positive - Complaining
Effective complaining is
both an art and a science. As such, some of the
'scientific' concepts can be discussed and explained, but there
remains also an element of art - of being able to craft the
appropriate complaint to address the appropriate issue and to
secure the appropriate outcome.
It is important to
understand that positive complaining is not
a series of tricks for you to get more than you deserve.
It is a procedure to enhance your chance of getting fair
settlement for problems you have. If you're seeking ways
to get more than you fairly deserve, you're probably going to
end up living the truth of the saying 'The greedy become the
A positive complaint will
succeed if :
You actually do have
something fair to complain about, something inappropriate
that occurred in the situation you were in
You present your case in
a positive and friendly manner
You do not insult or
offend anyone, or get the company's back up causing it to
'close ranks' against you
You show yourself to be
fair and understanding
You are complaining
about something that is actually unusually bad, not just
something that is standard for the company
You are asking for
something the company can afford to give you
You are asking for
something appropriate for the problem encountered
You show yourself to be
a valuable past customer, and - more importantly - a
valuable future customer who can be 'saved' by
being given compensation
You make it easy for the
customer service person to understand and respond to your
are different strategies to be used when complaining directly to
a person 'real time' compared to when you're complaining to
someone after the problem has occurred, and different strategies
again when writing a letter compared to when talking to someone
on the phone or in person.
Use the information in this
multi part series to understand the situation you're in and
choose the best way to move a positive resolution forward.
What is a Complaint
Surely this is an
unnecessary question? A complaint is when you are
raising an issue or problem about something that was wrong, or bad, or
not properly done, or whatever else that failed to satisfy you,
Well, yes, but there's more
to it than that. There are three very different types of
problem scenarios, calling for different responses on your part.
In the first scenario, a problem
occurs, and both you and the other people involved in the
problem understand what the problem is and what your respective
obligations and entitlements are in terms of how to remedy the
problem. In such cases you do not need to write a letter
of complaint - you might need to send in a claim form or in some
other way apply for the remedy due to you, but you're not
writing a complaint as we're defining it here.
The second situation is
where you and the other party can not agree on facts relating to
a matter that would normally entitle you to compensation based
on some type of formula or procedure. In this case, you
need to set forth the circumstances and situation and details
that explain how and why you qualify for their compensation,
and what the appropriate amount of compensation then becomes.
This is also not a complaint.
There is another
category of situation as well - there are times where things are less clear, where the root cause or
problem is not necessarily mutually agreed upon, and neither
also is the form of a satisfactory solution.
A complaint is
usually required in such cases where there is no clear automatic
problem -> solution situation in place.
Examples of the three
Some problems do have
automatic solutions, and in such cases, your contact in whatever
form is merely a way
to record that the problem occurred and to seek the solution
that is automatically yours.
For example, if an airline
loses your baggage, then there is a formal procedure in place to
seek reimbursement, within the policy guidelines and limits of
the airline. Or, if a hotel is unable to accommodate you
after earlier giving you a guaranteed booking, there's again a
formal procedure for resolving that issue. Or if your car
needs repair work while under warranty, that is again a simple
Sometimes there will be
ambiguities about the level of your entitlement. For
example, if an airline damages your suitcase, there may be
ambiguities as to whether your suitcase should be repaired or
replaced, and, if it is to be replaced, how much compensation
you are due. This would be an example of the second
But if the airline merely
delays your luggage, or if the hotel room is not as described,
then you are in a less certain 'grey' area where you don't have
an automatic and mutually understood entitlement. Then you
need to work through the complaint process.
The key difference between complaints
and the other two situations
In a claim letter or form or
whatever, you're simply setting out unambiguous and usually
undisputed facts, and then seeking the similarly unambiguous and
usually undisputed remedy. If the facts are correct, then
you have an automatic entitlement to a remedy.
But in a complaint situation, there
may be uncertainty both as to the nature of the problem and also
as to what would constitute an appropriate solution.
this helps you to understand the key difference between a complaint and
a claim - when you are complaining, you are negotiating from a position
of 'weakness' and you have no automatic entitlement.
Most people completely fail
to understand this. In a complaint situation, no matter
how morally outraged you might feel, and how inconvenienced you
have been, you must remember that your automatic entitlement to
relief/remedy is zero (or else you'd be filing a claim).
As much as it may seem inappropriate, you have to politely
state your case and ask on bended knee for what you feel you are
fully entitled to.
A Look Behind the Scenes - How
Suppliers React to Complaints
A very few companies still
have solid gold customer relations policies and principles.
They'll automatically do anything they can to ensure that nearly
all their customers are nearly always completely satisfied in
response to nearly all problems. They put experienced and
skilled staff into their Customer Relations/Complaint
departments and give them the ability to quickly and positively
resolve most problems.
However, most companies -
and particularly most travel companies - have much less generous
policies, and you'll find two key things that define and
constrain how companies react and respond to complaints.
The first factor is that
many people attempt to abuse the system by sending in the most
ridiculous and unreasonable of complaints. This makes the
people in the Customer Service department skeptical and cynical
of most complaints they receive, right from the minute they
start reading them. It encourages an adversarial
relationship between them and you. You need to ensure they don't quickly
put you in this category.
Here's an important thing to
appreciate - the Customer Service person you're interacting with
probably knows more about their company and its services and
products than you do. This means if you exaggerate,
they'll probably detect the exaggeration, and if they find
something they believe to be exaggerated, they'll expect
everything else to be exaggerated too, and you've lost
To rephrase this very
important point - be accurate and fair on the facts, so that
your opinions will be also respected as probably being similarly
accurate and fair.
For example, I had a person
writing to me to complain about a hotel I had booked for them in
Alice Springs, Australia. Their complaint comprised a
number of things, many of which were matters of opinion ('the
room was shabby and dirty') and may or may not be true and as
serious as they alleged. But there was also a matter
of fact - they complained 'the hotel was a 30 minute walk from
town' - and I knew, from having walked the distance myself, that
it was more like an easy 10 minute walk. So, having shown
me that they were exaggerating wildly about the distance the
hotel was from the city center, I found it hard to believe any
of the other complaints they raised which couldn't be
independently verified. I denied their claim in its
entirety, whereas if they'd not exaggerated the distance from
town, I'd have been more inclined to accept their other
statements at close to face value and to have offered a goodwill
The second factor is that
Customer Service people tend to be overworked (and sometimes
undertrained). They're not going to read through a six
page letter, and they're not going to 'fill in the gaps' of
anything you've omitted. They're looking for easily
understood situations with clear action items that they are able
to resolve on the spot. So, much as you may wish to, cut
your letter down to size, and make it short, simple, and to the
Richard writes to give us
valuable insight from his position as a manager who handles second level complaints
(the bold emphasis was added by me) :
work in subscriptions for (XYZ Magazine) and one of my tasks
is to handle any customer service issues that arise either
from people calling our office or from letters they
write. I also will handle any complaints or issues which
can not be handled by our customer service staff in the
think I’m a very easy going person and will usually give
people whatever they are asking for. However, if your
letter is mean or nasty in any way, I am much less inclined
to help you. I will admit that sometimes a complaint
will simply be trashed without a response for excessive
negativity or rudeness or for simply being dumb. I can also
guarantee that if you write a hateful or dumb letter,
it will be passed around within the company (but not
responded to positively). It’s probably very unethical to
do that, but when you get a letter such as this, “Dear XYZ
Magazine, FUCK YOU!! I am sick and tired of being shit on
by the fucking world…You greedy fucking pigs…fuck you very
much” you tend to show that to others. This letter is
actually hanging on my wall in my office for all to see and
for my general amusement.
you state what the problem is/was, provide what you think is
a fair solution, and politely ask for the matter to be
taken care of, you’ll receive a very cordial letter from
me and usually some back issues or a DVD. I’ve sent some
customers a whole year's worth of back issues before to
resolve their problem. I could simply extend their
subscription for missed issues, but I will take the time
or go out of my way to help those who I feel truly have been
wronged by us for whatever reason.
The same is true with the phone. Just be nice to the
person who you’re dealing with and you’ll get a lot further.
What most people forget is that whoever you’re talking to on
the phone or whoever is reading your letter is not the
person who caused the problem that you’re complaining
about. But, these people (usually) have the power to
correct the error and therefore you need to be extra nice to
Who to Address Your Complaint
There are differing opinions
about who to direct your complaint to. Some people will
complain in an undirected manner simply to the Customer Service
Department, and others will write letters to the CEO of
multi-national Fortune 500 companies about items involving $5
Some people will write a
letter to one person and then cc a bunch of other people.
So what is the best
My personal preference is to
do one of two things. If a company has a formal Customer
Service department, and if it is an issue that can be resolved
by such people, then simply send the complaint direct to them
and see if the company's system works as it should.
It is their job, after all, to handle such matters. If
they don't resolve the matter to my satisfaction, then I'll
escalate it further.
Although some people
disagree, in my opinion there's little sense in writing to the
CEO of a large company. No matter what you put on the
letter, chances are he'll never see it. In most cases, his staff open his mail for
him, and will simply redirect the letter to the Customer Service
department, and when they get it, they'll roll their eyes and
start off with an immediately negative view of you and your
complaint. You seem more like a 'trouble maker' than a
normal person with a normal complaint when you do this.
If the company doesn't have
a formal Customer Service department, or if the issue is broader
than that which they are likely to be able to resolve, I'll try
and find the name of a divisional manager - someone who is
in charge of the part of the company that caused the problem I'm
now complaining about, and write to that person.
Barry says 'I usually
write to someone on the top of the food chain, but never the
CEO, or COO. Usually it's the Operations Director or the
Regional Mgr., with a carbon copy to the CEO or COO. This way
the person to whom the letter is addressed already knows HIS
boss is also aware.'
I agree with Barry about
choosing a senior person, but unlike Barry, I never cc letters
to other people in the company unless they are already directly
involved in the problem and its solution. You might feel
good adding the CEO, Chairman of the Board, and who knows who
else onto a cc list, but 99.9% of the time, they'll never get to
even see the copies you send them, and if by some extraordinary
circumstance they do see the copy, they won't do anything,
because they're merely a cc recipient, not the addressee, and -
please appreciate this - their lives are far too full of things
that the perceive as much more important than your complaint.
If you do add a chain of
cc's to a letter, then the original recipient is not going to
want to do anything special for you. They'll want to
blindly and slavishly follow company policy. They don't
feel threatened by a cc at all, because it goes without saying
that you can, anytime you choose, forward correspondence on to
anyone else. Everyone already knows this, so there's no need to
state the obvious as a veiled threat. People don't respond
well to threats, and if you allow the addressee to feel they're
being given (and trusted with) full ownership of the problem and
its solution, they're more likely to work more positively with
you to do so.
Bob has a clever strategy
for how to rope in the CEO's support indirectly and by
implication. He writes (my emphasis) :
From time to time, I have
done the folllowing with good results. The key is to call the CEO or
other top official in a business-like way. Their staff will
often route you to the right person and you can then say "Your
CEO's office said you can help." They will listen and respond.
In a similar situation, I've
called the CEO of T-Mobile to complain about a ridiculous
problem I was having. I of course didn't get to speak to
him, and neither did I really want to, but my call was
intercepted by one of his Executive Assistants, and she revealed the existence
of an elite group of 'Executive Account Specialists' (or some
other fancy title) - customer service reps who were sensible,
helpful, and authorized to override normal rules, policies, and
procedures, and do anything they wished that would solve a
Whereas, only a few minutes before, I'd been
speaking to a so called supervisor's supervisor who said there
was nothing he or anyone else in the entire company could
do to help solve my trivial and easily solved problem, all of a
sudden, I was speaking with a helpful friendly intelligent lady
who solved my problem in a flash.
Note that these executive
account specialist types are typically high level
troubleshooters - you couldn't go to them directly (unless
you're with a major customer of theirs), but if you've gone
through the process of front line customer service, supervisors,
etc, and are stuck dead in the water, then it becomes time to
seek out the big guns and enlist their support.
To be continued
In the second part of this
series we continue suggestions on how to craft a positive complaint. Learn about
how to be realistic in what you seek, a strategy to greatly
increase the compensation you receive, and about the last part
of a positive complaint that most people overlook.
In the third part, we
explain how to succeed when
complaining, and talk about the Zen concept of how 'less is
more' and its application to successful complaining.
In the next part (four) -
How to Complain in Person
- we explain what it takes to successfully complain in person.
Subsequent articles will
detail how to write a complaint
letter, and what to do if your original complaint is turned down
and your compensation request refused.
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14 Sep 2007, last update
28 Nov 2012
You may freely reproduce or distribute this article for noncommercial purposes as long as you give credit to me as original writer.