Create and Structure a Winning Complaint
Being positive and fair gets you more
A well written
complaint will be received positively and appreciatively by
the company and person you offer it to.
Follow the steps in this series to make your complaints
accepted and acted on as positively as possible.
Part two of a multi part series on complaining - additional
parts to be published in the following weeks - see links on
the right hand side.
It is an adage that no-one
likes to complain, to be complained to, or to be complained
But this need not be so.
Complaining - when done well - can be a positive experience that
benefits the company and person receiving the complaint, and
which resolves a problem encountered by the person who is
Make your complaining positive,
and it will in turn become successful. And that is a good
thing for all concerned.
Should You Even be Complaining?
The world is evolving, and
it is sometimes hard for us to keep up with newly revised norms
of service, most of which generally seem to be lower than they
formerly were. There are many reasons for this,
including the increasing cost of hiring and training people
compared to creating automated systems or 'self service'.
We've probably all
encountered people who are trapped in the past and complain vociferously about things that
we understand to be normal ordinary events these days, and have
probably felt mild scorn for these people, who don't appreciate the present day
values and accepted norms.
We can all dislike the
lowering of standards when they occur, and we should even pass
feedback to companies indicating our unhappiness with lower
standards, but we shouldn't let such things ruin our
experiences. We need to have appropriate expectations.
The other issue, in deciding
if you have grounds for a complaint or not, is to match your
expectation to the service or product you are
buying/experiencing. For example, your expectation of what
constitutes acceptable food would be very different while dining
at Denny's compared to at a downtown gourmet steakhouse that
charges ten times Denny's price for a meal. And you'd
expect a better experience if traveling internationally on a
$10,000 first class ticket than if traveling on a $1,000 coach
Two types of complaint
And so, there are
two very different sorts of complaints to send.
Unhappiness with a service
standard that was not achieved
If a company makes a promise
and fails to honor it, or if the normal expected and agreed upon
expectation for something is clearly not fulfilled, you have
'right on your side' and your complaint should focus in on what
happened and how it fell short of the expectation that you
fairly had, and what is fair to compensate you for this
An example of this type of
situation would be 'my food is cold' at Denny's or 'my steak is
tough' at the gourmet steak house. And 'there are no
towels' in a budget hotel, or 'there aren't enough towels' in a
five star resort.
Unhappiness with the service
This is a more difficult
situation, because you're asking the company to admit that it
has made an incorrect policy decision which it needs to revisit,
either as a one-off consideration especially for you, or in
general for everyone.
Needless to say, if you're
seeking specific compensation or action, you'll
probably get better results if you try and seek a special
dispensation for yourself rather than demand the company change
its policy for everyone. An example of this scenario is
when your flight is delayed or cancelled, and you're asking the
gate staff to change your booking to another airline which has a
flight going out soon. If you quietly attempt to persuade
them to do this for you alone, that is an easier request than if
you say in a big loud voice 'you need to rebook everyone who was
on your flight onto your competitor's flight'.
On the other hand, if you're
writing to encourage a company to revise its general policies
rather than seeking an immediate resolution to your immediate
problem, you then want to give the feeling that you are
representing a broad swath of public opinion - for example 'It
is not just me who feels this way. I've discussed this
with my co-workers, my friends, fellow members of my
church/sport club/whatever, and other customers in your store,
and there is a general consensus among us all that - - - needs
to be changed.'
Before you even start this
type of complaint, you need to do a quick reality check - is
there even any sense in complaining about the issue, and - even
if you do complain - should you really expect anything other
than a polite note in return?
For example, if you hire a
car from 'Rent a Wreck' you can't really complain that the car
you got was old and in poor condition. You could complain
if the car won't start or if the brakes don't work, but if the
heater is faulty and the seat saggy, you're probably simply
getting what you paid for.
Similarly, if you buy a
ticket on Southwest Airlines you can't really complain if you
end up stuck in a middle seat, or if you and your traveling
companion end up unable to sit together. But you could
complain if you don't get a seat at all.
When you're writing to
complain about this type of situation, you need to show yourself
to be the type of customer who is important to the company, so
as to encourage them to think 'this is exactly the type of
person we want as our customer, and if he is reasonable but
unhappy with our service, maybe we need to rethink things'.
You don't want them to think 'this person is an impossible to
satisfy fool/opportunist and we don't care what they think
because they are not who we are targeting our product/service
Also, if you show yourself
to be fair and reasonable, they are more likely to 'give you the
benefit of the doubt' when you raise subjective issues.
For example, if you say 'the water pressure in my shower was too
weak to get a good proper shower and is not what I'd expect of a
four star hotel such as yours' you want them to accept your
opinion about what water pressure should be.
When you're writing to
complain about a service standard, you probably should write in
your most statesman-like manner, and to a more senior person
than if you're complaining about a service standard not being
met. You'd perhaps introduce your complaint in terms such as 'I was
once taught, in a customer service class, that to write a
complaint is the highest compliment a loyal customer can offer
to an organization, because it shows both that the customer
cares, that the customer expects, in turn, the company to
care about its customers, and that the customer believes his
complaint will be received and genuinely considered. And so, in this positive vein,
I'd like to share with you a recent issue where I feel your
company may be able to improve its customer facing experience.'
And in such cases, you
should also be less aggressive at asking for compensation.
Perhaps you're complaining about long waiting lines to check in
to a hotel. You could say, in closing 'I'm writing this
note so that you and other company executives have an
appreciation of what is happening at your front desk, and in the
hope that you might choose to increase your front desk staffing
so as to make your guests' first and last experiences at your
hotel (ie when they check in and out) more positive. I'm
sure if you did, people would be more inclined to stay with you
again in the future, because most other aspects of your property
are excellent and encourage repeat visits.'
If you think you do deserve
some compensation as well, you might add a deprecatory note such
as 'It is true that the unexpected 20 minute delay in waiting to
check in to my room made me late for a meeting, which was not
only embarrassing but also directly cost me, because I felt
obliged to offer to pay for drinks for all four of us
present as penance for my tardiness. If you wished to
acknowledge this, perhaps in the form of a voucher for a future
stay, that would be appreciated.'
Keep Records as the Problem
When you're complaining,
many times the person evaluating your complaint is also
evaluating your credibility. Many people have been known
to wildly exaggerate in their complaints, a strategy that does
no-one any good.
If you can show yourself to
have acted in a calm and level-headed manner all the way
through, and if you have detailed records of what happened, that
adds greatly to your credibility and your value as a customer
they want to keep happy.
The trick in these cases is
knowing when to start keeping records. Many times, a
problem only becomes obvious some time after it has started to
develop. For example, a flight that ends up being delayed
24 hours, causing you to miss connections, business meetings,
etc, and sleeping over on the airport floor, will typically
start off as a flight showing a slight delay. It is only
after the delay has been extended and extended and extended that
you start to realize this is a big problem rather than a small
You should make a point of
always having a very small notebook and pen with you, or perhaps
a PDA or cell phone with a notepad feature in it. Then,
any time something starts to go off the rails, immediately start keeping
records of how the problem develops, of what you do, and of what
the company does. Record every contact you have with the
company - every phone call, every message from them, and also
make notes about what was said. For example, you might
write 'At 6.30pm spoke with Mike at reception, ext 0, who
said they would get an engineer up to my hotel room within 20
This not only helps you if
you subsequently need to make a formal complaint, but it helps
you resolve the issue on the spot. Having made that entry
in your log, you then know to wait until 6.50pm, and if no
engineer has arrived, you can call back, ask to speak to Mike
again, and confidently remind him about how at 6.30pm he'd
promised an engineer to your room by 6.50pm and that it is now
after 6.50pm - where is the engineer?
Your next entry might read
something like '6.55pm - spoke with Mike again, he promised
either an engineer or he would phone me back within 5 minutes'!
And so on and so on.
Needless to say, get as many
names as possible, but don't be aggressively offensive about
getting names. Discreetly write down employee names and
other identifying things, and if you have to ask for a name,
explain with a smile that you're not going to be complaining
about them as much as mentioning their help getting the problem
If people don't give you their name, write
down a physical description and try and get the names of other
employees and ask them who the person is who won't give their
Things to record
As soon as your warning
sense alarms and you feel that something might become a problem,
start keeping details of all that has happened and all that
Date and time each event that
you're recording, a bit like in a ship's log or policeman's
Detail who you interact with
each time a development occurs (name, and if necessary, job
title, other description, extension number, agent ID,
whatever) or what happened.
Detail what happens each time
something happens relating to the problem.
At some point, you'll realize
that your notes are going to be necessary, because a
potential problem is now a real problem. At that
point, start to add more details to previous notes and also
write a short history of what brought you to the start of
the complaint - perhaps when and where you bought the
product that is faulty and any information from the salesman
you relied on, or how you booked the hotel room and any
brochure or promotional material that encouraged you to
choose that hotel, etc.
Detail costs you incur and
inconveniences you suffer. Keep receipts.
Any other related information
- what the company is doing for other people in the same
situation, what other people are saying and doing, and so
Time is of the Essence
If a problem occurs, you
need to respond to it quickly in order to be taken seriously.
Report problems as they occur
If it is possible for 'a
stitch in time to save nine' then do all you can to minimize the
problem. For example, if you're in a rental car that has a
problem, let the rental car company know the instant you find
out about the problem, so they can simply swap the bad car for a
good car (which is, after all, what you most want).
Don't wait until returning
the car at the end of a two week rental and then spring an
'ambush complaint' on the rental company by saying 'Oh, and by
the way, the windshield washers didn't work so I think you
should refund me the entire rental cost plus give me a free
rental next time I'm renting'.
Companies are wise to such
tricks, and are unlikely to respond positively. You are
expected - both in law and in fairness - to do all you can
yourself to minimize the problem you are experiencing.
Using the rental car example above, if the windshield washer
problem occurred and you wait until the end of the rental to
report it, not only do you have no proof that the problem
started any earlier than when you finally drove back into the
rental car lot, but the car company will fairly think 'If it
wasn't important enough for the customer to bother calling our
toll free number to report while he had the car, why should we
treat it importantly now'.
Initiate claims quickly
When you do have a problem,
start your complaint process as quickly after it occurred as
Not only will it still be
fresh in your memory, but the company will perceive an unwritten
thing - if you are taking the matter seriously enough to quickly
send in a full formal complaint, you'll probably continue to
press the matter until it is resolved. On the other hand,
if you don't contact them for a month, the company may think
'this person isn't really very serious about their complaint,
and if we ignore them, we'll probably never hear anything more
After making your initial
complaint, if you haven't heard back within a reasonable period
of time, follow up by sending a copy of your original complaint
together with a short cover note simply indicating that you'd
sent the attached complaint on a certain date, and asking when
you might get a response back.
Don't get cross or upset at
the delay in getting a response back. As an experienced
realistic 'man of the world' you understand that such things
happen, you understand it isn't a perfect world, and you
understand that resolving complaints regrettably often gets a
low priority in companies. You could even say something
like 'Please find attached a copy of a complaint I sent to your
company on <<date>>. As of today, (three weeks later, or
whatever other time period is involved) I have yet to receive
any reply from you. I do understand that, even in the best
run companies, resolving complaints is not always the highest
priority, but I would appreciate your acknowledgement that you
have received my letter and some advice as to when to expect a
resolution of the issue. You are welcome to phone, fax, or
email me at any time of your convenience.'
A business like follow up
note further stresses the point that you're a serious and
sensible complainer, and encourages the company to treat you
fairly and promptly.
Be Polite, not Abusive
Remember that a complaint is
your act to optimize the outcome in a situation where the person
you are complaining to has discretion as to what to do in
response to your complaint.
Although you are the
aggrieved person, you are also the person asking for a favor.
Sure, you see it as a favor you deserve, but it is a favor,
nonetheless. You mustn't forget this.
If you insult the person
you're writing to or talking with, and the company he works for, what does that
do to your chances of getting a positive favor in return?
If you show yourself to be
rude and insulting, you cause the person reading it to lose any
sympathy they might have for you, it makes them think 'he
probably deserved everything that went wrong' and makes them
pleased that you're hopefully never going to be a customer of
theirs again in the future.
The person who receives a
rude letter will of course be alienated. Much better to be
polite and pleasant.
If you're complaining in
person, by being relaxed and friendly, you are seen not as a
potential threat but as a potential friend, and the person you
are dealing with is more likely to then consider you as an
individual and be more open to listening to what you have to
Never swear or act in any
way that might give the person you're complaining to an excuse
or reason to refuse to deal with you any further, or an
opportunity to call security or the police.
Similarly, don't display
anger at the person you are dealing with about the situation you
encountered. It is almost never their fault, and if it is
their direct personal fault, perhaps you are better off
complaining to someone else if they're not instantly rushing to
resolve the problem they caused.
If you find yourself getting
angry with the person because they are not resolving your
problem sensibly, perhaps then you can say in a calm business
like manner 'I'm sorry, but I'm not finding you very helpful or
responsive. I know the situation is not your fault, but I
believe it is your duty to help me and to resolve the problem
now, and that is proving to be another frustration. If
this is not something you are empowered to do by your company,
can we get a supervisor involved who can resolve the matter and
spare us both more frustration.'
Most of the time, company
representatives have two slightly conflicting pieces of
direction by their company - they are tasked with resolving as
many problems as they can, themselves, without involving other
people in the company, but they are also supposed to allow you
to move up the hierarchy and speak with a supervisor if you
And so, if you ask to speak
to a supervisor, they are conflicted. They'll try and
discourage your request, perhaps by saying 'I'm just telling you
our company policy, and neither my supervisor nor I can overrule
it', or perhaps by telling you their supervisor is busy or
Humor is better than rudeness
If you really must go beyond
simple businesslike descriptions of problems and events, try and
phrase your complaining in humorous rather than rude terms.
You're more likely to get the reader onside with you that way.
Reader Baker writes
I have found that a sense of
humor goes a long way in getting things resolved. If you can
make them laugh, you can usually get what you need.
Let's face it, nine times
out of ten the person receiving the complaint is NOT the person
responsible for the problem, yet it is those on the front lines
that receive all the flack.
Hence, the folks on the
receiving end appreciate those who are not big A-holes when they
are trying to get action.
But, be careful. Humor
is a difficult writing skill. For most of us, it is best
to be like
Sgt Joe Friday of Dragnet fame and stick to 'Just the facts,
A Rhetorical Device
Ronda writes 'Ask those in power to
imagine THEMSELVES in your predicament. It often makes them more
This is a very powerful
tool, and helps to get the person you are dealing with on your
side and sharing your perspective. Paint a picture, with
words, of the issue, and put this person in the middle of the
picture. Try using it next time you have a problem.
You could say something like
'Imagine how you would feel if you were taking important clients
out for dinner, and spending a substantial sum on a meal that
carried your personal endorsement, only to have one of your
valued guests suffer badly cooked food, served five minutes
after the rest of us got our meals, and which was not how he'd
asked for it. You'd probably be as embarrassed as I was,
and I'm sure you'd now be having the same discussion - with
yourself - that I'm now having with you.'
Or 'Imagine what you'd do if
you also found yourself late for an important meeting with your
rental car broken down on the side of the freeway. You'd
probably be as upset as I was, and as worried about the negative
reflection on your business judgment that this important client
would feel about you. And while you and I both know that
cars do sometimes give problems, we also know that when
something wrong occurs, it isn't the customer who should be the
Note that weakly in the
first example, and strongly in the second example, you start off
by asking the other person to put themselves in your shoes, and
then from there you move forward to a point where you are using
'we' to describe him and you as both being on the same side.
Use the concept of 'Imagine
yourself in my situation' and build on this with the concept of
'and you would expect - - - to be done to resolve the problem'.
A Complaint that Worked
As encouragement, and as a
practical example of a good complaint well handled, reader
As a Starwood Platinum
member, I always stay at the Sheraton Towers when I am in NY. I
always get a "if we can make your stay better" email from the big GM, Dan
King, who I have never been able to meet when I go in. Before I
go in, I email the dates of my arrival to the man in charge of
the front desk/room assignments (who I have met and always make
a point of meeting to thank him for his assistance, no matter
how small that may be) and ask for an upgrade to a suite, if it
is possible. Some times he does and some times he cannot as out
of some 700 some rooms, they only have about 50 suites.
This year, I stayed there 3
times in 6 weeks, the first stay taking 2 rooms for a total cash
layout of close to $3000 for that one stay.
He was not able to upgrade
me for even one of the nights. The second stay, he was able to
upgrade me 2 of the 3 nights. The third stay was a nightmare - he
was not able to upgrade me, but the way I found this out was
from an extremely rude front desk person who told me I was not
paying enough money to get a suite. I calmly explained to her my
status, the fact that I had two rooms booked that my prior stay
w/ two rooms ran close to $3000 and this was going to be a
longer stay and she repeated her same insult. I asked to speak
to a manager (the one I usually speak to was not available at
all during this stay) and the woman who came
out said the SAME THING to me. I cancelled one of the rooms and
asked her to have her boss contact me.
He called me later, did not
repeat anything about money but told me an upgrade was not
possible until, perhaps, two days later. I left him a message
every day after that (I was there 7 nights) and he never
returned any of my calls.
So, now is when the name Dan
King came in : I wrote him a short letter, telling him my loyalty
to SPG and his hotel and rather than launch into a tirade about
how I am a Platinum member who spent a lot of money in his
property in 5 weeks, I praised the overall level of service I
generally get, and mentioned several of his staff by name who
truly always have treated me as professionals (I collect names
when I travel - never know when you need them) and then expressed
my shock at the very rude treatment I received from not one, but
three of his employees and suggested I would be better off at
another hotel the next time I come in. I never mentioned
getting/not getting upgrades.
A few weeks later, I received a
personal letter of apology for the shabby treatment, was told it
was addressed in their employee weekly meeting and that, due to
my letter notifying him of the actions of 3 of his front
people, the way they were handling upgrades was changed to
prevent any one else from being insulted. And by the way, he
added, here is my assistant's name and personal #. Call her when I am coming in
and she will have a suite waiting for me.
My technique is: choose
your battles. It would have been easy, and understandable to go
on a tear about the rudeness of those three and what, as a loyal SPG
member I deserve, but managers get that ALL the time. By
addressing the poor level of service (which he does need to know
about) in a calm manner, it opened the door for a payoff for me.
It does not always work, but
I find a calm, rational almost befriending demeanor almost
always gets me what I am after.
Well said, and thank you,
Suzanne. Note also some of her other excellent comments,
for example, collecting names and creating relationships so as
to be better able to positively resolve problems if they should
occur in the future.
Read more in this series
This is part two of what is
currently projected to be a six part series, with additional
parts being released from time to time.
Part One -
The Art of Positive Complaining,
Part Three - How to Succeed
when Complaining, and Part Four -
How to Complain in Person. - are already available. More parts
in the series will follow.
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4 Jan 2008, last update
08 Jul 2017
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