Succeed When Complaining
Being positive and fair gets you more
There's a right way and
a wrong way to complain. Guess which way is depicted
You need to
act completely the opposite of this image - be calm, cool,
and collected. Your non-confrontational approach will
in turn encourage a similarly non-confrontational approach
from the person you're complaining to.
Part three of a multi part series on complaining - additional
parts to be published in the following weeks - see links on
the right hand side.
Perhaps this article should be
titled 'The Zen of Complaining' because 'less is more' is a good
concept to appreciate when it comes to managing a successful
Use less emotion rather than
more emotion, and ask for reasonable rather than outrageous
Be high minded and fair, and
see things from the complaint handler's point of view. But
also be steely in your resolve to secure fair compensation for
unsatisfactory services or products.
Follow these steps, and your
complaints should succeed.
Be Realistic and Ask for
Never ask for something you
can't get. If you ask for something you'll never get, a
company's response is more likely to be outright rejection
rather than to 'meet you half way'.
Realistic time frames
And don't be unrealistic in
your timetable as well. Don't demand a reply within 24
hours, because that simply isn't going to happen. Most
companies will normally respond within two to three weeks of
receiving a complaint.
There is one exception to
this, however. That is if you're complaining in person,
and your problem is time critical. Obviously, then seconds
count and you need to get an immediate resolution.
Be aware also that a
standard tactic used by some front level staff in some problem
situations is to delay things until they go off shift, leaving
the problem for someone else to resolve.
If you're asking for a
solution in person, make sure you understand what the cause of
any delay is. Try not to accept an arrangement where you
have to wait for a supervisor to call back - instead ask to be
put on hold and wait for them to get off their other call.
If you're told that the supervisor is at lunch, or in a meeting,
or who knows what other excuse, explain politely that your
problem can't wait and ask if there is either another
supervisor, or, failing that, if you could have direct access to
the supervisor's manager.
Don't be bullied into
stepping to one side and waiting passively. If you're told
'I'm sorry, but there are all these other people behind you who
I need to serve as well' don't let that become your problem.
Suggest that the person asks
for someone else to come and help out, and tell the person quite
calmly that you are focused on getting an urgent solution to
your pressing problem, other impatient customers are not your
problem, and the sooner your problem is resolved, the sooner
everyone else can get cared for too.
Don't get carried away and
ask for a ridiculous level of compensation for whatever you feel
your situation might justify. And - as always - put
yourself in the shoes of the company.
For example, in a high
profile complaint that went public, a traveler was complaining
to an airline that he was refused admission to their
members-only lounge when his flight was delayed.
But this is a stupid
complaint that won't win any positive response. If the
airline were to say 'Yes, you're correct, we should have allowed
you free admission to our lounge' wouldn't they then be agreeing
that all delayed passengers deserve free entrance to their
lounge, on all future occasions? And, sadly, there are
very few airline lounges big enough to handle that many people!
Besides which, the paying lounge members (who pay many hundreds
of dollars a year) would have their quiet comfortable experience
destroyed by the sudden influx of hundreds of distressed
passengers at a time.
The airline representative
at the airport did the right thing to refuse this traveler's
request. Making this a central part of his complaint
merely established him, in the airline's eyes, as an
unreasonable greedy person. He should have stuck to the
core issue that he had some chance of getting compensation for - a delayed flight the airline didn't give him
earlier advice about - and instead asked for a 'one-off special
exception' of one future free admission/invitation coupon as
compensation for his delay. He'd probably have received
that if he'd asked for it positively.
Don't be greedy
Another example of an
unrealistic complaint was a passenger who wrote to his airline
complaining that, due to airport terminal building work, he was
unable to use the (currently closed) first class lounge prior to
his international flight. On the face of it, this is a
fair complaint. It is very nice to have access to the
international first class lounges of major airlines - you're in
a nice relaxed comfortable environment, you probably have free
food and drinks, maybe showers, internet access, and many other
things, and is definitely one of the benefits of flying first
But where this person lost
their battle was when they asked for massive monetary
compensation, using the reasoning 'I paid $12,000 to fly first
class, instead of $900 to fly coach class. I expected to
spend 1½ hours in this lounge, and my flight was 8 hours long,
so I should get 1½/9½ of my airfare back. This calculated
So how much is 90 minutes in
a first class lounge really worth? One indicator is that
many airlines will sell single entry lounge passes for about $50. What is the maximum you'd pay for an hour and a half
in a lounge? Don't forget we only have the guy's word for
it that he could have spent that long in the lounge - maybe he
only had 30 minutes free time between checking in,
clearing security, duty free shopping, and then leaving to go to
the gate and board the plane.
Clearly, a $1900 claim is
doomed to certain failure. The airline sent him a stuffy
formal note back and gave him nothing at all. I knew the
people at the airline, and I know they could have responded in
many other ways if they'd chosen to - some bonus frequent flier
miles, a voucher to cover some of the cost of a future ticket,
maybe even an upgrade coupon or something, but because the
complainer changed a fair and reasonable complaint into an
unfair and unreasonable demand for ridiculous compensation, he
alienated the people considering his request and ended up with
Ask for a fair amount the
company can afford
Understand the dollars and
cents of how much money the company you are complaining to made
from your business, and how much money the compensation you are
seeking will cost them. For example, a travel agent who
sold you an airline ticket and earned only the $35 fee you paid
them for the service would find it difficult to compensate you
and refund you, eg, a $500 ticket due to some error that
possibly may have been their fault, and similarly, neither could
they give you a free ticket in the future, because the $500
ticket cost would come completely out of their pocket.
And, remember - if there was definite fault involved, you don't
have a complaint scenario, you have a claim scenario. But
if it is a grey area type complaint, ask the travel agency for
something they can do, such as to issue you your next airline
ticket and waive their service fee.
But if you are complaining
to a hotel about problems with your hotel room, the situation is
different. Using one perspective, most of what you paid
for the hotel room was extra profit (less perhaps $35 for the
room clean and servicing when you left), and similarly, if they
were to give you a free stay in the future, the cost of the
future stay would also be close to zero (ie just the $35 room
service cost). So if you spent $250 on a hotel room for a
night, you could fairly ask either for a full or partial refund
(depending on circumstances) or for a complimentary upgrade or
future stay in the future (which the hotel would prefer to give
you because that way it doesn't have to actually disgorge cash
back to you).
Don't be a Spoiled Child
It appalls me to see how
poorly many people respond to problems and how disfunctionally
they proceed in seeking a resolution. So please excuse me
if this section is written harshly.
Have you ever noticed how
some people are always enveloped in problems, while others seem
to be trouble free? Some people are on first name terms
with their attorneys, and are always talking about suing someone, while others have no attorney at all.
Strive to be in the latter
category of people. Don't let problems destroy your
well-being or your sense of relativity. Don't lose your
perspective about the global importance of problems that occur
to you. Sure, they might seem, for a brief time, very
important to you, but probably they're neither life changing or
life threatening to you, and certainly they're much less
important to whoever you're attempting to resolve your problem
So (excuse the directness of
this) 'get a life' and handle the issue positively.
Remember that you're not entitled to anything - if you were, it
would be a claim, not a complaint. And that much abused
concept, 'the customer is always right' doesn't really exist, and
probably never did exist - even the most consumer-friendly of
businesses does this only because it has calculated that it can
make more money with a certain level of fair complaining, but if
you abuse that privilege, you'll find them declining your
business in the future. No business these days can
afford to pander to the excessive and eccentric whims of
customers who don't present a fair profit opportunity to the
You can't seek excessive
compensation 'just because'. And your chances of 'hitting
the jackpot' and getting millions of dollars in compensation for
some trivial mistake, like urban legends delight in telling us? Zero. Don't even go there.
Don't ask for any more than you'd choose to give to someone if
the situation were reversed and you were the person handling
And, lastly, you're not a
little child and the person you're complaining at isn't your
mommy. Sulking will get you nowhere. Only positive
behavior will win you positive results.
Social and Regional Differences
Being polite, respectful,
and fair are probably universal elements of a positive and
successful complaint. But you need to be sensitive to
regional issues in terms of how you shape your complaint and
seek a resolution.
It is easy for us in our
home country, dealing with social peers and a product or service
we are familiar with. We know what the expectations are,
we know when something is good or bad, and we know what to
expect as a fair resolution to a complaint, and in turn, the
person we are dealing with feels a similar comfort in dealing
with a 'known commodity' in the form of us and our complaint.
Sure, this sometimes is also a challenge - to get the complaint
handler to break out of routine and to do something more special
- but on balance, it is a good thing.
But if we're in an
unfamiliar and very different country, there may be different
expectations on your part and on the part of the complaint
handler. Your first challenge, of course, is to understand
if the thing you're unhappy about is even something you can
fairly complain about, or if what you feel to be unsatisfactory
is actually normal custom in the country you're in.
For example, in the west,
when we're enjoying a multi-course meal in a restaurant, we
expect each course to come out separately, and usually for some
time between each course. But in China, you're more likely
to get all the food you've ordered presented at once - something
you'd perhaps complain about back home is normal and not
something you could complain about in China.
In some countries, you'll
get more positive results by complaining very gently and
obliquely. If you apologize for your own shortcomings, and
ask for help, and thank the person for the bad product/service
they initially provided, and if you give them a way to 'save
face' by doing whatever extra it is you ask for, you'll get
massively more positive results than if you demand satisfaction
and go at the problem like a bull in a china shop. Eastern
countries tend to prefer a subtle oblique and face saving
approach. 'What would you suggest I do' is a good
approach, allowing the person you are dealing with to then
volunteer to help, making them feel like a hero rather than
bullying them into doing something unwillingly.
But in other countries, such
subtleties would be entirely lost and would result in no
positive response at all. In some countries you have to
positively assert and demand your 'rights' and that the
product/service be provided as expected. In some
countries, the initial response to any complaint will be to
For example, one time at a
hotel in Moscow, I sat on the chair in my hotel room and it
collapsed. I went to reception, and politely asked for a
replacement chair without stating the obvious - that the now
broken chair was in poor repair and should never have been there
in the first place. Their response? They blamed me
for destroying hotel furniture and wanted to charge me the cost
of a new chair! A better strategy there would have been to
be visibly upset, to castigate them for having bad quality
furniture, and to demand a better chair immediately.
Motivate the Company to Help
All companies have a great
deal of discretion when it comes to deciding how they will
respond to complaints. Their response can vary from simply
ignoring your complaint to sending you a form letter that says
nothing and offers even less, to more positive types of
response, sometimes even substantially more generous than what
you'd been asking and hoping for.
What sways a company and the
person handling your complaint to consider your situation
generously rather than to be offhanded and uncaring?
There are several things
that impact on how they respond to your complaint. Some
things are good and others bad. For example, if you get
rude or greedy, their response to you will probably be
diminished. If you threaten legal action, they'll probably
call your bluff and encourage you to do exactly that.
There are other things
which, if done right, will encourage the person handling your
complaint to swing the other way and treat you fully and fairly.
Be honest, forthright,
accurate and fair in stating your complaint. Don't
exaggerate, and don't make sweeping statements of blame and
Now, for the most important
part - make yourself seem like the sort of person the company
wants to attract and retain as a customer, and make yourself
seem amenable to continuing to be a good loyal customer into the
future. In other words, make yourself 'salvageable' as a
customer, and rather than threatening ridiculous things if your
demands aren't met, promise positive things if your request is
No-one wants to throw good
money after bad, and no-one wants to encourage bad customers to
come back and be a problem another time. So people who
make themselves seem like ongoing problems to deal with will
probably be treated poorly, and the company will be pleased to
see them go.
If you have been and can be
an important customer to the company, by all means say that in a
factual way (give your frequent flier number or other details so
the company can check) and if you're a decision maker that
influences other people (for example, a purchasing manager for a
company) it is fair to say that as well, but in a positive
manner, too, focusing more on the good business dealings you've
had in the past, and hoping to have more similar good dealings
in the future.
There's no need to say 'if
you don't treat me fairly now, I'll never come back' because
everyone knows that without needing to be told, but expressing
the positive confirms your fairness, reasonableness, and
encourages the company to win you back.
If people threaten 'I'm
going to tell all my friends not to give you their business too'
the company will probably think 'If this person's friends are
anything like himself, then we don't want his friends as
customers either'. That is an empty threat that just
causes the person making the threat to seem even less desirable
to keep as a customer.
But if you say something
like 'I've made a point of telling my friends, in the past, how
pleased I've been with your product/service, and I hope this
unfortunate matter can be positively resolved so I can also tell
them that even when things go wrong, you still come through
fairly and fully' then that is a much more positive way of
saying a very similar thing to the negative threat of 'If you
don't give me everything I'm asking for, I'm going to tell all
my friends to never use your company either'.
Don't Ask for Cash Refunds
This point is so important
it deserves a major heading rather than a minor heading.
Whenever possible, do not
ask for cash refunds. Ask instead for future free
goods/services from the company. There are two reasons for
Firstly, asking for cash
smacks of opportunism on your part, and unless you ask for a
very low sum, makes you seem like you're trying to profit
from an unfortunate circumstance.
Secondly, asking for cash
requires everyone to agree on an exact dollar value for your
claim. Sometimes this is possible (eg 'you broke my -
- - and I need it replaced') but most of the time it is not
possible. How much is the cash value of a broken video
monitor or light at your seat on an overnight flight?
And even if you're asking for something that was lost or
broken to be replaced, should you be given the full
replacement value or a depreciated value, recognizing that
you have already used the item for some years and are now
getting the benefit of a brand new one?
Thirdly, many companies don't
have substantial cash budgets for claims, goodwill, and
Fourthly, asking for cash
costs the company exactly as much as it is worth to you to
receive. You're not getting anything special and
neither is the company.
On the other hand, if you
ask for discounted or free future goods/services, you are
establishing several very positive points in your favor.
First, you show you are
willing to use the company again in the future. You
are not a lost customer for all time, you are a wronged
customer but one who is willing to return to the fold if
treated fairly now. This encourages any company to do
its best to win back your future loyalty.
Second, you are giving the
company a way to show you that your bad experience was a
'one-off' problem rather than an ongoing regular challenge.
Thirdly, giving you a
discounted or free future thing costs the company very much
less than its worth to you. For example, if you ask
for a free 'widget' from the manufacturer, the cost of that
widget to the company is anything from a quarter to perhaps
a tenth of its retail price, so the compensation costs the
company vastly less than its value to you.
Usually what I do is, at the
part of a complaint letter where I'm asking for compensation is
to briefly touch on the estimated cash sum needed to fairly
compensate me, and then add 'Of course, a simple check from you
in this sum would be much appreciated, but I'd also be pleased
to accept a voucher from you good for <<I describe something
appropriate here>> instead. This would encourage me to try
your product/service again in the future and to hopefully have a
much better experience than this unfortunate occasion.'
Usually I ask for something
that is worth about twice the cash sum that would otherwise be
asked from the company. But there are limits to how this
can work. For example, if you are complaining about a pair
of shoes where the heels fell off after only a week, you
couldn't ask for two free pairs of shoes as
compensation/replacement. But, perhaps, if you bought the
shoes for $100, you could ask for a voucher good for a
replacement pair of shoes worth up to $200.
Don't include any threats at
all in an initial complaint. Make yourself seem like an
ordinary normal and easily pleased person who is keen to resolve
the matter quietly and in-house.
Perhaps I should explain
that by 'threat' I merely mean concepts like reporting the
company to the news media, to consumer activist organizations,
to state and federal regulatory bodies, and the like. Of
course you'd never make other forms of threats!
But if your complaint is not
resolved to your satisfaction, then in your escalation of the
complaint, you can start to bring in mention of how you may
start to involve external agencies. See our article (yet
to be published) on escalating complaints for more information
on these strategies.
Ridiculous threats, up
front, just alienate the people you are trying to get onside.
And, most of the time, they know (better than you) that the
problem which seems very important to you is actually not very
important and unlikely to make headlines on the local television
or newspaper. Remember, complaints are usually about grey
areas, and grey areas with subtleties associated don't make for
good news stories, and don't encourage regulatory bodies to do
much at all.
Another Reason to be High
Minded and Fair
When you're writing a
complaint (or, more commonly, a claim letter), keep in mind that
if you should choose to do so, you might end up needing to
pursue your case in court.
So try and view things both
from how the company will perceive your request and also from
how it will look to a disinterested judge with too little time
to fully appreciate all the details of your claim.
Make sure everything you do
is fair and reasonable and realistic, and that none of it sounds
bad if read out of context, for example, by a judge flipping
through the correspondence, or by opposing counsel who is trying
to make you seem like an unreasonable person who doesn't deserve
what it is you're asking for.
The Last Part of a Positive
(and Successful) Complaint
There's one last part of
positive complaining that most people omit, possibly to their
If you've secured the
positive resolution you seek, thank the people who helped you,
and consider writing a letter to the person's supervisor
praising the person for their help in resolving a problem, and
re-affirming your satisfaction with the outcome.
For example, Dan says 'When
they do go out of their way to help me and I get a problem
resolved to my satisfaction, I will get their name and send an
email to their supervisor telling them what an asset the
There is one thing to be a
bit wary of, as Robert writes 'If someone breaks policy for
you, you might want to leave the specifics out of your thank you
Writing thank you notes is a
tremendously valuable type of positive reinforcement. It
rewards good behavior, and encourages companies and their
employees to shift their complaint policies to a more positive
level, because you are showing them how a more liberal and
generous complaint response actually does succeed in winning
Plus, you never know - you
might need to call again with another complaint in the future,
and if you can ask for 'your' representative by name and remind
them of how they helped you the last time around, you're for
sure more likely to speedily get a positive outcome this time.
And, what goes around comes
around. Maybe your next complaint will be handled by a
person basking in the warm glow of a thank you from a previous
complainer, and being therefore more motivated to go above and
beyond the minimum response again.
Spread the positive karma
liberally, because you'll surely reap what you sew in the
Reader Rosanne comes up with
a list of ten rules, most of which I agree with. I'm not
so sure about rule #2, discussed in part one of the series, 'The
Art of Positive Complaining', and I'm also not sure about
rule #7; (discussed above in this article) at least not until
you're escalating beyond your first and possibly second
I've been very successful. Here are my rules :
Be persistent and don't
take "no" for an answer.
Start at the top. CEO's
are reachable if you do thorough enough searches to locate their
e-mail addresses. It may take some digging but the results will
be far far more productive than with the Customer Disservice
(oops) department. =
Start with a compliment. Even the worst experience must have something good associated
with it. And everyone, even CEO's, likes to be praised.
4 -Be reasonable. If you
overvalue your request you'll be regarded as a kook and won't
win in the end.
Make yourself known. If
you're a frequent guest or passenger let them know about your
Don't give up. Keep it
up. A little obsession goes a long way.
Let them know that
you'll share your story if necessary. You read travel blogs and
newspapers and you're going to tell everyone you can about your
Make sure you really did
have inferior treatment before you launch your campaign. If
your seats in coach were too small that's not a complaint.
That's reality. If your hotel phone bills were excessive, you
should have known better than to use their phone.
Don't be overly verbose. Be succinct and get to the point right after the initial
compliment. You can expand on it but try your best to use
proper grammar and spelling.
Enjoy your victory!
Complain positively and
fairly and you'll get a positive and fair response back from the
company and person you're dealing with. Yes, it is really
Read more in this series
This is part three 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
- is already available, as is Part Two -
How to Create and Structure a
Winning Complaint and Part Four -
How to Complain in Person.
If so, please donate to keep the website free and fund the addition of more articles like this. Any help is most appreciated - simply click below to securely send a contribution through a credit card and Paypal.
11 Jan 2008, last update
08 Jul 2017
You may freely reproduce or distribute this article for noncommercial purposes as long as you give credit to me as original writer.