As much as most of us complain, one could assume that we were all experts at it. But the opposite is true. We complain far more than is necessary, and when we do, it’s not always in a way that brings about the desired results. Over time, I’ve gotten better at knowing when it is worth complaining and how to get the results I want. I’d like to share some of my tips and successes with you. There are seven things I consider when I want to make a complaint.
1. Is it Worth Complaining?
This is the number one thing to think about when you are considering making a complaint. When you are dissatisfied with a product or service, you have to think about whether there is something that can be done to increase your satisfaction and the amount of effort required to complain. If there is nothing that would satisfy you, or if the fix wouldn’t be worth the effort, then don’t bother.
This is most often relevant to consider when dealing with service. If a store clerk is rude to me or I get poor service in a restaurant, I generally don’t bother to complain. We’ve already had the bad service and complaining isn’t going to fix the past. If you complain directly to the person providing the service, their performance might actually get worse. If you complain to a supervisor, you might be making the day worse for someone already having a bad day. You might even get someone fired. I don’t particularly want someone to get fired for hurting my feelings. I’ve had register clerks spend the entire time I’m there chatting on the phone with a friend and never look me in the eye. But did I get through the checkout lane, make my purchases, and get on my way? Yes, so why do I need the clerk to smile and be friendly to me? Sure it would be nice, but I’m paying for a product, not a smile.
I generally don’t complain at restaurants, unless it’s someplace we frequent. If the service is bad or mediocre, it is reflected in my tip. I know that servers generally rely on their tips to make a living, so service has to be abysmal for me to leave only a token amount. Sometimes, we leave a note specifying what the problem was so the server isn’t left wondering why he or she got stiffed. But I’m not going to make a judgment about whether our server smiles enough – it’s not relevant. If the food is bad or not what I ordered, I generally will say something if I am willing to wait for them to make a new dish. Obviously that’s not related to the tip I leave for service.
If you are disappointed in a product, it is generally worth complaining. Often it takes just 2-3 emails to resolve and I might have to send or take the product back. There’s a high probability of success with a legitimate product complaint. I’ve frequently received damaged or clearly used “new” books from Amazon, and most often they’re gifts, so I have to get them replaced. Amazon is one of the easier companies to deal with in terms of returns and replacements. Another instance where complaining is a necessity is when you’ve been improperly charged or didn’t get what you paid for.
2. Know What You Want and Ask for It
To know whether it is worth complaining, you have to know what you want. If there is nothing they can do for you that will solve your problem, then you may want to reconsider complaining. Personally, I don’t think it is reasonable to ask for a discount because your server brought you the wrong drink. They’ll bring you the correct one and all will be fine. They might comp that drink if they feel like it, but as long as you get the right drink, it’s not really necessary.
I recently made a complaint to Dish Jeans and it turned out great. Last spring, my Mom bought me an awesome pair of Dish Jeans for my birthday. I loved the jeans because they seemed like they were designed for a middle-aged woman and not a teenager. They fit perfectly, were actually long enough for me, and they had huge, deep front pockets, which was awesome because my phone was secure. By fall, a small hole had developed in the bottom of the pocket where I kept my phone, but that’s easy to fix. Unfortunately, soon after, the pocket began to rip away from the denim at the top. I was trying to figure out how to fix it, but then it occurred to me that the pocket should not be ripping out on jeans I’d had less than a year. Pockets are for stuff, and I want to put stuff in them!
I contacted Dish Jeans through their website and explained my problem, making it clear that other than the pockets, I loved the jeans. I said I would love it if they could repair the pocket or replace the jeans, thinking I would try and reinforce the pocket on the new pair. They responded very quickly and not surprisingly, they preferred to replace the jeans rather than repair them. Within a couple weeks, the new jeans arrived. They weren’t the same style as before because they no longer make those, but these were even nicer.
They could have responded to me and said no, sorry, there’s nothing we can do. But sending me a new pair of jeans was the smartest thing they could have done. First of all, they have a newish line of jeans, which might alienate old customers. But now they have an old customer who is sold on the new line. Admittedly, that could have gone either way, but they were confident in their product so it was worth the risk to them. They also have a customer for life. I not only like the jeans, but I like the company because they treated me fairly. They had an unhappy customer and turned her into a happy customer. That’s what smart companies do. So when you complain, remember that most companies want you to be a happy customer. Help them do this by knowing what you want.
Sometimes, what you want isn’t available. I recently complained to Quirky about their desktop cord manager. I ordered a white one, but when it came it was gray. It turns out that due to manufacturing issues their white ones are light gray and they don’t have a true white. So in this case, they weren’t able to give me the fix I requested. However, they did send me a $15 gift card because it took them a long time to respond to me.
3. Are You Using the Right Tone?
Once you decide to complain and know what you want, this is the number one thing you must consider. If you come through the door swinging, it’s going to be a lot harder to get what you want, if you get it at all. No one wants to deal with someone who is unreasonable, even if that person has a legitimate complaint. If you treat the person you are complaining to as an adversary, then they will be an adversary. I have a temper and it took me a long time to learn this. It doesn’t matter if you’re right. It doesn’t matter if you were treated unfairly. If you act like an asshole, then that’s how you’ll be treated. You might eventually get what you want, but it won’t be pleasant for anyone.
If I do have something nice to say about the product or the company, I always let them know. Tell them you love their thingamajigs, but you’re disappointed because your thingamajig cracked right away. Obviously, if the product is so bad that you just want your money back, then you probably don’t have a lot of positive feedback, but you can still be friendly and positive. You want the customer service rep to empathize with you, not hate you.
It’s especially important to be nice because more often than not, the person you are complaining to likely did not cause the problem you encountered. Treat them as an ally. Most customer service people actually want to make sure you are happy. Some companies (internet service providers, for example) seem to care more about their profit than making customers happy, but that is probably the exception to the rule.
When I made the complaint to Quirky, I had a friendly conversation when the customer service rep. It turns out he had only been on the job two weeks and was a little behind in dealing with his tickets. It wasn’t that he didn’t care about my complaint. He was just struggling to keep up while he learned the system. So I told him it was no big deal and wished him luck at his new job. I know that it is always tough when you start a new job, so I could relate to him and see him as a human being rather than as the person standing between me and what I wanted. If you can engage someone in conversation, it is easier for them to see you as a real person too. If I have time, I try to make my initial complaint conversational and friendly, while at the same time making sure I include the relevant facts and that I am clear about what I want. Occasionally, I just have time for the facts, but I try not to be brusque or rude about it.
Be aware too, that sometimes there is a language barrier. Getting mad at someone because English is not their first language won’t help you get what you want. Sometimes it may take a little longer to get there, especially if the person is reading scripted responses and not really engaging with you. But if you are patient, you can usually get there. I have dealt with wonderful customer service reps for whom English is clearly not the first language. Just because someone has an accent does not mean they don’t know how to do their job. If you have better things to do with your time than patiently explain to someone what the problem is, then go do them. Don’t demand to speak to someone who can “speak American”.
On rare occasions, it is appropriate to be more forceful right off the bat, and those instances should be pretty obvious. The best example I have of this is when a few coworkers and I went to the a new pizza place in Santa Monica in the late 90’s. One of my friends ordered a personal-size pizza. She was on her last slice and just happened to turn it over. There on the bottom, baked into the crust, was an honest-to-goodness cockroach. She immediately called the waitress over and showed her. Bizarrely, the waitress didn’t react at all. She didn’t apologize or say anything. She just took it away. After a really long wait, she brought us our bill. Believe it or not, the Cockroach Surprise Pizza was still on the bill. We were shocked. To say that my friend flipped out would be an understatement. She went over and found the manager and screamed at him. A lot. Would I have screamed? Probably not. Was she out of line? Not at all. To charge her for a pizza that had a cockroach in it took a heck of a lot of nerve. Clearly the restaurant was not clean and any one of us could have gotten sick from our meal – who knows what else was in what we ate. She made it clear to the manager that she felt none of us should pay for our meals. Needless to say, our entire meal was comped. That’s one free meal I would have preferred not to have eaten at all. It probably won’t surprise you to know that it closed down in just a few months after opening.
4. Are you Complaining to the Right Person?
Many times, the first person you speak to is not the one who can solve your problem. Often, you still have to go through the extra step of speaking to someone who can’t help to get to the right person. If I am making a complaint by phone, I will usually only briefly describe my problem then ask if I am speaking to the correct department. That way, I can get transferred to the correct person more quickly.
In a store or restaurant, often the clerk or server is able to deal with your complaint. A clerk can handle a return and the server can bring you the correct item. Whenever I’ve had a discount on my check in a restaurant, I’ve never requested it. The server (or manager) has just put it on there because they brought me the wrong item or because there was a problem in the kitchen that really slowed down service. Most restaurants tend to be very good about trying to ensure they have happy customers.
When you submit a complaint online, be aware that the first (and sometimes even the second) response is often automated, and gives you canned answers in response to certain keywords in your complaint. Often these responses have little if anything to do with what you’ve told them. I’m actually encountering this less lately, which is wonderful because it’s really annoying. You’re much more likely to get a satisfying response when dealing with a human.
Occasionally, you will deal with a person who is not authorized to give you what you want. Usually they will tell you this, and connect you to a supervisor. Sometimes, it will just become clear that they are giving you the same unhelpful answer over and over. Don’t demand to speak to a supervisor. Ask if there is someone else who may be able to help with your request. Or ask them to escalate your complaint to the next level. There is usually a process in place for this.
5. Be Persistent
You may be familiar with the viral recording (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/07/14/the-comcast-call-from-hell_n_5586476.html) of a couple on the phone with a Comcast agent who refuses to let them disconnect their service. It’s just painful to listen to, and the couple was simply trying to accomplish what should be a routine task. Thankfully, not every interaction with customer service is like this, but it does highlight that sometimes you have to be incredibly persistent to get satisfaction. If you’re not getting anywhere with the person you are speaking with, politely thank them, hang up and call back to speak to someone different. Chances are there will already be notes in the system about your previous interaction. If you were polite on the previous call, this will probably help you. You can tell the new person that you weren’t sure the last person you spoke with clearly understood your issue. Sometimes your problem can be solved with one phone call or email, but sometimes it takes many contacts to rectify the situation.
I recently spent two months trying to rectify a problem with Blue Shield after they accidentally canceled my 2014 insurance a month early after I selected a new plan for 2015. Then they had me under two different plans for 2015 after they reinstated the old plan. It has taken 18 phone calls and more than four hours to get the accidental cancelation and the resulting billing problems fixed. I’m still working on getting a $300 credit balance applied to the correct account. I couldn’t allow myself to get frustrated and give up, even on the 18th call, because persistence is the only thing that will get this problem solved. I can’t go without insurance and I refuse to gift them $300, so I had to continue to follow up.
6. Make Detailed Notes
When you are making a complaint, especially when you have a complicated issue, make detailed notes. When you make your initial contact, have all the relevant information in front of you, including account numbers, order numbers, dates, etc. If you are calling, then it is incredibly important that you make a note of any important information you are giving. Note the date and time you called and, if possible, the name of the person you spoke with. Usually they will provide a name, but if they don’t, ask at the beginning of the call, when everything is nice and friendly. Write down any reference numbers that they give you. When they tell you what they are going to do or if they give you instructions what you need to do next, write that down as well. Note anything they tell you that you think will be useful if you have to call back about the same issue.
Having detailed notes helps immensely when you you have to call again about the same issue. You can tell them that the last person you spoke with told you the problem would be corrected in five days, for example. It also may be helpful in getting them to escalate your problem to the next level of customer service.
For large issues, such as my Blue Shield debacle, I type up my handwritten notes as soon as I get off the phone, and add anything else that I can remember that I didn’t initially write down. It is much easier to decipher your notes if you transcribe them right away.
7. Know When to Give Up
It’s easy to find yourself locked in an epic battle just because you’re right, even over something small. Think about the amount of time and energy you are spending on a complaint, then decide if what you will get out of it in the end is worth that expenditure of effort. If not, it’s time to move on. If Quirky and Dish Jeans hadn’t responded to my initial contact, I probably wouldn’t have pursued those issues. But the Blue Shield problems required that I not give up, as it would have had a negative effect on my financial well-being and potentially on my health.
Unfortunately, things don’t always go as planned, so it’s important to know when and how to complain. I hope these tips help you have greater success next time. Please feel free to share examples of something you have complained about and how it turned out for you.