How to Effectively Complain to Get What You Want


You're on your third business trip this month. Exhausted after a full day of presentations, all you can think about on the cab ride to the hotel is how great it will feel when your head hits the pillow. You requested a room away from the elevator and ice machine, but guess which room they gave you? And when you enter your hotel room, you hear the drip from the leaky faucet in the bathroom. (See also: In Praise of Complainers)

Do you stew in silence, or run down to the lobby and create a scene at the reception desk?

Neither. There is an art to complaining — with tact — to get what you want.

First, Calm Down

When you have a complaint, it's because something went awry. And chances are, you're not happy about it. Before saying or doing anything at all, pause. Count to 10. If you're banging out an angry email, wait an hour before hitting the "send" button.

Even when you don't have the luxury of time — when the waiter spills the hot coffee on your lap — it's wise to muster up all the mental energy you can to think before you react. When expressing a complaint, verbally or in writing, you want your words to speak louder than your emotions, not the other way around. (See also: Letting Go: 8 Steps to Forgiveness)

Bark up the Right Tree

Go easy on the messenger. I feel badly when I see a waiter being lambasted for bringing out an order that was improperly prepared; it's the chef's responsibility to cook a meal to order.

Make sure the person on the receiving end of your complaint has the power to provide a resolution. It's not the customer service rep's fault that the cable TV service went out during the playoff game, but they probably have the authority to give you a $25 "valued customer" credit for the inconvenience. If interruptions in service become a repeated problem, maybe it's time to escalate your complaint to a manager, who can assign a technician to investigate — and fix — the problem.

Sandwich the Complaint Between Compliments

Generally speaking, the aforementioned hotel (the one with the leaky faucet) is a great place. You've stayed there before, and have always been pleased with the accommodations and service. Start your exchange with the desk clerk or manager on this upbeat (but sincere) note.

Then express your dissatisfaction with your current experience — the fact that your request to be in a room away from the elevator was ignored and that the faucet in your room leaks.

The bottom "layer" of the sandwich is another positive statement, perhaps expressing your appreciation for the manager's attention to your concern.

Using the complaint sandwich sets a positive, respectful tone to your exchange. It also reduces the chances of the person on the receiving end becoming defensive.

Know What You Want — And Ask for It

When talking to the hotel manager, what is it that you want? Are you simply venting, looking for validation — or do you want to be moved to another room in the hotel?

Let's say you bought a new gym bag online, but the strap ripped the second time you used it. When you send an email to the retailer, are you going to ask for a refund? A replacement strap? Unless the person on the receiving end of your complaint letter is a mind reader, you need to be clear about your expectations.

Sometimes, there is no resolution. A curmudgeon-like clerk sends you on an unwarranted guilt trip when you return a sweater, even though you only bought it last week, it has all its tags intact, and you pleasantly present your receipt. A letter of complaint can help make store management aware of problems — like unfriendly employees — so that they can take steps to rectify them. In this case, be clear that you don't want anything other than to let management know that there is an unpleasant associate in their midst.

Get to the Point

People are busy, torn in a million different directions; succinctness counts. Especially when writing a letter, assume that the reader will skim it. Be specific about your complaint and your expectations about how and when it might be resolved. Don't ramble on about impertinent details or the story of your life.

Be Nice

Whether in person or on paper (including email), remember that the person reading it may not have had a part in creating the problem; rather, they will (hopefully) be part of the solution.

The focus of your exchange should be on the problem, not on verbally beating up the person hearing or reading about it.

You catch more flies with honey than vinegar, as the saying goes. In a recent article about the power of being nice, Anthony Iannarino, Managing Director of B2B Sales Coach & Consultancy, says "Being nice doesn't mean that you lack candor, that you can't be demanding, and that you can't engage in productive arguments and disagreements." Rather, he says, it means you can't be mean, and ought to treat people well.

Being nice can also involve acknowledging resolution of a problem, even, or perhaps especially — after a string of complaints. After you've gotten what you want, be nice about it, and say thanks.

How do you complain? Please share your best complaints in comments!

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