In Praise of Complainers: Why Complaining Is Good


Have you ever been out for dinner with someone who won’t complain? Regardless of how terrible the service or remarkably bad the food, your companion just shrugs or sheepishly makes an excuse on behalf of the waitstaff or chef? It happens all the time. The dry cleaner who turns your cashmere cardigan into a very expensive sweater for a teacup poodle. The pizza delivery guy who drops off a cardboard Frisbee covered in tomato sauce. The car repair shop that transforms a “clink-clink-clink” sound into a “clank-thud-gasp.” Everything and everyone gets a free pass. (See also: How to Get What You Want on Customer Service Calls)

Some might argue that these non-complainers are just more peaceable creatures, naturally disinclined to offend or make waves. But I assert that they’re wreaking havoc at every turn and contributing to mediocrity. You see, done right, complaining can be quite wonderful and productive. Here’s why.

It Shows You’re Not a Passive Consumer

Complaining shows you’re an actively engaged customer, conscious about service and concerned about value. It helps combat that perception that consumers are sheep and will follow the herd no matter how underwhelming the experience.

It Implies That You’re Vocal

Complaining suggests to businesses that you’re not only aware, but vocal. When there’s a problem, you’ll call it out; when you’re expectations are exceeded, you’ll recommend the business to friends.

It Communicates a Certain Expectation of Quality and Satisfaction

The baseline for all businesses should be to meet their customers’ expectations. Smart businesses go one step further and try to delight their patrons. Pointing out issues when they occur simply communicates that you’re paying attention — that you’re aware of the unspoken agreement between business and customers and understand what the baseline should be.  

It Tends to Improve Quality for Other Consumers

Complainers speak on behalf of all customers. Problems are sometimes isolated incidents, but in some cases they’re chronic. Voicing dissatisfaction can wake management from its stupor and benefit service and quality for everyone.

It Calls Attention to Issues That May Not Be Noticed by Management

Consumer passivity can sometimes let dangerous or unhealthy situations persist. For example, making a business aware of undercooked chicken, a saggy step, or a lead-footed delivery driver can help it avoid potentially costly issues later.

How to Make Constructive Complaints

Vocalizing dissatisfaction can be cathartic, but there’s a fine line between constructive complaining and angry venting. It’s always best to avoid making any situation personal. Keep your complaints rooted in calmness and focused on a solution. Whether you’re giving feedback directly to a staff person or a manager, frame your conversation by first answering these fundamental questions:

  1. What’s the issue?
  2. What were your reasonable expectations?
  3. How were your expectations not met?
  4. Were there any unusual or extenuating circumstances not within the business's control?
  5. What would resolve the situation?  

Remember, keep things civil. Even if you’re hitting a brick wall and getting no satisfaction, rising above the situation will always serve you best in the long run. That doesn’t mean you can’t escalate the situation; it just means you may need to go a different route.

Complaining gets a bad rap in our modern world. We’re so busy, so plugged in, and so afraid of offending someone that we sometimes forget the power of a little righteous indignation. Stopping to talk about our experiences — good or bad — gives voice to others and (hopefully) makes things better for the next person. 

Do you have a friend who won't complain? What have they suffered through to avoid confrontation? 

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Guest's picture

I'll admit that a lot of the time if my level of dissatisfaction is low or unimportant, I'll mostly keep my complaints to myself. However, if I believe there was a blatant disregard for my (as a customer) needs without any regret for my dissatisfaction, I will certainly voice my opinion. As I get older I hope to become more assertive in this area, as complaining not only does all the things you listed here (makes management aware, and possibly improving for other consumers) it can also get you much farther in certain situations, for a much lower costs. My friend is a major complainer, and he always seems to land awesome deals and upgrades from customer service. I do however think some people are way too harsh sometimes, especially on servers at restaurants who actually have nothing to do with how the food was prepared.

Meg Favreau's picture

"I do however think some people are way too harsh sometimes, especially on servers at restaurants who actually have nothing to do with how the food was prepared."

Agreed! I think constructive complaining is great, but I have a huge dislike for people who take their anger out on the wrong people.

Guest's picture

ah yes, but i've asked the water co. for a new cover to go over the hole (that's 2 feet deep) in my yard...several times...THEY DESERVE MY WRATH, but i'm going to be nice at the water co. meeting 2moro night...hubby wants to know if he needs to get bail money together

Julie Rains's picture

Well done, I complain b/c of the reasons you mentioned. I really am trying to look out for other people, not just myself. Also, I don't try to just explain how someone failed to meet my expectations but I point out how he/she failed to meet company or regulatory standards (meaning, I typically research what the standard is before lodging a complaint; it's a geeky approach but I like to make sure I know what I am talking about first and that really helps solidify my position).

And, yes, I know people who won't complain and yes, it's a problem! Sometimes these problems are perpetuated over and over, and the problem doesn't get fixed because, well, no one complains. So, those who are hesitating, get your facts together and then go ahead and say something, if not for yourself then for others.

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