Communicate

How To Complain To Get What You Want (Without Being A Huge Arsehole)

Corporations may seem large, powerful and intimidatingly faceless, but that doesn’t mean that you have to settle for what you’re given. You have a voice and you can use it to complain to get what you want. Here’s how.

Photo remixed from an original by Graeme Maclean

Note: While this guide will help you issue effective complaints, it is not black and white. Corporations are not inherently evil, they’re not always wrong, and you’re not always right. Just because you want something doesn’t mean you should necessarily complain until you get it. Please use this advice responsibly and only complain when you’re truly getting the short end of the stick. When a customer makes unreasonable demands or takes advantage of a corporation, it makes the situation worse for everyone else. Please only use this advice to do the right thing.

How to Complain Properly

The rules of effective complaining are pretty simple:

  • Only make a thoroughly educated and informed complaint. Do not complain unless you’ve considered the other side and you’re fully confident in your complaint.
  • Never be an arsehole. You are dealing with real people with real feelings, and your anger is rarely their fault.
  • Make few demands and ask a lot of questions.

Every one of these items is vital to an effective complaint. You’re walking in unprepared by only knowing your own side of the argument, shooting yourself in the foot by being a jerk, and backing yourself into a corner by making several demands. Let’s look at why.

Be Informed

Photo by Eduardo Frei

Preparing for a debate is always better than walking in unprepared, without facts or any information to back up your claims. Complaining to a company, your local council, or whomever, is essentially a debate and you’ll hurt your argument if you’re not properly informed.

When the idea of complaining pops into your mind the first time, it’s generally an emotional response. Maybe you’ve just been billed by your health care provider for something they should cover and you’re angry. Maybe you’ve just been denied a warranty-promised repair for your computer because the manufacturer insists that the problem is a result of user damage when you know it isn’t. Whatever the case may be, you simply cannot win your side without considering where the other side is coming from. You can think of it as knowing thy enemy if you want, but often times the other side has a reasonable point. You may even find by considering their point that you’re actually in the wrong. Complaining when you’re in the wrong is just a bad, bad thing to do, so this is an important step. If it strengthens your argument, you’ll be in much better shape. If it weakens your argument, you can be the good guy and take responsibility.

Photo by Jamie Henderson

How do you become informed about your complaint? You need to do two things: play devil’s advocate and research similar complaints made in the past. Devil’s advocate is an easy process since all you really need to do is debate with yourself. Think about why the other side might argue against your complaint and act like they’re right. Come up with the best arguments they have against why they should help you and prepare your rebuttals. Researching previous complaints is also very easy. You have access to the internet, after all, and can simply search for terms that describe the situation you’re in or the problem you’re having. Much like in a court of law, you gain an advantage if you can discover a precedent that points to you being in the right. If a person’s hard drive failed a day after the warranty expired and the manufacturer replaced it, you can probably convince the manufacturer to help you out due to the unfortunate circumstances. Technically they’re not required to help, but it never hurts to ask politely in a situation where it’s really in your best interest and theirs to help you out (since it will make you a very happy customer).

Don’t Be a Jerk

Photo by Denis Dervisevic

When you want to complain, generally the emotion attached to that complaint is anger. Anger is a powerful motivator, but it’s terrible and useless in an argument. Anger just breeds more anger, and that heightened emotional state prevents you, as well as the person you’re complaining to, from seeing logic and reason. Plus, nobody wants to help a huge asshole.

Having worked in customer support before, I can tell you that nobody on the other end of the line wants to give you disappointing news. The hardest part of the job for me was saying “no” to customers when I wanted to help them. I wanted to help the customer so much that I’d generally work overtime—for which I wasn’t paid — to do so. This was more common than not in our organisation, but we only did it for the nice customers. If you were mean, you went right to the bottom of the priority pile.

That said, not every customer support team is filled with people who want to sacrifice their free time to help you. Many customer support representatives work for corporations that don’t care about them, don’t help them do their job better, and have customers who are more often angry than not. Furthermore, the majority of those representatives are not trained in conflict resolution and will simply get mad when you’re rude to them. While you shouldn’t be rude, the unfortunate reality is that being yourself isn’t necessarily going to help either. Often times you have to approach these conversations acting the opposite of the way you feel. Chances are you’re really angry, but you have to call in and be cheerful. This is very hard to do, and I’ll be the first to admit that I can’t always do it. Sometimes I am just so frustrated that I can’t hide it. Nonetheless, you should never be a jerk. It is not the customer support representative’s fault that you’re having the problem and their job is to help you. Be nice to them and they will. It’s okay to be firm about the resolution you want, but you should always be kind.

Avoid Demands, Focus on Questions

Photo by Jake Rome

Although you shouldn’t be vague about what you want, it’s often best to prime the representative to feel more like they’re on your side. We’ve previously posted about how a simple question can help you get better results with your complaints, and it’s very true. If you’re feeling like you’re stuck at a dead end and not getting anywhere with a customer service rep, often times you can move forward by asking him what he would do if he were in your position. You can also ask what kind of resolution he thinks is fair, how he thinks this problem can best be solved, and anything else that can (politely) help a customer service representative understand what it’s like for you. In some cases you’ll need to ask to escalate the issue to a superior — which is often what needs to happen in order to get the resolution you want in the first place, so don’t be afraid to ask — but often times you can get where you want to be by simply getting the customer support representative to think about where you’re coming from.

While questions are important, you don’t want to lose sight of your goal. It is perfectly fine to state your ideal resolution during the call. What you want to avoid is making demands. It’s OK to say “this is what I’d like to see happen”, followed by an outline of your ideal resolution in a concise and polite fashion. What’s not OK is to demand that you get this or that with an implied “or else”. Demands kill a negotiation and make you an unreasonable, hostile person. Just because you don’t demand something doesn’t mean you won’t get it. When you make a demand, the other side will feel they’ve heard everything they need to hear. They know the only condition you’re willing to accept and will act accordingly. If you’re willing to discuss the situation politely, you’re more likely to get what you want. This way you have an opportunity to argue why what you want is the most fair and a lesser resolution won’t work. Demands take all of those options off the table.

Where to File Your Complaints

Photo by Joan Campderrós-i-Canas

For the majority of complaints, you can simply call a customer support phone number, write an email or letter, or just show up in person. Unless you’re ridiculously unpleasant (which you probably are not), you’ll always have better luck in person. So much of our communication is informed with body language, so you give yourself a huge advantage by showing up in person and kindly asking for your ideal resolution. This isn’t always an option, however, so you want to pick the mode of communication that’s the closest alternative. Often times this is a phone call, so always opt for the phone instead of email or online chat when your complaint will require some back-and-forth. If you’re making a simple complaint that won’t require much discussion (if any), you can generally resolve that easily over email. Waiting on hold for customer service can be annoying, however, so we tend to avoid phone calls. Simply put: don’t.

Sometimes complaining directly to the company will get you nowhere. There is no strategy you can have that will always be effective. It is inevitable that you’ll encounter an awful person on the other end of the line, or in person, and have to bring your complaint elsewhere. When I first moved to Los Angeles, I had such a problem. Aside from an awful flight, my bag was broken into by a TSA agent. When I went to report the theft, before I even knew what had happened, I was berated and belittled by the woman at the baggage office for absolutely no reason. She was one of the most needlessly cruel people I have ever encountered. Oddly, her name was Joyce. This flight was on Virgin America and it wasn’t the first significant problem I’d had with the airline. When I tried contacting other members of the airline to complain about the flight, I didn’t receive a response. Rather than giving up, I contacted the Consumerist and they published my story. Two days later I heard from Virgin American and they resolved everything very fairly. I’ve since only had great experiences with the airline.

Consumer rights blogs are one good way to complain, but another great avenue is Twitter. Many businesses have dedicated customer support Twitter accounts that go out of their way to find and help angry customers who have tweeted their problems. This route is not always effective, but I’ve seen great results with my cable company and a few software companies. If your complaint is effectively ignored through traditional means, try utilising social media. They’d prefer to keep your negative experience out of the public space, so it can be more effective than you might think.

If you need help writing a complaint letter, be sure to check out our complaint letter template.

What to Do When Your Complaints Are Ignored

If none of these options work out, you may want to consider if this complaint is really worth the effort you’ve put into it. If you’re really getting screwed, your next steps may be legal action. (On the other hand, you could always try something more creative.) You’ll need to consult a legal professional for advice on whether or not such action is warranted, but sometimes even if you’re in the right and your complaint remains unheard, you’re still better off letting it go. Always consider the importance of the resolution. While your principals may seem like the most important thing, if you’re getting very little you’re often better off letting the complaint go and taking your business elsewhere.

Got any great advice on complaining more effectively? Let’s hear it in the comments!