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Complaining in person can be the quickest most effective way to get your problem solved.

But because you're doing this 'real time' and don't have a chance to carefully prepare your case and pick and choose your words and strategies, you need to be well prepared to ensure you prevail.

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How to Complain in Person

What to do when you're dealing in person with someone

When things go wrong, it is common to be angry and upset.  But displaying your anger, whether in person or in a subsequent complaint letter, is seldom the best way to get a positive outcome.

Remember the adage 'You catch more flies with honey than with vinegar' when complaining.

Part four of a multi part series on complaining - see links on the right hand side for other parts.



The good news is that complaining in person gives you the opportunity to have your problem solved immediately.

And being directly with the person you're dealing with, you can read their body language and interactively adjust how you present yourself and your problem/solution to best advantage.

But you're also dealing with someone who has likely been training in how to deal with complainers, and who has experience in such situations, whereas, hopefully, having such a problem is a very rare situation for you.

So you're going to need to have your wits about you, and to be clearly fixed on the issues and necessary outcomes if you're to succeed when complaining in person.

Complaining in Person - Not for Everyone

If you're complaining in person, this is something you can use to your advantage, but only if you're confident of your ability to maintain self control, and of your ability to eloquently state your case.

Generally, complaining in person is best, because it gives you realtime feedback in terms of how the person you're complaining to is understanding and responding to your comments, and it gives you the chance to interact and discuss/negotiate/agree on a suitable resolution to your problem.  What might take weeks or months of frustrating form letters and delays after a problem can be solved in minutes.

But there are times when complaining in person is not necessarily a good idea.  Sometimes the person you need to complain to is not able to give you the attention you need - as an example, if you're wanting to complain about not getting your requested seat assignment to a gate agent at the airport, wishing to change from a middle seat to an aisle seat at the same time the podium is besieged by a throng of people who've been overbooked and can't get seats at all, and with the flight late to push back, well, they're not really going to want to hear about your problem, and even if they did, what can they do to solve it?  The plane is full, and you are lucky to have a seat at all.  (In such a case, a polite note to Customer Service subsequently might get you some bonus miles.)

And sometimes, to put it politely, you're not in the best form yourself.  If you've been drinking for a couple of hours at a restaurant/bar, and become upset with some aspect of your meal and its service, your credibility is going to be lessened because the serving staff will tell the supervisor (assuming it isn't obvious) that you've been drinking and to disregard your complaint.  Again, a carefully considered note written to the restaurant manager the next morning will probably get a better response.

There's another time when complaining in person is not necessarily a good idea.  If you're in a very unfamiliar situation, perhaps with language difficulties in a foreign country, then you're not in control of the situation, you're perhaps not aware of expected norms of service and behavior, you might have problems communicating in the foreign language, and it all can become too much and too difficult.  Sometimes you just have to 'suck it in', remind yourself that it isn't a perfect world, and promise yourself that next time you'll not buy the lowest priced product and instead treat yourself to a more expensive product but one which is less likely to cause you the problem you're now suffering!

Dress for Success

Depending on the situation, if you have a chance to 'dress up' a bit before making your complaint in person, this may help your chances of being taken seriously and of winning a favorable resolution.

Some places and people are more sensitive to dress code issues than others.  For example, I was staying at a five star hotel in London, redolent with 'old style class' and self-important pompousness.  If I were to go in and out of the hotel while wearing casual tourist type clothes, the hotel staff ignored me - it was as if I were invisible.  But if I dressed up and wore a suit, then all of a sudden, I became visible again.  Doormen would spring to attention and open doors for me, concierges would smile and say 'Good morning, sir' and reception staff would acknowledge me as I walked past.

If I were to have a problem with my room at that hotel, guess which style of attire would ensure a more sympathetic hearing from the front desk manager?

As a general rule of thumb, you want to dress in a manner that emulates the style of dress the company you are dealing with seeks in its preferred customers.  This doesn't always mean business attire.  You'd look out of place and even ridiculous, wearing a suit in a tropical resort, but even at the tropical resort, if you wished to pursue a complaint you'd be better advised to put on smart casual tropical wear and shoes rather than turn up at the front desk dripping wet and sandy, fresh from the beach in your swimming costume.

Sometimes you have no opportunity to get changed due to the nature of the issue and where you are.  In such cases, I sometimes start off by saying 'Please excuse my casual dress' as a way of establishing that I treat the person I'm dealing with respectfully and that I'd prefer to dress up more in their honor.

Initial Introduction

When you first meet with a person who you hope will resolve your complaint, try and find out, as positively and politely as possible, who the person is and what their job title is.  Sometimes this will be obvious because you've been waiting in line in front of, eg, a 'Customer Service' desk at an airport, and you eventually get to speak to one of the agents behind the desk.

But, if perhaps the agent doesn't resolve the issue to your satisfaction and you ask to speak to a supervisor, you have no way of knowing who it is you're dealing with when someone eventually appears.  Ask for business cards whenever possible, and the politest way of doing this is to offer one of yours first.  If they don't reciprocate with a business card automatically, then ask for one.

Otherwise you might find that the so-called 'supervisor' is nothing other than a co-worker who has agreed to pretend to be a supervisor to try and shut you up (this has happened to me more than once!).

Getting a business card keeps things in a positive businesslike manner, whereas asking 'what is your name, how is it spelled, what is your job title, and what are your office contact details' makes something that you hope will be light and easy to solve become seen as heavy and problematic instead.  And depending on what is on your card, it may add to your perceived level of importance without requiring you to be blatantly self-inflating.

The First Five Seconds (and the five seconds before, too)

When someone approaches a complaining customer, they're initially slightly apprehensive ( thinking something like 'Is this going to be a screaming lunatic who I'll find impossible to deal with, or will he/she be a decent person with a fair minded approach to a reasonable problem?').

You've got 5 - 10 seconds to answer that question in their minds.  Give them a negative feeling about you, and their defensive shields will shoot up faster than ever was possible in Star Trek; give them a positive feeling and they'll reciprocate with cautious humanity on their part, too.

So, when the person who you hope will solve your problem for you approaches, great him with a relaxed smile of happiness, and give them a warm greeting.  Follow these steps :

1.  Introduce yourself.  'Hi, my name is David Rowell.'  Hand them a business card.

2.  Apologize for taking up their time (without being obsequious or weakening your case).  'I'm sorry to trouble you, and appreciate you interrupting your day to come and help, but it seems I have an issue that needs your input and help ....'

3.  Say something nice about their company.  'Normally, I'd expect to be asking you so as to tell you how much I appreciate the fine --- that I usually get when I'm ---- with your company.  And I hope next time we meet, it will be for a positive reason again.

4.  If you can, add a short joke or something else to completely defuse a potentially tense situation.

Then move in to a quick statement of the facts and a quick statement of the solution you need.

If you do these things, you've presented yourself very positively and are most likely to be rewarded with a positive response.

Kati writes

As a travel agent, the main thing I tell my clients to do when they have been wronged (by the airlines usually) is to be patient, kind and persistent.

Quite often, the airline customer service reps (or ticket agents or flight attendants or whoever) expect passengers to be angry and rude.  It catches them off guard (pleasantly) when someone is kind.  And then they (airline personnel) tend to be more accommodating.

Persistence and patience are also key factors in this kind of scenario because if a wronged passenger is simply kind, he or she will likely not get much more than an apology.  If you want a resolution that's acceptable to you as the traveler, then you must persist in a kind and patient way!  Of course, this is all easier said than done when you're in the heat of the miserable-flight-experience moment, but over and over again, I see the patient, persistent, kind travelers walking away happiest (and of course, "happiest" does not mean a whole lot when everyone else is walking away furious; "happiest" in this case often means just less furious than the rest).

Until there is an airline passenger bill of rights, it's rare that wronged passengers will walk away from an airline customer service rep truly happy.

The five seconds (possibly longer) before you meet

Be alert to the possibility that you're being observed prior to the person appearing in front of you.  Maybe they're in the back office looking at you through a two-way mirror, or maybe they're watching you through a surveillance camera.

So be on your best behavior prior to the person who will help you arriving.  They might be looking at you while they review your file/check the computer/discuss the problem with other people.

Rehearse Your Opening Line

Have your opening line prepared in your mind.  Try and be able to express your problem in no more than a couple of sentences, and to explain what you want the person you are meeting with to do in no more than another couple of sentences.

Then, from there forward, you can conversationally discuss the matter with the other person, but make sure you give them an initial clear understanding that they can move forward from.

Try Not to Interrupt (too much)

Just like you're reading a series of articles on how to complain, there are also courses taught on how to handle complaining people.  One of the things people are taught is to hear out the person's complaint in full without interruption - hopefully you'll be dealing with a person who allows you to do that.

But don't confuse a lack of interruption with the presence of interest and focus on you and a willingness to understand and solve your problem.

When the person you're dealing with is, in turn, making their corporate excuse or other lengthy explanation, allow them in turn the opportunity to say their piece.  Let them give their prepared standard response, and only when they too have completed their 'set piece', should you then become more interactive.

Occasionally in the conversation, if the other person is just going off on a complete tangent and is mistaken about something relevant and important, hold your hand up slightly (visual clue) and say 'Excuse me, but I have to correct you and save your time ....' and explain why they are going down the wrong path.

Supporting Cast Members

If you have a spouse, children, or other people traveling with you, decide if your needs are best served by having them with you or not.

Crying young children might help you with a middle aged lady who has quite likely had to wrestle with stressful problems together with children herself in the past, but might alienate you to a young twenty-something year old male to whom children are an alien life form best avoided.

A group of ten people all standing together and refusing to move or leave until the problem is solved has a lot more persuasive power than one single person alone, acting as representative for the group.  A supervisor might think 'I can lie about what happens with one person, and I can even call security/the police, and I won't get any grief from my management and won't create a big embarrassing fuss' but when they see ten people all resolutely lined up demanding their problem be solved, the supervisor knows that he can't claim all ten people were being offensive, disruptive, making violent threats, or whatever else.

If you do have other people present with you, however, make sure that you put on a united front.  Don't have arguments among yourselves (whether it is about the matter being complained of, or about anything else at all).  This might seem obvious, but I could tell you stories about people who've been opposite a desk from me and their extraordinary behavior, about which they seemed either completely unaware or uncaring.

Be Patient and Cooperative, But Not Too Much

By all means indicate your willingness to meet the company part-way, and your sensitivity to other operational problems the company may be struggling with simultaneously.  But keep in mind that the company promised you something without adding qualifiers to the promise, and that you're now expecting them to treat your problem with proper business like efficiency, and that your priority is resolving your problem.  If the company has allowed a dozen other problems also to simultaneously occur, that is their problem, not your problem.

You can say 'I'm sorry to hear about the other problems, but I'm not a part of either the problem or the necessary solution in those other situations, and the other problems don't make the need for a solution to my issue any less important to me.  We are both talking, right now, about how to solve my problem, and I must ask you to help me do that, and now.'

You might add 'As I see it, what is right, fair and proper for me is the same, whether this is a unique problem only experienced by me, or a common problem suffered by many others.  The problem still exists, and I still need it solved.'

Don't Lose Your Temper or Shoot the Messenger

If you lose your temper, you've lost the game.  In real life, people who lose their temper and display adult temper tantrums seldom if ever get a generous settlement, because they have shown themselves not to be the type of person the company wants as a repeat customer.

If you think you're losing your temper, hold you hand up and say 'I'm sorry, could we pause for a minute.  This is very stressful for me - your job might be handling problems like this all day, but I've not had this type of problem before, and I'm feeling a bit unrelaxed.  Could we maybe start over, freshly and more positively.'

Or you could say 'I'm sorry, but this is terribly frustrating for me, and I'm just not very experienced with encountering such problems.  I don't feel I'm getting the resolution I need here, and perhaps the chemistry between us is not helping.  Is there someone else I could talk to instead?'

And remember that much of the time, the person you're dealing with is not the person who caused your problem (generally try not to get the person who caused your problem to be in charge of fixing it), and probably the person you're dealing with is constrained by what their company allows them to do in response.

Sometimes you can try saying this 'Look, let's both put our cards on the table.  I have this problem (<problem details briefly restated>).  You've been courteous and considerate - thank you - but so far, we don't seem able to resolve the problem.  I know that if you owned the company, the problem wouldn't have happened to start with, and if it did, you'd be free to choose to do anything, even (<wild and crazy very expensive solution>), but I also know you don't own the company and aren't allowed to authorize such things - it is probably just as well, or else you'd be doing it all the time!  In difficult cases, I guess you're allowed to refer the matter further up the corporate ladder - can we agree that we've gone around the issue sufficiently together and now we need to get someone else involved who can get closer than you're allowed to in solving my problem?'

The 'No-one is here to help you right now' Ploy

'I'm sorry, but the maintenance man finishes work at 10pm, you'll have to wait until he returns on Monday morning.'  'I'm sorry, but the manager is in a meeting.'  'I'm sorry, but the supervisor is at lunch.'  And so on - invalid excuses designed to get rid of you in the hope you'll not come back, or - if you do come back - it will be when the person you're dealing with at present is no longer on duty.

You need to understand what you are being told in all these cases.  You're being told that your problem is not important enough to bring the maintenance man back and pay him some overtime, your problem isn't important enough to interrupt the manager's meeting, or the supervisor's lunch.

If you agree with this, then fine.  But if you think your problem is important, then tell the person who is trying to brush you off that you believe your problem is sufficiently important and demand they acknowledge it accordingly.

Use your cell phone to advantage.  When they say no-one is available to help you, pull out your cell phone and ask for a cell phone number of someone you can call, right now, who will be able to help you further.

If they say 'we aren't allowed to give out those numbers' ask that they call the person instead.  Offer them the use of your phone if they say 'our internal phone system doesn't allow us to make outside calls'.

If they say they don't have any contact numbers, offer to call directory service to get home phone numbers.

If they still refuse, it does no harm to restate the situation - perhaps it might make the person realize the corner they have boxed themselves into.  Say 'So let me understand things here, because I think I've missed something.  I have <this important problem that needs fixing right now> and you tell me you're not able to fix it yourself.  But you also tell me that there is no-one currently on duty who can help me, and you're not willing to call anyone off duty, and you're also refusing to allow me to contact anyone, anywhere, who could help us both solve the solution.  If you can't solve the problem, and won't get the help of someone who can, what do we do next?'

Pause, then laugh to defuse the tension, and say 'Neither of us wants to spend the rest of your shift going round in circles.  Surely there's someone, somewhere, we can call to solve this problem that has got the better of both of us?'

Suggest calling more senior people at their Head Office, or senior people at other branches.  If nothing else, you're certainly laying the groundwork for a follow up escalation of your complaint.

Fight Water with Fire

A company may sometimes try to dampen your enthusiasm for complaining by making it difficult for you to continue your complaint.

Here's a dangerous suggestion, but if you are sufficiently annoyed, and willing to chance an unexpected outcome - and if all else has failed - make yourself more of a problem to ignore than it would be to solve your problem.

For example, if you're told that the only person who can help you won't be available for 30 minutes, tell the person that you will wait, and refuse to move from where you are standing.  If they say there are other people they need to serve/help, tell them that is not your problem.  If they say they'll call security to forcibly move you, tell them that this will sound really good - their company's response to a customer with a problem is not to respond and resolve the problem in a timely manner, but instead to call security and remove you from the premises.  Ask if that is the headline they want to appear on their local Consumer Affairs television program?

Note there's a very good chance that security will be called, you will be ejected from the building, and only a very small chance you'll get to embarrass the company on a tv show.  This is a ploy to adopt when dealing with more upmarket companies that are - hopefully - more sensitive to customer relations, and companies who, if they are shown to be insensitive, are more likely to be newsworthy.  For example, being ejected from Walmart wouldn't create too much interest, but being ejected from Nordstrom would.

An example of matching outrageous service with outrageous behavior

One time I had booked a convention into a moderately upmarket hotel in Russia; a hotel that prided itself on its 'security' (in other words, only the hotel prostitutes could freely roam the building, guests were inconvenienced with intrusive access controls).  In addition to the rooms for the guests, there was also a group room for meetings.  All the rooms were in an access controlled part of the hotel which only guests could enter.  I arrived early one morning to set up for the presentation I was to give, but couldn't access the wing of the hotel with the group meeting room, because I didn't have a guest room key.

The unhelpful people at the Front Desk told me the only thing I could do was to call a guest and have them come down to let me in.  It was early in the morning and I didn't want to disturb the people attending the conference.  I asked to speak to a manager, and was told there was no manager on duty.  I ridiculed this notion - no manager on duty in a many hundreds of rooms four star hotel?  I got a complicated excuse about shift changes, and night managers busy handing over duties to the day managers, and so on.  But, the bottom line remained - they wouldn't give me a key, and they wouldn't get me a manager.

I had booked and paid for the meeting myself, and being told I couldn't access my meeting room, and being refused access to a manager, was so absurd that I decided to be a little stupid myself.

I took a couple of steps back from the front desk, and shouted out, at the top of my voice 'Help, I need a hotel manager.  Please come and help me.'

The front desk staff studiously ignored me.  Some guests hurried past, looking the other way; others slowed and looked at me curiously.

Exactly one minute later, I called out again.  There was a quiet murmur behind the front desk.

After my third call, I was asked to please wait, a manager would be with me soon, but I was not told when.

Another minute passed, I called out again.

I was given an access key seconds later.  I never met a manager, though.

Read more in this series

This is part four 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 three How to Succeed when Complaining.

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Originally published 8 Feb 2008, last update 30 May 2021

You may freely reproduce or distribute this article for noncommercial purposes as long as you give credit to me as original writer.

Related Articles
The Art of Positive Complaining part 1
The Art of Positive  Complaining part 2
The Art of Positive  Complaining part 3
How to Complain in Person
How to Write a Complaint Letter
Escalating a Complaint
Related Topic :  How to Respond to a Complaint
Related Topic :  How to Ask for Favors


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