Complain in Person
What to do when you're dealing in person
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
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
Complaining in Person - Not
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
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.
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
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
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
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
Then move in to a quick
statement of the facts and a quick statement of the solution you
If you do these things,
you've presented yourself very positively and are most likely to
be rewarded with a positive response.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
Related Articles, etc
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8 Feb 2008, last update
21 Jul 2020
You may freely reproduce or distribute this article for noncommercial purposes as long as you give credit to me as original writer.