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Most people complain poorly.  So if you complain well, you'll quickly differentiate yourself and can hope for full and fair responses.

To complain effectively, you need to see your problem from the company's point of view as well as your own.  You need to 'sell' them on the 'benefits' of satisfying your complaint.

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The Art of Positive Complaining

Positive strategies to show you how to win the compensation you deserve

To positively complain, you need to ignore your perspective on your problem and instead present things from the perspective of the person you're complaining to.

This person is almost surely overworked, and has heard every story and complaint many times before.

Make it easy, simple, and a positive experience for them to generously respond to your complaint.

Part one of a multi part series on complaining - additional parts to be published in the following weeks - see links on the right hand side.



Most of us only complain when something (very) bad has been done to us; when there's a major shortfall between what was promised and what we experienced.  As such, we are usually infected with a feeling of moral outrage.

But swallow those understandable feelings of outrage.  You'll catch more flies with honey than with vinegar, and your complaint will be more successful if you phrase it in positive and 'win win' terms.

Here's why, and here's how.


The Art and Science of Effective - and Positive - Complaining

Effective complaining is both an art and a science.  As such, some of the 'scientific' concepts can be discussed and explained, but there remains also an element of art - of being able to craft the appropriate complaint to address the appropriate issue and to secure the appropriate outcome.

It is important to understand that positive complaining is not a series of tricks for you to get more than you deserve.  It is a procedure to enhance your chance of getting fair settlement for problems you have.  If you're seeking ways to get more than you fairly deserve, you're probably going to end up living the truth of the saying 'The greedy become the needy'.

A positive complaint will succeed if :

  • You actually do have something fair to complain about, something inappropriate that occurred in the situation you were in

  • You present your case in a positive and friendly manner

  • You do not insult or offend anyone, or get the company's back up causing it to 'close ranks' against you

  • You show yourself to be fair and understanding

  • You are complaining about something that is actually unusually bad, not just something that is standard for the company

  • You are asking for something the company can afford to give you

  • You are asking for something appropriate for the problem encountered

  • You show yourself to be a valuable past customer, and - more importantly - a valuable future customer who can be 'saved' by being given compensation

  • You make it easy for the customer service person to understand and respond to your request

There are different strategies to be used when complaining directly to a person 'real time' compared to when you're complaining to someone after the problem has occurred, and different strategies again when writing a letter compared to when talking to someone on the phone or in person.

Use the information in this multi part series to understand the situation you're in and choose the best way to move a positive resolution forward.

What is a Complaint

Surely this is an unnecessary question?  A complaint is when you are raising an issue or problem about something that was wrong, or bad, or not properly done, or whatever else that failed to satisfy you, right?

Well, yes, but there's more to it than that.  There are three very different types of problem scenarios, calling for different responses on your part.


In the first scenario, a problem occurs, and both you and the other people involved in the problem understand what the problem is and what your respective obligations and entitlements are in terms of how to remedy the problem.  In such cases you do not need to write a letter of complaint - you might need to send in a claim form or in some other way apply for the remedy due to you, but you're not writing a complaint as we're defining it here.

Contested Claims

The second situation is where you and the other party can not agree on facts relating to a matter that would normally entitle you to compensation based on some type of formula or procedure.  In this case, you need to set forth the circumstances and situation and details that explain how and why you qualify for their compensation, and what the appropriate amount of compensation then becomes.  This is also not a complaint.


There is another category of situation as well - there are times where things are less clear, where the root cause or problem is not necessarily mutually agreed upon, and neither also is the form of a satisfactory solution.

A complaint is usually required in such cases where there is no clear automatic problem -> solution situation in place.

Examples of the three situations

Some problems do have automatic solutions, and in such cases, your contact in whatever form is merely a way to record that the problem occurred and to seek the solution that is automatically yours.

For example, if an airline loses your baggage, then there is a formal procedure in place to seek reimbursement, within the policy guidelines and limits of the airline.  Or, if a hotel is unable to accommodate you after earlier giving you a guaranteed booking, there's again a formal procedure for resolving that issue.  Or if your car needs repair work while under warranty, that is again a simple claim.

Sometimes there will be ambiguities about the level of your entitlement.  For example, if an airline damages your suitcase, there may be ambiguities as to whether your suitcase should be repaired or replaced, and, if it is to be replaced, how much compensation you are due.  This would be an example of the second situation, above.

But if the airline merely delays your luggage, or if the hotel room is not as described, then you are in a less certain 'grey' area where you don't have an automatic and mutually understood entitlement.  Then you need to work through the complaint process.

The key difference between complaints and the other two situations

In a claim letter or form or whatever, you're simply setting out unambiguous and usually undisputed facts, and then seeking the similarly unambiguous and usually undisputed remedy.  If the facts are correct, then you have an automatic entitlement to a remedy.

But in a complaint situation, there may be uncertainty both as to the nature of the problem and also as to what would constitute an appropriate solution.  Appreciating this helps you to understand the key difference between a complaint and a claim - when you are complaining, you are negotiating from a position of 'weakness' and you have no automatic entitlement.

Most people completely fail to understand this.  In a complaint situation, no matter how morally outraged you might feel, and how inconvenienced you have been, you must remember that your automatic entitlement to relief/remedy is zero (or else you'd be filing a claim).  As much as it may seem inappropriate, you have to politely state your case and ask on bended knee for what you feel you are fully entitled to.

A Look Behind the Scenes - How Suppliers React to Complaints

A very few companies still have solid gold customer relations policies and principles.  They'll automatically do anything they can to ensure that nearly all their customers are nearly always completely satisfied in response to nearly all problems.  They put experienced and skilled staff into their Customer Relations/Complaint departments and give them the ability to quickly and positively resolve most problems.

However, most companies - and particularly most travel companies - have much less generous policies, and you'll find two key things that define and constrain how companies react and respond to complaints.

The first factor is that many people attempt to abuse the system by sending in the most ridiculous and unreasonable of complaints.  This makes the people in the Customer Service department skeptical and cynical of most complaints they receive, right from the minute they start reading them.  It encourages an adversarial relationship between them and you.  You need to ensure they don't quickly put you in this category.

Here's an important thing to appreciate - the Customer Service person you're interacting with probably knows more about their company and its services and products than you do.  This means if you exaggerate, they'll probably detect the exaggeration, and if they find something they believe to be exaggerated, they'll expect everything else to be exaggerated too, and you've lost credibility.

To rephrase this very important point - be accurate and fair on the facts, so that your opinions will be also respected as probably being similarly accurate and fair.

For example, I had a person writing to me to complain about a hotel I had booked for them in Alice Springs, Australia.  Their complaint comprised a number of things, many of which were matters of opinion ('the room was shabby and dirty') and may or may not be true and as serious as they alleged.  But there was also a matter of fact - they complained 'the hotel was a 30 minute walk from town' - and I knew, from having walked the distance myself, that it was more like an easy 10 minute walk.  So, having shown me that they were exaggerating wildly about the distance the hotel was from the city center, I found it hard to believe any of the other complaints they raised which couldn't be independently verified.  I denied their claim in its entirety, whereas if they'd not exaggerated the distance from town, I'd have been more inclined to accept their other statements at close to face value and to have offered a goodwill adjustment.

The second factor is that Customer Service people tend to be overworked (and sometimes undertrained).  They're not going to read through a six page letter, and they're not going to 'fill in the gaps' of anything you've omitted.  They're looking for easily understood situations with clear action items that they are able to resolve on the spot.  So, much as you may wish to, cut your letter down to size, and make it short, simple, and to the point.

Richard writes to give us valuable insight from his position as a manager who handles second level complaints (the bold emphasis was added by me) :

I work in subscriptions for (XYZ Magazine) and one of my tasks is to handle any customer service issues that arise either from people calling our office or from letters they write.  I also will handle any complaints or issues which can not be handled by our customer service staff in the phone center.

I think I’m a very easy going person and will usually give people whatever they are asking for.  However, if your letter is mean or nasty in any way, I am much less inclined to help you.  I will admit that sometimes a complaint will simply be trashed without a response for excessive negativity or rudeness or for simply being dumb.  I can also guarantee that if you write a hateful or dumb letter, it will be passed around within the company (but not responded to positively).  It’s probably very unethical to do that, but when you get a letter such as this, “Dear XYZ Magazine, FUCK YOU!!  I am sick and tired of being shit on by the fucking world…You greedy fucking pigs…fuck you very much” you tend to show that to others.  This letter is actually hanging on my wall in my office for all to see and for my general amusement.

If you state what the problem is/was, provide what you think is a fair solution, and politely ask for the matter to be taken care of, you’ll receive a very cordial letter from me and usually some back issues or a DVD.  I’ve sent some customers a whole year's worth of back issues before to resolve their problem.  I could simply extend their subscription for missed issues, but I will take the time or go out of my way to help those who I feel truly have been wronged by us for whatever reason

The same is true with the phone.  Just be nice to the person who you’re dealing with and you’ll get a lot further.  What most people forget is that whoever you’re talking to on the phone or whoever is reading your letter is not the person who caused the problem that you’re complaining about.  But, these people (usually) have the power to correct the error and therefore you need to be extra nice to them.

Who to Address Your Complaint To

There are differing opinions about who to direct your complaint to.  Some people will complain in an undirected manner simply to the Customer Service Department, and others will write letters to the CEO of multi-national Fortune 500 companies about items involving $5 refunds.

Some people will write a letter to one person and then cc a bunch of other people.

So what is the best strategy?

My personal preference is to do one of two things.  If a company has a formal Customer Service department, and if it is an issue that can be resolved by such people, then simply send the complaint direct to them and see if the company's system works as it should.  It is their job, after all, to handle such matters.  If they don't resolve the matter to my satisfaction, then I'll escalate it further.

Although some people disagree, in my opinion there's little sense in writing to the CEO of a large company.  No matter what you put on the letter, chances are he'll never see it.  In most cases, his staff open his mail for him, and will simply redirect the letter to the Customer Service department, and when they get it, they'll roll their eyes and start off with an immediately negative view of you and your complaint.  You seem more like a 'trouble maker' than a normal person with a normal complaint when you do this.

If the company doesn't have a formal Customer Service department, or if the issue is broader than that which they are likely to be able to resolve, I'll try and find the name of a divisional manager - someone who is in charge of the part of the company that caused the problem I'm now complaining about, and write to that person.

Barry says 'I usually write to someone on the top of the food chain, but never the CEO, or COO.  Usually it's the Operations Director or the Regional Mgr., with a carbon copy to the CEO or COO. This way the person to whom the letter is addressed  already knows HIS boss is also aware.'

I agree with Barry about choosing a senior person, but unlike Barry, I never cc letters to other people in the company unless they are already directly involved in the problem and its solution.  You might feel good adding the CEO, Chairman of the Board, and who knows who else onto a cc list, but 99.9% of the time, they'll never get to even see the copies you send them, and if by some extraordinary circumstance they do see the copy, they won't do anything, because they're merely a cc recipient, not the addressee, and - please appreciate this - their lives are far too full of things that the perceive as much more important than your complaint.

If you do add a chain of cc's to a letter, then the original recipient is not going to want to do anything special for you.  They'll want to blindly and slavishly follow company policy.  They don't feel threatened by a cc at all, because it goes without saying that you can, anytime you choose, forward correspondence on to anyone else.  Everyone already knows this, so there's no need to state the obvious as a veiled threat.  People don't respond well to threats, and if you allow the addressee to feel they're being given (and trusted with) full ownership of the problem and its solution, they're more likely to work more positively with you to do so.

Bob has a clever strategy for how to rope in the CEO's support indirectly and by implication.  He writes (my emphasis) :

From time to time, I have done the folllowing with good results.  The key is to call the CEO or other top official in a business-like way. Their staff will often route you to the right person and you can then say "Your CEO's office said you can help."  They will listen and respond.

In a similar situation, I've called the CEO of T-Mobile to complain about a ridiculous problem I was having.  I of course didn't get to speak to him, and neither did I really want to, but my call was intercepted by one of his Executive Assistants, and she revealed the existence of an elite group of 'Executive Account Specialists' (or some other fancy title) - customer service reps who were sensible, helpful, and authorized to override normal rules, policies, and procedures, and do anything they wished that would solve a problem.

Whereas, only a few minutes before, I'd been speaking to a so called supervisor's supervisor who said there was nothing he or anyone else in the entire company could do to help solve my trivial and easily solved problem, all of a sudden, I was speaking with a helpful friendly intelligent lady who solved my problem in a flash.

Note that these executive account specialist types are typically high level troubleshooters - you couldn't go to them directly (unless you're with a major customer of theirs), but if you've gone through the process of front line customer service, supervisors, etc, and are stuck dead in the water, then it becomes time to seek out the big guns and enlist their support.

To be continued

In the second part of this series we continue suggestions on how to craft a positive complaint.  Learn about how to be realistic in what you seek, a strategy to greatly increase the compensation you receive, and about the last part of a positive complaint that most people overlook.

In the third part, we explain how to succeed when complaining, and talk about the Zen concept of how 'less is more' and its application to successful complaining.

In the next part (four) - How to Complain in Person - we explain what it takes to successfully complain in person.

Subsequent articles will detail how to write a complaint letter, and what to do if your original complaint is turned down and your compensation request refused.

Related Articles, etc

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Originally published 14 Sep 2007, 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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