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Use this information to strategize how to complain positively and successfully.

Too few people know how to complain positively.  But the good news is that if you master these techniques, your positive complaining is more likely to succeed because you'll be welcomed by the company and person you're dealing with.

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How to Create and Structure a Winning Complaint

Being positive and fair gets you more

A well written complaint will be received positively and appreciatively by the company and person you offer it to.

Follow the steps in this series to make your complaints accepted and acted on as positively as possible.

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



It is an adage that no-one likes to complain, to be complained to, or to be complained about.

But this need not be so.  Complaining - when done well - can be a positive experience that benefits the company and person receiving the complaint, and which resolves a problem encountered by the person who is complaining.

Make your complaining positive, and it will in turn become successful.  And that is a good thing for all concerned.

Should You Even be Complaining?

The world is evolving, and it is sometimes hard for us to keep up with newly revised norms of service, most of which generally seem to be lower than they formerly were.  There are many reasons for this,  including the increasing cost of hiring and training people compared to creating automated systems or 'self service'.

We've probably all encountered people who are trapped in the past and complain vociferously about things that we understand to be normal ordinary events these days, and have probably felt mild scorn for these people, who don't appreciate the present day values and accepted norms.

We can all dislike the lowering of standards when they occur, and we should even pass feedback to companies indicating our unhappiness with lower standards, but we shouldn't let such things ruin our experiences.  We need to have appropriate expectations.

The other issue, in deciding if you have grounds for a complaint or not, is to match your expectation to the service or product you are buying/experiencing.  For example, your expectation of what constitutes acceptable food would be very different while dining at Denny's compared to at a downtown gourmet steakhouse that charges ten times Denny's price for a meal.  And you'd expect a better experience if traveling internationally on a $10,000 first class ticket than if traveling on a $1,000 coach class ticket.

Two types of complaint

And so, there are two very different sorts of complaints to send.

Unhappiness with a service standard that was not achieved

If a company makes a promise and fails to honor it, or if the normal expected and agreed upon expectation for something is clearly not fulfilled, you have 'right on your side' and your complaint should focus in on what happened and how it fell short of the expectation that you fairly had, and what is fair to compensate you for this shortfall.

An example of this type of situation would be 'my food is cold' at Denny's or 'my steak is tough' at the gourmet steak house.  And 'there are no towels' in a budget hotel, or 'there aren't enough towels' in a five star resort.

Unhappiness with the service standard itself

This is a more difficult situation, because you're asking the company to admit that it has made an incorrect policy decision which it needs to revisit, either as a one-off consideration especially for you, or in general for everyone.

Needless to say, if you're seeking specific compensation or action, you'll probably get better results if you try and seek a special dispensation for yourself rather than demand the company change its policy for everyone.  An example of this scenario is when your flight is delayed or cancelled, and you're asking the gate staff to change your booking to another airline which has a flight going out soon.  If you quietly attempt to persuade them to do this for you alone, that is an easier request than if you say in a big loud voice 'you need to rebook everyone who was on your flight onto your competitor's flight'.

On the other hand, if you're writing to encourage a company to revise its general policies rather than seeking an immediate resolution to your immediate problem, you then want to give the feeling that you are representing a broad swath of public opinion - for example 'It is not just me who feels this way.  I've discussed this with my co-workers, my friends, fellow members of my church/sport club/whatever, and other customers in your store, and there is a general consensus among us all that - - - needs to be changed.'

Before you even start this type of complaint, you need to do a quick reality check - is there even any sense in complaining about the issue, and - even if you do complain - should you really expect anything other than a polite note in return?

For example, if you hire a car from 'Rent a Wreck' you can't really complain that the car you got was old and in poor condition.  You could complain if the car won't start or if the brakes don't work, but if the heater is faulty and the seat saggy, you're probably simply getting what you paid for.

Similarly, if you buy a ticket on Southwest Airlines you can't really complain if you end up stuck in a middle seat, or if you and your traveling companion end up unable to sit together.  But you could complain if you don't get a seat at all.

When you're writing to complain about this type of situation, you need to show yourself to be the type of customer who is important to the company, so as to encourage them to think 'this is exactly the type of person we want as our customer, and if he is reasonable but unhappy with our service, maybe we need to rethink things'.  You don't want them to think 'this person is an impossible to satisfy fool/opportunist and we don't care what they think because they are not who we are targeting our product/service to'.

Also, if you show yourself to be fair and reasonable, they are more likely to 'give you the benefit of the doubt' when you raise subjective issues.  For example, if you say 'the water pressure in my shower was too weak to get a good proper shower and is not what I'd expect of a four star hotel such as yours' you want them to accept your opinion about what water pressure should be.

When you're writing to complain about a service standard, you probably should write in your most statesman-like manner, and to a more senior person than if you're complaining about a service standard not being met.  You'd perhaps introduce your complaint in terms such as 'I was once taught, in a customer service class, that to write a complaint is the highest compliment a loyal customer can offer to an organization, because it shows both that the customer cares, that the customer expects, in turn, the company to care about its customers, and that the customer believes his complaint will be received and genuinely considered.  And so, in this positive vein, I'd like to share with you a recent issue where I feel your company may be able to improve its customer facing experience.'

And in such cases, you should also be less aggressive at asking for compensation.  Perhaps you're complaining about long waiting lines to check in to a hotel.  You could say, in closing 'I'm writing this note so that you and other company executives have an appreciation of what is happening at your front desk, and in the hope that you might choose to increase your front desk staffing so as to make your guests' first and last experiences at your hotel (ie when they check in and out) more positive.  I'm sure if you did, people would be more inclined to stay with you again in the future, because most other aspects of your property are excellent and encourage repeat visits.'

If you think you do deserve some compensation as well, you might add a deprecatory note such as 'It is true that the unexpected 20 minute delay in waiting to check in to my room made me late for a meeting, which was not only embarrassing but also directly cost me, because I felt obliged to offer to pay for drinks for all four of us present as penance for my tardiness.  If you wished to acknowledge this, perhaps in the form of a voucher for a future stay, that would be appreciated.'

Keep Records as the Problem Occurs

When you're complaining, many times the person evaluating your complaint is also evaluating your credibility.  Many people have been known to wildly exaggerate in their complaints, a strategy that does no-one any good.

If you can show yourself to have acted in a calm and level-headed manner all the way through, and if you have detailed records of what happened, that adds greatly to your credibility and your value as a customer they want to keep happy.

The trick in these cases is knowing when to start keeping records.  Many times, a problem only becomes obvious some time after it has started to develop.  For example, a flight that ends up being delayed 24 hours, causing you to miss connections, business meetings, etc, and sleeping over on the airport floor, will typically start off as a flight showing a slight delay.  It is only after the delay has been extended and extended and extended that you start to realize this is a big problem rather than a small annoyance.

You should make a point of always having a very small notebook and pen with you, or perhaps a PDA or cell phone with a notepad feature in it.  Then, any time something starts to go off the rails, immediately start keeping records of how the problem develops, of what you do, and of what the company does.  Record every contact you have with the company - every phone call, every message from them, and also make notes about what was said.  For example, you might write 'At 6.30pm spoke with Mike at reception, ext 0, who said they would get an engineer up to my hotel room within 20 minutes'.

This not only helps you if you subsequently need to make a formal complaint, but it helps you resolve the issue on the spot.  Having made that entry in your log, you then know to wait until 6.50pm, and if no engineer has arrived, you can call back, ask to speak to Mike again, and confidently remind him about how at 6.30pm he'd promised an engineer to your room by 6.50pm and that it is now after 6.50pm - where is the engineer?

Your next entry might read something like '6.55pm - spoke with Mike again, he promised either an engineer or he would phone me back within 5 minutes'!  And so on and so on.

Needless to say, get as many names as possible, but don't be aggressively offensive about getting names.  Discreetly write down employee names and other identifying things, and if you have to ask for a name, explain with a smile that you're not going to be complaining about them as much as mentioning their help getting the problem solved.

If people don't give you their name, write down a physical description and try and get the names of other employees and ask them who the person is who won't give their name.

Things to record

As soon as your warning sense alarms and you feel that something might become a problem, start keeping details of all that has happened and all that subsequently happens.

  • Date and time each event that you're recording, a bit like in a ship's log or policeman's notebook.

  • Detail who you interact with each time a development occurs (name, and if necessary, job title, other description, extension number, agent ID, whatever) or what happened.

  • Detail what happens each time something happens relating to the problem.

  • At some point, you'll realize that your notes are going to be necessary, because a potential problem is now a real problem.  At that point, start to add more details to previous notes and also write a short history of what brought you to the start of the complaint - perhaps when and where you bought the product that is faulty and any information from the salesman you relied on, or how you booked the hotel room and any brochure or promotional material that encouraged you to choose that hotel, etc.

  • Detail costs you incur and inconveniences you suffer.  Keep receipts.

  • Any other related information - what the company is doing for other people in the same situation, what other people are saying and doing, and so on.

Time is of the Essence

If a problem occurs, you need to respond to it quickly in order to be taken seriously.

Report problems as they occur

If it is possible for 'a stitch in time to save nine' then do all you can to minimize the problem.  For example, if you're in a rental car that has a problem, let the rental car company know the instant you find out about the problem, so they can simply swap the bad car for a good car (which is, after all, what you most want).

Don't wait until returning the car at the end of a two week rental and then spring an 'ambush complaint' on the rental company by saying 'Oh, and by the way, the windshield washers didn't work so I think you should refund me the entire rental cost plus give me a free rental next time I'm renting'.

Companies are wise to such tricks, and are unlikely to respond positively.  You are expected - both in law and in fairness - to do all you can yourself to minimize the problem you are experiencing.  Using the rental car example above, if the windshield washer problem occurred and you wait until the end of the rental to report it, not only do you have no proof that the problem started any earlier than when you finally drove back into the rental car lot, but the car company will fairly think 'If it wasn't important enough for the customer to bother calling our toll free number to report while he had the car, why should we treat it importantly now'.

Initiate claims quickly

When you do have a problem, start your complaint process as quickly after it occurred as possible.

Not only will it still be fresh in your memory, but the company will perceive an unwritten thing - if you are taking the matter seriously enough to quickly send in a full formal complaint, you'll probably continue to press the matter until it is resolved.  On the other hand, if you don't contact them for a month, the company may think 'this person isn't really very serious about their complaint, and if we ignore them, we'll probably never hear anything more from them'.

Follow up

After making your initial complaint, if you haven't heard back within a reasonable period of time, follow up by sending a copy of your original complaint together with a short cover note simply indicating that you'd sent the attached complaint on a certain date, and asking when you might get a response back.

Don't get cross or upset at the delay in getting a response back.  As an experienced realistic 'man of the world' you understand that such things happen, you understand it isn't a perfect world, and you understand that resolving complaints regrettably often gets a low priority in companies.  You could even say something like 'Please find attached a copy of a complaint I sent to your company on <<date>>.  As of today, (three weeks later, or whatever other time period is involved) I have yet to receive any reply from you.  I do understand that, even in the best run companies, resolving complaints is not always the highest priority, but I would appreciate your acknowledgement that you have received my letter and some advice as to when to expect a resolution of the issue.  You are welcome to phone, fax, or email me at any time of your convenience.'

A business like follow up note further stresses the point that you're a serious and sensible complainer, and encourages the company to treat you fairly and promptly.

Be Polite, not Abusive

Remember that a complaint is your act to optimize the outcome in a situation where the person you are complaining to has discretion as to what to do in response to your complaint.

Although you are the aggrieved person, you are also the person asking for a favor.  Sure, you see it as a favor you deserve, but it is a favor, nonetheless.  You mustn't forget this.

If you insult the person you're writing to or talking with, and the company he works for, what does that do to your chances of getting a positive favor in return?

If you show yourself to be rude and insulting, you cause the person reading it to lose any sympathy they might have for you, it makes them think 'he probably deserved everything that went wrong' and makes them pleased that you're hopefully never going to be a customer of theirs again in the future.

The person who receives a rude letter will of course be alienated.  Much better to be polite and pleasant.

If you're complaining in person, by being relaxed and friendly, you are seen not as a potential threat but as a potential friend, and the person you are dealing with is more likely to then consider you as an individual and be more open to listening to what you have to say.

Never swear or act in any way that might give the person you're complaining to an excuse or reason to refuse to deal with you any further, or an opportunity to call security or the police.

Similarly, don't display anger at the person you are dealing with about the situation you encountered.  It is almost never their fault, and if it is their direct personal fault, perhaps you are better off complaining to someone else if they're not instantly rushing to resolve the problem they caused.

If you find yourself getting angry with the person because they are not resolving your problem sensibly, perhaps then you can say in a calm business like manner 'I'm sorry, but I'm not finding you very helpful or responsive.  I know the situation is not your fault, but I believe it is your duty to help me and to resolve the problem now, and that is proving to be another frustration.  If this is not something you are empowered to do by your company, can we get a supervisor involved who can resolve the matter and spare us both more frustration.'

Most of the time, company representatives have two slightly conflicting pieces of direction by their company - they are tasked with resolving as many problems as they can, themselves, without involving other people in the company, but they are also supposed to allow you to move up the hierarchy and speak with a supervisor if you insist.

And so, if you ask to speak to a supervisor, they are conflicted.  They'll try and discourage your request, perhaps by saying 'I'm just telling you our company policy, and neither my supervisor nor I can overrule it', or perhaps by telling you their supervisor is busy or unavailable.

Humor is better than rudeness

If you really must go beyond simple businesslike descriptions of problems and events, try and phrase your complaining in humorous rather than rude terms.  You're more likely to get the reader onside with you that way.

Reader Baker writes

I have found that a sense of humor goes a long way in getting things resolved. If you can make them laugh, you can usually get what you need.

Let's face it, nine times out of ten the person receiving the complaint is NOT the person responsible for the problem, yet it is those on the front lines that receive all the flack.

Hence, the folks on the receiving end appreciate those who are not big A-holes when they are trying to get action.

But, be careful.  Humor is a difficult writing skill.  For most of us, it is best to be like Sgt Joe Friday of Dragnet fame and stick to 'Just the facts, Ma'am'.

A Rhetorical Device

Ronda writes 'Ask those in power to imagine THEMSELVES in your predicament. It often makes them more sympathetic.'

This is a very powerful tool, and helps to get the person you are dealing with on your side and sharing your perspective.  Paint a picture, with words, of the issue, and put this person in the middle of the picture.  Try using it next time you have a problem.

You could say something like 'Imagine how you would feel if you were taking important clients out for dinner, and spending a substantial sum on a meal that carried your personal endorsement, only to have one of your valued guests suffer badly cooked food, served five minutes after the rest of us got our meals, and which was not how he'd asked for it.  You'd probably be as embarrassed as I was, and I'm sure you'd now be having the same discussion - with yourself - that I'm now having with you.'

Or 'Imagine what you'd do if you also found yourself late for an important meeting with your rental car broken down on the side of the freeway.  You'd probably be as upset as I was, and as worried about the negative reflection on your business judgment that this important client would feel about you.  And while you and I both know that cars do sometimes give problems, we also know that when something wrong occurs, it isn't the customer who should be the ultimate sufferer.'

Note that weakly in the first example, and strongly in the second example, you start off by asking the other person to put themselves in your shoes, and then from there you move forward to a point where you are using 'we' to describe him and you as both being on the same side.

Use the concept of 'Imagine yourself in my situation' and build on this with the concept of 'and you would expect - - - to be done to resolve the problem'.

A Complaint that Worked

As encouragement, and as a practical example of a good complaint well handled, reader Suzanne writes

As a Starwood Platinum member, I always stay at the Sheraton Towers when I am in NY.  I always get a "if we can make your stay better" email from the big GM, Dan King, who I have never been able to meet when I go in.  Before I go in, I email the dates of my arrival to the man in charge of the front desk/room assignments (who I have met and always make a point of meeting to thank him for his assistance, no matter how small that may be) and ask for an upgrade to a suite, if it is possible.  Some times he does and some times he cannot as out of some 700 some rooms, they only have about 50 suites.

This year, I stayed there 3 times in 6 weeks, the first stay taking 2 rooms for a total cash layout of close to $3000 for that one stay. 

He was not able to upgrade me for even one of the nights.  The second stay, he was able to upgrade me 2 of the 3 nights. The third stay was a nightmare - he was not able to upgrade me, but the way I found this out was from an extremely rude front desk person who told me I was not paying enough money to get a suite.  I calmly explained to her my status, the fact that I had two rooms booked that my prior stay w/ two rooms ran close to $3000 and this was going to be a longer stay and she repeated her same insult.  I asked to speak to a manager (the one I usually speak to was not available at all during this stay) and the woman who came out said the SAME THING to me.  I cancelled one of the rooms and asked her to have her boss contact me.

He called me later, did not repeat anything about money but told me an upgrade was not possible until, perhaps, two days later.  I left him a message every day after that (I was there 7 nights) and he never returned any of my calls.

So, now is when the name Dan King came in :  I wrote him a short letter, telling him my loyalty to SPG and his hotel and rather than launch into a tirade about how I am a Platinum member who spent a lot of  money in his property in 5 weeks, I praised the overall level of service I generally get, and mentioned several of his staff by name who truly always have treated me as professionals (I collect names when I travel - never know when you need them) and then expressed my shock at the very rude treatment I received from not one, but three of his employees and suggested I would be better off at another hotel the next time I come in.  I never mentioned getting/not getting upgrades.

A few weeks later, I received a personal letter of apology for the shabby treatment, was told it was addressed in their employee weekly meeting and that, due to my letter notifying him of the actions of 3 of his front people,  the way they were handling upgrades was changed to prevent any one else from being insulted.  And by the way, he added, here is my assistant's name and personal #.  Call her when I am coming in and she will have a suite waiting for me.

My technique is: choose your battles. It would have been easy, and understandable to go on a tear about the rudeness of those three and what, as a loyal SPG member I deserve, but managers get that ALL the time.  By addressing the poor level of service (which he does need to know about) in a calm manner, it opened the door for a payoff for me.

It does not always work, but I find a calm, rational almost befriending demeanor almost always gets me what I am after.

Well said, and thank you, Suzanne.  Note also some of her other excellent comments, for example, collecting names and creating relationships so as to be better able to positively resolve problems if they should occur in the future.

Read more in this series

This is part two 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, Part Three - How to Succeed when Complaining, and Part Four - How to Complain in Person. - are already available.  More parts in the series will follow.

Related Articles, etc

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Originally published 4 Jan 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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