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How to Succeed When Complaining

Being positive and fair gets you more

There's a right way and a wrong way to complain.  Guess which way is depicted here!

You need to act completely the opposite of this image - be calm, cool, and collected.  Your non-confrontational approach will in turn encourage a similarly non-confrontational approach from the person you're complaining to.

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



Perhaps this article should be titled 'The Zen of Complaining' because 'less is more' is a good concept to appreciate when it comes to managing a successful complaint.

Use less emotion rather than more emotion, and ask for reasonable rather than outrageous compensation.

Be high minded and fair, and see things from the complaint handler's point of view.  But also be steely in your resolve to secure fair compensation for unsatisfactory services or products.

Follow these steps, and your complaints should succeed.

Be Realistic and Ask for Realistic Compensation

Never ask for something you can't get.  If you ask for something you'll never get, a company's response is more likely to be outright rejection rather than to 'meet you half way'.

Realistic time frames

And don't be unrealistic in your timetable as well.  Don't demand a reply within 24 hours, because that simply isn't going to happen.  Most companies will normally respond within two to three weeks of receiving a complaint.

There is one exception to this, however.  That is if you're complaining in person, and your problem is time critical.  Obviously, then seconds count and you need to get an immediate resolution.

Be aware also that a standard tactic used by some front level staff in some problem situations is to delay things until they go off shift, leaving the problem for someone else to resolve.

If you're asking for a solution in person, make sure you understand what the cause of any delay is.  Try not to accept an arrangement where you have to wait for a supervisor to call back - instead ask to be put on hold and wait for them to get off their other call.  If you're told that the supervisor is at lunch, or in a meeting, or who knows what other excuse, explain politely that your problem can't wait and ask if there is either another supervisor, or, failing that, if you could have direct access to the supervisor's manager.

Don't be bullied into stepping to one side and waiting passively.  If you're told 'I'm sorry, but there are all these other people behind you who I need to serve as well' don't let that become your problem.

Suggest that the person asks for someone else to come and help out, and tell the person quite calmly that you are focused on getting an urgent solution to your pressing problem, other impatient customers are not your problem, and the sooner your problem is resolved, the sooner everyone else can get cared for too.

Realistic compensation

Don't get carried away and ask for a ridiculous level of compensation for whatever you feel your situation might justify.  And - as always - put yourself in the shoes of the company.

For example, in a high profile complaint that went public, a traveler was complaining to an airline that he was refused admission to their members-only lounge when his flight was delayed.

But this is a stupid complaint that won't win any positive response.  If the airline were to say 'Yes, you're correct, we should have allowed you free admission to our lounge' wouldn't they then be agreeing that all delayed passengers deserve free entrance to their lounge, on all future occasions?  And, sadly, there are very few airline lounges big enough to handle that many people!  Besides which, the paying lounge members (who pay many hundreds of dollars a year) would have their quiet comfortable experience destroyed by the sudden influx of hundreds of distressed passengers at a time.

The airline representative at the airport did the right thing to refuse this traveler's request.  Making this a central part of his complaint merely established him, in the airline's eyes, as an unreasonable greedy person.  He should have stuck to the core issue that he had some chance of getting compensation for - a delayed flight the airline didn't give him earlier advice about - and instead asked for a 'one-off special exception' of one future free admission/invitation coupon as compensation for his delay.  He'd probably have received that if he'd asked for it positively.

Don't be greedy

Another example of an unrealistic complaint was a passenger who wrote to his airline complaining that, due to airport terminal building work, he was unable to use the (currently closed) first class lounge prior to his international flight.  On the face of it, this is a fair complaint.  It is very nice to have access to the international first class lounges of major airlines - you're in a nice relaxed comfortable environment, you probably have free food and drinks, maybe showers, internet access, and many other things, and is definitely one of the benefits of flying first class.

But where this person lost their battle was when they asked for massive monetary compensation, using the reasoning 'I paid $12,000 to fly first class, instead of $900 to fly coach class.  I expected to spend 1 hours in this lounge, and my flight was 8 hours long, so I should get 1/9 of my airfare back.  This calculated to $1900.

So how much is 90 minutes in a first class lounge really worth?  One indicator is that many airlines will sell single entry lounge passes for about $50.  What is the maximum you'd pay for an hour and a half in a lounge?  Don't forget we only have the guy's word for it that he could have spent that long in the lounge - maybe he only had 30 minutes free time between checking in, clearing security, duty free shopping, and then leaving to go to the gate and board the plane.

Clearly, a $1900 claim is doomed to certain failure.  The airline sent him a stuffy formal note back and gave him nothing at all.  I knew the people at the airline, and I know they could have responded in many other ways if they'd chosen to - some bonus frequent flier miles, a voucher to cover some of the cost of a future ticket, maybe even an upgrade coupon or something, but because the complainer changed a fair and reasonable complaint into an unfair and unreasonable demand for ridiculous compensation, he alienated the people considering his request and ended up with nothing.

Ask for a fair amount the company can afford

Understand the dollars and cents of how much money the company you are complaining to made from your business, and how much money the compensation you are seeking will cost them.  For example, a travel agent who sold you an airline ticket and earned only the $35 fee you paid them for the service would find it difficult to compensate you and refund you, eg, a $500 ticket due to some error that possibly may have been their fault, and similarly, neither could they give you a free ticket in the future, because the $500 ticket cost would come completely out of their pocket.

And, remember - if there was definite fault involved, you don't have a complaint scenario, you have a claim scenario.  But if it is a grey area type complaint, ask the travel agency for something they can do, such as to issue you your next airline ticket and waive their service fee.

But if you are complaining to a hotel about problems with your hotel room, the situation is different.  Using one perspective, most of what you paid for the hotel room was extra profit (less perhaps $35 for the room clean and servicing when you left), and similarly, if they were to give you a free stay in the future, the cost of the future stay would also be close to zero (ie just the $35 room service cost).  So if you spent $250 on a hotel room for a night, you could fairly ask either for a full or partial refund (depending on circumstances) or for a complimentary upgrade or future stay in the future (which the hotel would prefer to give you because that way it doesn't have to actually disgorge cash back to you).

Don't be a Spoiled Child

It appalls me to see how poorly many people respond to problems and how disfunctionally they proceed in seeking a resolution.  So please excuse me if this section is written harshly.

Have you ever noticed how some people are always enveloped in problems, while others seem to be trouble free?  Some people are on first name terms with their attorneys, and are always talking about suing someone, while others have no attorney at all.

Strive to be in the latter category of people.  Don't let problems destroy your well-being or your sense of relativity.  Don't lose your perspective about the global importance of problems that occur to you.  Sure, they might seem, for a brief time, very important to you, but probably they're neither life changing or life threatening to you, and certainly they're much less important to whoever you're attempting to resolve your problem with.

So (excuse the directness of this) 'get a life' and handle the issue positively.  Remember that you're not entitled to anything - if you were, it would be a claim, not a complaint.  And that much abused concept, 'the customer is always right' doesn't really exist, and probably never did exist - even the most consumer-friendly of businesses does this only because it has calculated that it can make more money with a certain level of fair complaining, but if you abuse that privilege, you'll find them declining your business in the future.  No business these days can afford to pander to the excessive and eccentric whims of customers who don't present a fair profit opportunity to the business.

You can't seek excessive compensation 'just because'.  And your chances of 'hitting the jackpot' and getting millions of dollars in compensation for some trivial mistake, like urban legends delight in telling us?  Zero.  Don't even go there.  Don't ask for any more than you'd choose to give to someone if the situation were reversed and you were the person handling your complaint.

And, lastly, you're not a little child and the person you're complaining at isn't your mommy.  Sulking will get you nowhere.  Only positive behavior will win you positive results.

Social and Regional Differences in Complaining

Being polite, respectful, and fair are probably universal elements of a positive and successful complaint.  But you need to be sensitive to regional issues in terms of how you shape your complaint and seek a resolution.

It is easy for us in our home country, dealing with social peers and a product or service we are familiar with.  We know what the expectations are, we know when something is good or bad, and we know what to expect as a fair resolution to a complaint, and in turn, the person we are dealing with feels a similar comfort in dealing with a 'known commodity' in the form of us and our complaint.  Sure, this sometimes is also a challenge - to get the complaint handler to break out of routine and to do something more special - but on balance, it is a good thing.

But if we're in an unfamiliar and very different country, there may be different expectations on your part and on the part of the complaint handler.  Your first challenge, of course, is to understand if the thing you're unhappy about is even something you can fairly complain about, or if what you feel to be unsatisfactory is actually normal custom in the country you're in.

For example, in the west, when we're enjoying a multi-course meal in a restaurant, we expect each course to come out separately, and usually for some time between each course.  But in China, you're more likely to get all the food you've ordered presented at once - something you'd perhaps complain about back home is normal and not something you could complain about in China.

In some countries, you'll get more positive results by complaining very gently and obliquely.  If you apologize for your own shortcomings, and ask for help, and thank the person for the bad product/service they initially provided, and if you give them a way to 'save face' by doing whatever extra it is you ask for, you'll get massively more positive results than if you demand satisfaction and go at the problem like a bull in a china shop.  Eastern countries tend to prefer a subtle oblique and face saving approach.  'What would you suggest I do' is a good approach, allowing the person you are dealing with to then volunteer to help, making them feel like a hero rather than bullying them into doing something unwillingly.

But in other countries, such subtleties would be entirely lost and would result in no positive response at all.  In some countries you have to positively assert and demand your 'rights' and that the product/service be provided as expected.  In some countries, the initial response to any complaint will be to blame you.

For example, one time at a hotel in Moscow, I sat on the chair in my hotel room and it collapsed.  I went to reception, and politely asked for a replacement chair without stating the obvious - that the now broken chair was in poor repair and should never have been there in the first place.  Their response?  They blamed me for destroying hotel furniture and wanted to charge me the cost of a new chair!  A better strategy there would have been to be visibly upset, to castigate them for having bad quality furniture, and to demand a better chair immediately.

Motivate the Company to Help You

All companies have a great deal of discretion when it comes to deciding how they will respond to complaints.  Their response can vary from simply ignoring your complaint to sending you a form letter that says nothing and offers even less, to more positive types of response, sometimes even substantially more generous than what you'd been asking and hoping for.

What sways a company and the person handling your complaint to consider your situation generously rather than to be offhanded and uncaring?

There are several things that impact on how they respond to your complaint.  Some things are good and others bad.  For example, if you get rude or greedy, their response to you will probably be diminished.  If you threaten legal action, they'll probably call your bluff and encourage you to do exactly that.

There are other things which, if done right, will encourage the person handling your complaint to swing the other way and treat you fully and fairly.

Be honest, forthright, accurate and fair in stating your complaint.  Don't exaggerate, and don't make sweeping statements of blame and judgment.

Now, for the most important part - make yourself seem like the sort of person the company wants to attract and retain as a customer, and make yourself seem amenable to continuing to be a good loyal customer into the future.  In other words, make yourself 'salvageable' as a customer, and rather than threatening ridiculous things if your demands aren't met, promise positive things if your request is favorably considered.

No-one wants to throw good money after bad, and no-one wants to encourage bad customers to come back and be a problem another time.  So people who make themselves seem like ongoing problems to deal with will probably be treated poorly, and the company will be pleased to see them go.

If you have been and can be an important customer to the company, by all means say that in a factual way (give your frequent flier number or other details so the company can check) and if you're a decision maker that influences other people (for example, a purchasing manager for a company) it is fair to say that as well, but in a positive manner, too, focusing more on the good business dealings you've had in the past, and hoping to have more similar good dealings in the future.

There's no need to say 'if you don't treat me fairly now, I'll never come back' because everyone knows that without needing to be told, but expressing the positive confirms your fairness, reasonableness, and encourages the company to win you back.

If people threaten 'I'm going to tell all my friends not to give you their business too' the company will probably think 'If this person's friends are anything like himself, then we don't want his friends as customers either'.  That is an empty threat that just causes the person making the threat to seem even less desirable to keep as a customer.

But if you say something like 'I've made a point of telling my friends, in the past, how pleased I've been with your product/service, and I hope this unfortunate matter can be positively resolved so I can also tell them that even when things go wrong, you still come through fairly and fully' then that is a much more positive way of saying a very similar thing to the negative threat of 'If you don't give me everything I'm asking for, I'm going to tell all my friends to never use your company either'.

Don't Ask for Cash Refunds

This point is so important it deserves a major heading rather than a minor heading.

Whenever possible, do not ask for cash refunds.  Ask instead for future free goods/services from the company.  There are two reasons for this.

  • Firstly, asking for cash smacks of opportunism on your part, and unless you ask for a very low sum, makes you seem like you're trying to profit from an unfortunate circumstance.

  • Secondly, asking for cash requires everyone to agree on an exact dollar value for your claim.  Sometimes this is possible (eg 'you broke my - - - and I need it replaced') but most of the time it is not possible.  How much is the cash value of a broken video monitor or light at your seat on an overnight flight?  And even if you're asking for something that was lost or broken to be replaced, should you be given the full replacement value or a depreciated value, recognizing that you have already used the item for some years and are now getting the benefit of a brand new one?

  • Thirdly, many companies don't have substantial cash budgets for claims, goodwill, and refunds.

  • Fourthly, asking for cash costs the company exactly as much as it is worth to you to receive.  You're not getting anything special and neither is the company.

On the other hand, if you ask for discounted or free future goods/services, you are establishing several very positive points in your favor.

  • First, you show you are willing to use the company again in the future.  You are not a lost customer for all time, you are a wronged customer but one who is willing to return to the fold if treated fairly now.  This encourages any company to do its best to win back your future loyalty.

  • Second, you are giving the company a way to show you that your bad experience was a 'one-off' problem rather than an ongoing regular challenge.

  • Thirdly, giving you a discounted or free future thing costs the company very much less than its worth to you.  For example, if you ask for a free 'widget' from the manufacturer, the cost of that widget to the company is anything from a quarter to perhaps a tenth of its retail price, so the compensation costs the company vastly less than its value to you.

Usually what I do is, at the part of a complaint letter where I'm asking for compensation is to briefly touch on the estimated cash sum needed to fairly compensate me, and then add 'Of course, a simple check from you in this sum would be much appreciated, but I'd also be pleased to accept a voucher from you good for <<I describe something appropriate here>> instead.  This would encourage me to try your product/service again in the future and to hopefully have a much better experience than this unfortunate occasion.'

Usually I ask for something that is worth about twice the cash sum that would otherwise be asked from the company.  But there are limits to how this can work.  For example, if you are complaining about a pair of shoes where the heels fell off after only a week, you couldn't ask for two free pairs of shoes as compensation/replacement.  But, perhaps, if you bought the shoes for $100, you could ask for a voucher good for a replacement pair of shoes worth up to $200.


Don't include any threats at all in an initial complaint.  Make yourself seem like an ordinary normal and easily pleased person who is keen to resolve the matter quietly and in-house.

Perhaps I should explain that by 'threat' I merely mean concepts like reporting the company to the news media, to consumer activist organizations, to state and federal regulatory bodies, and the like.  Of course you'd never make other forms of threats!

But if your complaint is not resolved to your satisfaction, then in your escalation of the complaint, you can start to bring in mention of how you may start to involve external agencies.  See our article (yet to be published) on escalating complaints for more information on these strategies.

Ridiculous threats, up front, just alienate the people you are trying to get onside.  And, most of the time, they know (better than you) that the problem which seems very important to you is actually not very important and unlikely to make headlines on the local television or newspaper.  Remember, complaints are usually about grey areas, and grey areas with subtleties associated don't make for good news stories, and don't encourage regulatory bodies to do much at all.

Another Reason to be High Minded and Fair

When you're writing a complaint (or, more commonly, a claim letter), keep in mind that if you should choose to do so, you might end up needing to pursue your case in court.

So try and view things both from how the company will perceive your request and also from how it will look to a disinterested judge with too little time to fully appreciate all the details of your claim.

Make sure everything you do is fair and reasonable and realistic, and that none of it sounds bad if read out of context, for example, by a judge flipping through the correspondence, or by opposing counsel who is trying to make you seem like an unreasonable person who doesn't deserve what it is you're asking for.

The Last Part of a Positive (and Successful) Complaint

There's one last part of positive complaining that most people omit, possibly to their future disadvantage.

If you've secured the positive resolution you seek, thank the people who helped you, and consider writing a letter to the person's supervisor praising the person for their help in resolving a problem, and re-affirming your satisfaction with the outcome.

For example, Dan says 'When they do go out of their way to help me and I get a problem resolved to my satisfaction, I will get their name and send an email to their supervisor telling them what an asset the employee is.'

There is one thing to be a bit wary of, as Robert writes 'If someone breaks policy for you, you might want to leave the specifics out of your thank you note.'

Writing thank you notes is a tremendously valuable type of positive reinforcement.  It rewards good behavior, and encourages companies and their employees to shift their complaint policies to a more positive level, because you are showing them how a more liberal and generous complaint response actually does succeed in winning back customers.

Plus, you never know - you might need to call again with another complaint in the future, and if you can ask for 'your' representative by name and remind them of how they helped you the last time around, you're for sure more likely to speedily get a positive outcome this time.

And, what goes around comes around.  Maybe your next complaint will be handled by a person basking in the warm glow of a thank you from a previous complainer, and being therefore more motivated to go above and beyond the minimum response again.

Spread the positive karma liberally, because you'll surely reap what you sew in the future.

Rosanne's Rules

Reader Rosanne comes up with a list of ten rules, most of which I agree with.  I'm not so sure about rule #2, discussed in part one of the series, 'The Art of Positive Complaining', and I'm also not sure about rule #7; (discussed above in this article) at least not until you're escalating beyond your first and possibly second complaint interaction.

I've been very successful.  Here are my rules :

1- Be persistent and don't take "no" for an answer.

2 - Start at the top. CEO's are reachable if you do thorough enough searches to locate their e-mail addresses.  It may take some digging but the results will be far far more productive than with the Customer Disservice (oops) department. =

3 - Start with a compliment.  Even the worst experience must have something good associated with it.  And everyone, even CEO's, likes to be praised.

4 -Be reasonable.  If you overvalue your request you'll be regarded as a kook and won't win in the end.

5 - Make yourself known.  If you're a frequent guest or passenger let them know about your loyalty.

6 - Don't give up.  Keep it up.  A little obsession goes a long way.

7 - Let them know that you'll share your story if necessary.  You read travel blogs and newspapers and you're going to tell everyone you can about your dismal experience.

8 - Make sure you really did have inferior treatment before you launch your campaign.  If your seats in coach were too small that's not a complaint.  That's reality.  If your hotel phone bills were excessive, you should have known better than to use their phone.

9 - Don't be overly verbose.  Be succinct and get to the point right after the initial compliment.  You can expand on it but try your best to use proper grammar and spelling.

10 - Enjoy your victory!


Complain positively and fairly and you'll get a positive and fair response back from the company and person you're dealing with.  Yes, it is really that simple.

Read more in this series

This is part three 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 Four - How to Complain in Person.

Related Articles, etc

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Originally published 11 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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