The art of complaining

A serial complainer’s guide to getting what you paid for in the first place

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From the June 2016 issue of the magazine.

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bad customer service

(Photographs by Nikki Ormerod)

The pizza is late. Again. “Let it go,” says my husband, who’s survived many years of my relentless consumer habits, “please let it go.” But 20 minutes later, growing more hangry by the minute, I make no promises. When the delivery guy finally knocks, unapologetic and apathetic, holding a sad burnt meat lover’s pizza, I cannot. I refuse. I’m a tough customer, and I’m not ashamed to admit it. You can bet your bottom dollar someone’s going to hear about it.

For many people, the aggravation and effort of complaining isn’t worth the embarrassment. To send back a badly mixed drink at the bar is rude, difficult or even cheap. To others, like my never-complaining dad, who once refused to let me even tell a waitress that our soup never arrived, it’s a sign of how ungrateful and entitled we’ve become. (Do I even know how lucky I am? Some people lived through the Cold War!) We are, it seems, a nation of quiet grumblers, inclined to spend our hard-earned money on people and products we trust will meet or exceed our expectations and then silently stew, unsatisfied and soup-less, when they do not.

In fact, it is a widely-held truth in retail that for every consumer who lodges a complaint, there are dozens more who do nothing. “They’ll post it on social media, they’ll vow never to shop there again, they’ll tell anywhere from 10 to 15 people—but they won’t ever call customer service to get the issue fixed,” says Guy Winch, author of The Squeaky Wheel: Complaining the Right Way to Get Results, Improve Your Relationships and Enhance Self-Esteem. According to consulting firm Lee Resources, these people do not make happy customers: 91% of them say they won’t willingly do business with a company that has failed them, and it’ll take more than 12 positive customer experiences to counterbalance that bad one.

Not long ago, we lived in a golden age of complaining. Following the invention of the 1-800 number, by AT&T, in the late 1960s, toll-free lines multiplied to accommodate a booming customer service field. In the 1970s, if your Atari broke, you could write, address and physically mail a strongly-worded letter to the Federal Government’s Box 99. (If they received two more letters like yours, they’d investigate.) Cube-mate ate your lunch? Slip a written complaint into a feedback box, mounted conveniently onto a wall. If you needed to voice a frustration, you knew exactly how.

Today, Twitter and Facebook are the go-to outlets for our protests, offering a convenient and faceless black hole of Insta-rage. It’s where you find pissed-off people tagging instances of #badcustomerservice, the charming SCREW-YOU-HOME-DEPOT crowd; and all those people who will never, ever, fly @AirCanada again. But these are not places for action. They’re just venues to let off steam. “Sometimes all you need and the best you can do is vent,” Winch says. Transforming a wrong into a right is a learned skill that requires more than a quick tweet.

My education began in my university years, when a broken bottle of liquid foundation ruined my entire makeup bag. Feeling equal parts angry and poor, I called up CoverGirl to politely suggest that fabric-ruining fluids didn’t belong in glass bottles. A week later, a few hundred dollars worth of coupons arrived in my mailbox. CoverGirl had earned a loyal customer and some damn good word-of-mouth praise (in a national magazine, no less), and I had replaced the contents of my make-up bag. From that moment, a shameless habit was born. Between then and now, I’ve complained often and with increasing gusto about long distance charges, bank fees and expired warranties. I’ve sent back disappointing desserts and salads whose dressing was not served on the side. I’ve learned not to be rude or obnoxious, but to value myself as a consumer and believe my experience counts. Moreover, I’ve learned that I’m good at it, and that complaining is easy when you know how. Recognizing there’s always room for improvement, I reached out to some master fussers to find out what they know that others don’t. Follow the formula they set out and not only will you get results, your bottom line will thank you big-time.

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Work the system

For many years, Judy Zaichkowsky, professor of marketing at Simon Fraser University, has been searching for what exactly makes complainers special. She’s interviewed hundreds of folks who have written to the Better Business Bureau, and cross-referenced them against personality traits like reasoning, social boldness and perfectionism. “I found no difference whatsoever in personality,” Zaichkowsky says.

But she did notice a commonality: “Enough knowledge of the system to make it work to their advantage.” People who had no clue how to complain didn’t—they just switched brands. People with specific, applicable knowledge or expertise wanted things done right. “The more you know, the more likely you are to seek restoration when it’s deserved,” she says. Discerning customers are great customers, and companies want to keep them around. It’s something successful complainers keep in mind.

Leanne Williams is a discerning customer because she has to be. She’s got a severe egg allergy and reiterated this several times during a recent visit to McDonald’s. But when she got home from the drive-thru, the 39-year-old book marketer found a “sad little egg” atop her McMuffin. Her kind husband returned for a new one, which arrived with… another egg. A lesser complainer might be seen squabbling with the teenager at the counter, but Williams simply asked to speak to the manager. When they weren’t available, she wrote to head office. “Just for the principle of it,” she says.

Do what Williams did, says Winch. “Calling to unleash venom on a minimum-salaried employee is fundamentally ineffective.” Instead, take a breath and a break, and (non-threateningly) ask to speak to a supervisor. Then watch one of two things happen: Suddenly the salesperson will realize she can help after all, or she’ll be relieved the issue is no longer hers to deal with and happily move it up the chain. If the manager is similarly helpless, take your concern to head office. Ten minutes of Googling will tell you who’s who at the company. The CEOs may not answer you, but their staff will.

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Turn on the charm

According to his daughter Jenn, Mel Goldberg is the “world’s best” complainer. “During a vacation, we once spent half a day moving from one room to another, each with major issues. At the time, I was mortified.” Over the years, the Toronto finance executive has sent back cold meals, fought for advertised sale prices and enjoyed preferred seats on airplanes (a Holy Grail-level score for complainers). But, says Goldberg, “I never complain needlessly.” He would never, for instance, show his empty plate to a waiter and say the chicken came cold. He also admits he wasn’t always so skilled at the art of the kvetch. “In my 20s, I thought macho bravado would work, but that got me nowhere,” says the 66-year-old. He’s learned to pick his battles.

His advice brings back a shameful memory: an arbour for my wedding, missing key building parts, and discovered an hour before the ceremony. Damn right I complained, but restitution wasn’t enough to calm a Bridezilla attack. There was swearing, accusations of incompetence and threats to never ever set foot in the store again.

“The moment you get belligerent is the moment you hit a brick wall,” warns Goldberg. Your would-be helper now hates you, and if you do have to move up the managerial chain, that salesperson gets to report you called them an [adjective expletive]. You’ll quickly find your power has evaporated. Kindness is a better strategy.

“The first thing I do is smile,” says Goldberg. “If they’re wearing a name tag, the next thing I do is mention their name.” This has a double effect: It humanizes the encounter and makes them feel accountable for their actions. Here Goldberg tosses in a commiseration or even a compliment: Wow, this place is a zoo! I see you’re doing a great job, Mary. The goal is to build rapport and find yourself on the same team. At this point, Mary’s probably going to help you, if she can.

Employ the sandwich technique

Once you’ve found the right person, whether face-to-face or via email, it’s show time. In fact, Winch, who once managed to get his rent lowered after complaining that a new building impaired his view, has a strategy he calls the “sandwich” technique.   

“Start with something positive, because you don’t want them to think you’re just an angry person,” says Winch. This is usually a simple compliment (i.e. “I love your products . . . ”), and it never hurts to mention your shopping habits (“ . . . and I buy them all the time”). Then get to the point: “The complaint is the meat of your sandwich, and it should be lean,” he says. Skip the drama, exclamation marks and hyperbole. Your legroom-less airplane seat did not cause the worst. honeymoon. ever. Don’t allow yourself to be proven completely irrational.

Your final slice of bread requests a fix and highlights what you’re offering in return: loyalty. This is what’s really at stake. A 2009 study from Montreal, ominously titled “When Consumer Love Turns Into Lasting Hate,” monitored complainers ability to hold grudges via “revenge” and “avoidance” behaviour. Turns out we’re great at it—until we receive an apology and compensation, at which point we become better customers. Darren Dahl has studied this rebound phenomenon as a marketing professor at UBC’s Sauder School of Business. After a successful complaint, he says, “You feel like you’ve been honest and communicated and you’ve been heard. People are more loyal after complaining.”

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Offer a fix

Knowing it’s at least six times more expensive to find a new customer than retain a current one, most companies want to work to keep you. Often, as with one of Goldberg’s recent restaurant complaints, it’s an easy fix: “I said, ‘We eat here a lot, and usually it’s delicious, but tonight the chicken’s too dry.’” (Note the sandwich technique.) In a restaurant, a free dessert and a visit from the chef is often all it takes to let bygones be bygones. “If they acknowledge me at all, I feel like I’ve been heard,” says Goldberg.

With larger complaints, it’s more complicated. In my early complaining years, I’d often ask for vague retribution (E.g. “Please let me know how this situation can be fixed.”) only to be disappointed by a low-ball offer. This is my bad, not theirs. “If you don’t know what you want, it’s going to be impossible for them to give it you,” says Winch. So before calling or emailing, think about what will make you happy. “Do you want a replacement, a refund or 5,000 Air Miles because you were bumped from a flight?” Ask for it. Chances are, if the solution seems reasonable, they’ll be thrilled to give it to you and send you on your way.

Complainers who don’t offer a fix can end up with a solution that solves nothing. Our egg-allergic friend Williams knows: Several weeks after complaining, “an envelope showed up at my door,” she says. “I opened it up with anticipation, wondering what sort of free meals my future would hold.” Sadly for her egg allergy, Williams was the proud owner of…a year’s worth of Egg McMuffins.

Let some things slide

Williams’ sad story brings up the inevitable: When is complaining, just like non-complainers say, not even worth it? Certainly not every minor infraction deserves your energy. “The other day, there was a $5 charge on my card that really annoyed me, because it just wasn’t right,” says Winch. Even the man who wrote a whole book on complaining weighs effort versus payoff. “I don’t need that $5 enough to spend 15 minutes on the phone,” he says. “I let it go.”

Complaining for the sake of complaining, rather than for deserved results, is not a healthy habit. “It’s kind of a negative activity,” warns Zaichkowsky, “and it’s not necessarily going to make you feel good.” I remember the arbour. Even though I got my money back, the memory wasn’t worth it. “I bet every time you think of it, you get upset again,” offers Winch. He’s right. I’ll forever curse that wooden frame. When you’re angry, “cortisol is running through you and you’re deepening your emotional wound,” he says. Always consider costs versus gains, both financial and emotional, and choose wisely.

“If you’ve had bad service or a bad product, it’s good to complain,” says Dahl. “But if you can’t make it through the day without complaining, maybe a therapist is in order.”

In the interest of all parties, and skipping the therapist visit too, I remembered a pizza’s just a pizza. But I didn’t let my burnt pizza go either. Instead, I calmly emailed customer service and served up a complaint sandwich. I order here a lot, I said, and while it’s usually great, tonight’s meal was not. Less than 30 minutes later they responded. “I would love the opportunity to make it right,” said the rep. A new pizza was heading my way. That I’d stood up for myself and been heard made our dinner extra delicious. If a little late. Again.

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3 comments on “The art of complaining

  1. Great tips for face-saving resolution for both parties. Common sense wins again. Thank you.

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  2. About a year and a half ago I took my car in to it’s dealership to repair a vibration in the front end. This was a low speed vibration. I was told it was front steering linkage or suspension ( I don’t recall which ). I’m a senior on fixed income and it cost $700.00. I was told there may still be some vibration due to rough snow covered roads but not to worry. About 3 days later It was still there. I went to my local garage and 5 min. later I was shown a large bulge on one of the front tires. Another $700.00 and the problem is gone. I called the dealership and talked to the service manager, explained the problem and asked very politely ( considering I was $1400.00 in debt now. The response was ‘what would you like me to do about it?’ He asked I told him ‘I would like my money back’ . ‘ I can’t do that’. ‘ What can you do?’ ‘ What would you like?’ I explained he had asked what I would like! We got now were. So I called The manufacturers head office. They have the same handbook they read from. I realize I was talking to someone at the bottom of the food chain and asked if I could talk to a manager. ‘NO’!!!

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  3. As a rule, when a complaint is addressed, I always send a thank you letter to the person who was responsible for solving the problem.

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