When You Have To Complain, Do It Right

“To transform a complaint into an opportunity… to learn, negotiate, and grow… is to be creative.”
Virginia Satir, family therapist

Despite the fact I write books and give seminars on how to build an invincible, positive attitude, there are times when complaining is in order. That’s how I felt when my health insurance company informed me they were lowering my premiums. Of course, they also informed me they were no longer covering any medical problems. Just teasing!

I suppose Joe Wilson had a right to complain. After all, he said, “It’s been a horrible week. I loaned my friend $8000 for plastic surgery, and now I don’t know what he looks like.”

In all seriousness, there are times you have to complain. You may have received a defective product or been the recipient of horrendous service. Someone at work may be out of line. Whatever the case, the question remains… how SHOULD you complain? What kind of complaint process has the best chance of getting you what you want?

=> 1. Gather your facts.

If you’re complaining about a product or service, get your facts together before you do anything else. Write down the names, dates, times, prices, and all the other details that relate to your complaint. This is not a time to wing it or go on memory… because… generally speaking… the person with the best documentation wins.

Likewise at work, capture the history of your complaint. Jot down what happened… in what sequence… with what results.

=> 2. Face the person.

E-mails, voice mail messages, and written notes are too impersonal for the delicate nature of negative words. And all those forms of communication can be easily ignored.

Your personal presence is best. It can sometimes make all the difference in the world. But if that’s not possible, use the telephone. What feels like a bomb on paper may feel like a feather when delivered in person or in a live phone conversation.

=> 3. Stay cool.

If you’re nasty or disrespectful, the other person will see you as a jerk… instead of a person who has been wronged. And if you display anger, you only trigger a fight-or-flight response in the other person, neither of which will help your case. As a general rule, the person who gets emotional first… is the one who loses.

It works much better if you say you have a problem and need the other person’s help to resolve it. A gentle approach such as that can disarm the other person. And when he is humbly asked for help, he often does just that.

=> 4. Make requests rather than demands.

It just plain works better. It’s that simple. Most people would rather hear your request than watch you erupt.

In dealing with a service or repair issue, for example, make a friendly request rather than a threatening demand… if the repair is not satisfactory. Instead of accusing the mechanic of not doing it right, say, “I’m still having problems and need your help.”

If the babysitter is driving you crazy by leaving dirty dishes in the sink, ask her to do the dishes rather than make snide remarks… hoping she will get the point.

Or if you’re overcharged, start your complaint with an explanation of your confusion. Tell the other person you’re confused because the bill doesn’t match what you were told the job would cost. Ask for clarification. That gives the other person a chance to save face, and he’ll be much more willing to change the bill if you were overcharged.

=> 5. Be clear.

Even in the best of times, in everyday pleasant conversation, communication breaks down. But it is much more likely to break down when you’re dealing with problems. So you must be extra careful to be extra clear when you’re making complaints.

It’s like the two men who died and went to heaven. St. Peter greeted them and said, “I’m sorry. Your mansions aren’t quite ready yet. Until they’re finished, you can return to Earth as anything you want.”

“Fine,” said the first man. “I’ve always wanted to be an eagle soaring over the Grand Canyon.”

“And I’d like to be a real cool stud,” said the second man.

Poof! Their wishes were granted.

When their mansions were finished St. Peter asked an assistant to bring the two men back. “How will I find them?” the assistant asked.

“One is soaring over the Grand Canyon,” St. Peter replied. “The other is somewhere in Detroit — on a snow tire.”

In an attempt to be clear, you may have to be assertive… yet tactful. If, for example, a rude stranger cuts ahead of you and some others in a line, you may have to say, “I believe these people were next, then us.” More often than not, your firm but warm comment will shame the offender into submission.

You may have to speak out in stronger terms if the other person isn’t getting your message. For example, if your vendor refuses to give you the results you need, you may have to remind them you’ve been a regular customer for years and years… and would like to continue that relationship — if at all possible.

=> 6. Work your way up.

Don’t start at the top when you have a complaint. Work your way up.

Despite some of the things you’ve heard in the past, if you try to start at the top, if you try to start with the President or CEO, you’ll probably be given to the Vice President in charge of crank calls. But if you work your way up to the President, you’ll be seen as determined and respectful.

Of course, when you offer your complaint to a lower-leveled individual, he may or may not be able to help you. Some of your requests may be beyond his control. And he may have been trained to be obstinate or unresponsive.

If so, thank him for his time. Tell him you know he’s done all he could do… even if he hasn’t. And ask to speak to his supervisor. Then keep on persisting until you get someone who has the power to do what you need done.

=> 7. Choose your fights carefully.

More often than not, I’ve found the previous steps have worked very well for me when I’ve had to make a complaint. But I’ve also learned that not every complaint is worth my time and energy. Sometimes I’ve simply got to accept the fact that some days I’m the pigeon and some days I’m the statue.

And yet you may know people who spend countless hours and dollars on minor matters because “it’s the principle that counts.” Possibly true. But most of us need to be very selective. Pick the fights where your gains will outweigh your costs in time, money, and energy… and let the rest go.

Bottom line — these seven steps all boil down to communication. Of course, communication doesn’t guarantee success, but the lack of communication guarantees failure.

Action:  Look at the 7 action steps for making an effective complaint. Pick the one where you need the most improvement. And write down what you will do differently… the next time you have to make a complaint… with regard to that step.