The art of complaining: How to get what you want without being a jerk

The art of complaining: How to get what you want without being a jerk

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The art of complaining: How to get what you want without being a jerk

As both a newspaper editor who sometimes gets calls from sometimes unhappy readers and an adult human resident of Consumer Land, I’ve been on each side of complaints.

I think that makes me an expert on the subject.

We all have complaints.

About service. Prices. Surprise fees. The TV in the next hotel room that is unreasonable loud at 2 a.m.

And we should complain when things are wrong. That’s how problems are recognized and, one hopes, fixed.

But there’s an art to complaining in a way that will not only get you what you want, but leave you the same non-jerk you were when you started.

Here are a few steps:

Step 1: Is your complaint valid?

You know that friend who will immediately take your side when you tell them you have a beef with Business X? “OMG!” that friend will say. “You are totally right and they are TOTALLY evil.”

You do not want to talk to this person.

Instead check in with someone who will be able help you step back and evaluate the situation. Or take some time to clear your head and think about your problem from a new perspective.

Step 2: Decide what you want

Before you flag the manager, pick up a phone or enter that email address, know precisely what you want from the transaction. Do you want a refund? An apology? A change in policy?

That gives you focus and a goal to reach.

But be honest with yourself. Sometimes the goal is just, “Me mad. Me want fight NOW!” If that’s the case, go back to Step 1.

Step 3: Talk to the right person

My mom had a stock phrase when she called customer service: “Do you get paid enough to get yelled at?”

She never actually yelled at anyone, but it always got her a laugh and a quick transfer to someone high enough up the chain to address her problem without having to explain it to two or three people first.

I’ve been on the other side of that. People will call and explain at length (leeennnnngggttthhhh) their problem with a situation I have no power to resolve. But I’m professional enough to not actually say, “Ma’am, if I had the juice to realign delivery zones, do you think I’d be sitting in a cubicle with a broken chair?”

Step 4: Details matter

Have your receipt, order or account number ready. Be ready to articulate what was wrong and how it affected you. Write yourself a script if you tend to get flustered. And make note of who you spoke to, when it was and what was said.

Step 5: Be polite and don’t make it personal

The moment you lose your cool is often the moment your complaint gets written off.

And also remember that no matter how infuriating a situation might be, you’re still talking to a person who’s just trying to get through the day. To get what you want, you need them on your side.

Years ago I took a call from a reader who decided that my credentials as a journalist would be acceptable only if I also happened to be a parent. “Do you have kids?” she kept screaming into the phone.

Actually, I had lost my only child just a week before and didn’t particularly care to share the details with her.

Her complaint was not noted.

Bonus step: Good karma

Hopefully these steps will help you get what you want when things go wrong. But it can’t hurt to build up good karma points ahead of time, too.

My husband and I have no problem complaining constructively when service isn’t up to snuff, but we also make a point to compliment great service and mention it to management.

Give it a shot. If you have a server who hustles to refill your drink, a hotel desk clerk who goes the extra mile or, heck, even see a blog post that makes you smile, shout it out. It’ll make you feel great. And it’s free.

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