How to Complain Effectively


Angry Customer I'd like to call it provide feedback. However, we know that we will take the time and mobilize mostly when something goes wrong.

There are plenty of ways that organizations can improve with service. We've talked about them as part of the customer conversation thread. Many companies have created phone hot lines and communication outposts on Twitter.

As customers, we should also learn to do a better job at articulating what went wrong and what a company can do to make it better. This article by Chris Elliott is applicable beyond travel-related customer service stories.

In many cases, if you want the problem solved, you need to be part of the solution. Effective complaints have the following characteristics in common:

  • timing — don't wait, when something goes wrong, address it as close to the time it happens as possible, so it can be addressed with the shift responsible and the events retraced
  • appropriate medium — if you're dealing with an online company, use email or contact forms, don't use the phone
  • laser focus — while it's good to document all that went wrong, give the company representative a way to address your issue by pin pointing it for them
  • best case scenario — what would it take to make things good again? 
  • hard on issue, soft on people — partnering with the customer service rep who is receiving your email, call, or in person information is a good idea

What are the pitfalls of complainers? According to Elliott, reporting from the Society of Consumer Affairs Professionals' annual conference, they are:

  • being a squeaky wheel — defined as griping too quickly and too often. Crying wolf anyone?
  • claiming special circumstances — who doesn't like to feel special? Is your specialness related to bad travel or a bad customer experience though?
  • doing the name dropping — from experience, I know this will get you attention in the short term, and will make you enemies quickly if you have not tried to solve the issue with the people on the front lines first
  • listing all the things that went wrong — it is better to keep your conversation to the one issue you experienced to give a company one thing to address
  • threatening to leave as customer — I've used this only once, when I was ready and willing to make good on it, as it doesn't get you a resolution, only a shrug

It feels good to get attention from service providers. Smart organizations have found ways to help harness customer feedback to improve their processes and provide a direct line to solving issues when and if they crop up.

Many other organizations are still wrestling with systems and processes that are misaligned to the realities of customer communications today. By reinforcing how we appreciate some of the new practices and helping providers solve problems, we will impact a speedier adoption from the companies that are still sitting on the fence. Not to mention, getting our issue resolved.

I'm all for writing a recommendation note or a positive post when I deal with someone or a business who provided good service. You? Should we take more time to reinforce good practices? Why/why not?

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0 responses to “How to Complain Effectively”

  1. I think absolutely, we need to make time to tell when people are doing it right. If they hear nothing but complaints, it can become a self-fulfilling prophecy: “Why bother? We can’t do anything right anyway.”

  2. Outstanding post!
    I’m not sure why, but people who complain infrequently seem to complain more effectively. And people who complain constantly – and nastily – actually encourage bad behavior.
    I agree that people should acknowledge good customer service, but I have found that companies that make it difficult to communicate problems usually also make it difficult to communicate praise.

  3. @Leslie – glad you found the post helpful. Thank you for sharing it.
    @Christa – and you know what? If we think about it, there are people whose efforts we don’t recognize enough.
    @Ron – this is a good insight, that people who complain rarely are more thoughtful about how they do it. Interesting observation about companies that make it difficult to communicate praise. It’s like an all around lack of care or concern…

  4. This got me thinking about why people complain in the first place, and what it might suggest about the often uneasy relationship between a business and its customers.
    If a customer sees complaining as a way to blow off steam, or to achieve some transactional objective like a refund or make-good, then that has potentially profound implications for the business. Constructive criticism is driven, at least in part, by a desire for improvement. It implies that you actually care enough about the business to make the effort. And you believe the business actually cares enough to engage.
    Far too often, that implicit relationship — a business seeking to deliver value, and a customer finding it — simply doesn’t exist. If Company A doesn’t deliver something that provides unique value, then why waste the effort? Next time I’ll try Company B.
    Unless, of course, the company is an airline and there’s only one way out of town.

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