How to Complain Effectively

Angry Customer

You know what they say: no news is good news.

Maybe that's the reason why we rarely provide positive feedback. While we will go out of our way to show our displeasure when something goes wrong.

There are plenty of ways organizations can improve their service creatively. In the customer conversation thread, you can find many examples.

Companies have created phone hot lines and communication outposts on Twitter for many brands.

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. And, lest you think your rant may have gone unnoticed, know there is a site dedicated to tracking the Least Helpful customer reviews. [hat tip Amy Hoy]

Do you want the problem solved, or do you just feel like venting? 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. How about you? Should we not take more time to reinforce good practices? Walk the talk on social media, for example?


[updated from the archives]


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