13 Jul 2022

How to complain

As we are plunged into a summer of airport chaos, short-staffed public offices and public transport disruption, it is not surprising that complaints and demands for refunds and compensation are escalating. How do we ensure that our complaints are effective and do not descend into slanging matches or intemperate insults?

The British love to moan but are reticent about complaining. At this moment in a restaurant near you, there is a familiar scene being enacted – a couple is huddled together, carping about the over-salted soup, cold consommé and pallid pastry, when a waiter approaches. “Everything all right here?” “Oh yes, fine, thank you.” This form of complaining isn’t rude, at least, because its target never gets to hear our harsh words, but privately nursing a grievance about an inadequate and expensive meal is certainly not the best recipe for an enjoyable night out.

Inevitably there comes a point when private moaning just isn’t good enough – a holiday or important trip abroad is ruined, a job interview is missed, a new appliance floods the kitchen…This is when you have to face up to the fact that you have valid grounds for making a complaint and proceed to do so. You must remember that your complaint is justified, and never start the proceedings with an apology for complaining. Recognise that you are entitled to do so, and a company or organisation that prides itself on good customer service should be grateful that you have brought their shortcomings to their attention.

Politely Persist

The best approach when complaining, especially when it is in person and it is a matter that can easily be resolved, is not to give up. If the person you are speaking to isn’t offering any form of resolution or compensation, ask politely to speak to his or her manager, and make it clear that you will not leave until some positive steps are made to resolve the issue. Try, if at all possible, to settle the complaint there and then, rather than being fobbed off by advice to write a letter or send an email.

Don’t Shoot the Messenger

Invariably, the employee who is handling your complaint in person (and often on the phone as well) is in no way personally responsible for the offence. They have the unenviable task of manning the barricades, deflecting complaints, passing them further up the food chain, and ideally terminating their conversation with you as soon as possible. It really is pointless getting agitated or aggressive with them, and it will only reflect badly on you. Stay as polite and charming as you can, convince them that your complaint is genuine and justified, and make it your mission to extract a clear and recommended path for advancing your complaint – names of managers who are personally responsible, email addresses, complaint procedures (if applicable). Thank them politely, record their name, and move on.

Rein in Your Inner Troll

If you find yourself consigned to email correspondence or an online form, don’t be hoodwinked by the appearance of anonymity. Remember, an actual person will eventually have to read your complaint, and unleashing a stream of obscenities and abuse is hardly the best way of advancing your cause. Bear in mind that emails can be recirculated indefinitely, so don’t write anything you might regret, and be just as polite as you would be over the phone.

Effective Emails

If you are writing an email of complaint, follow these recommendations:

• Complain promptly: don’t defer for weeks, as it will undermine your cause.

• Always try and address your email to the right person, and if you have been advised to send an email by somebody at a complaints desk, make sure you have taken their name so you can cite it in your email.

• Lay out your case concisely and in an orderly fashion (bullet points will help). Clearly explain what has gone wrong (citing dates, places, people involved ­– whatever is relevant). If you have already initiated a complaints procedure, list your previous contacts (provide copies of correspondence if relevant). If pictures will help to elucidate your complaint, include them.

• Never use intemperate language; rudeness is liable to activate defensive ‘customer complaint’ strategies.

• Lay out your email like a formal letter (sign off ‘yours sincerely’), with a proper subject line and paragraph breaks. Check it carefully before you send it, and make sure it is grammatical.

• Emphasise that you are eager to solve your problem, and give some indication of the recompense you have in mind.

• If you do not receive a timely or adequate response, you may have to escalate the complaint: inform the company that you are not happy and that you will be taking the matter further (Ombudsman, Trading Standards office, review sites, the media, the Small Claims court). Before you take this step, research carefully to ensure that you have selected the most deadly option, and then you won’t appear to be firing out empty threats.

We can Work it Out

Whatever the reason for your complaint or your particular circumstances, it is sensible to acknowledge that aggression and rudeness are inevitably the worst way of getting what you want. Approaching the complaint in the spirit of “I’m sure you regret this as much as I do and I know we’ll be able to work something out” is always the most effective method.  But if you follow this recommendation and still find yourself thwarted by a professional stonewaller, then you will need to turn icy and steely. Now is the time to summon your rage, but keep it repressed and bubbling threateningly beneath your impeccably polite surface – you will be surprised how effective this volcanic option can be.


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