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How to Complain and Get Results

Marcy writes about family, home life, parenting, money-saving tips, and many other topics, as well as essays and occasional humor pieces.

Learn how to complain effectively, not in anger.

Learn how to complain effectively, not in anger.

When Should Customers Complain?

The simple answer is, whenever something isn't what you paid for, it's time to complain. If you're dealing with a reputable firm, they want your feedback; it's the only way they can stay ahead of the game in this tight business market.

The adage used to be, "For every person who complains, 10 others are also unsatisfied." In the Internet age, perhaps the new adage should be, "Every person who complains online is reaching thousands of other potential customers." Because businesses know they're just a few clicks away from oblivion, they want to get positive feedback online, and they want to stop problems before they escalate into bad 'ratings' on customer-review sites.

Most people simply need a few skills in order to complain effectively and get a resolution. And people need to know where to take complaints, rather than stewing about them and failing to act. You can indeed get results when you complain; here are some strategies I've used, and they've worked!

How to Complain to Customer Service

Customer Service is often the first place to start if you have a consumer complaint.

There are a number of ways to contact a company and let them know about problems. And yes, they indeed pay attention. If they don't, you should feel free to post a review about your experience and take your business elsewhere. Corporations spend a lot of money training their staff on how to resolve complaints; you need to tap into that resource.

I know it's hard to voice a complaint. But you can learn to approach things effectively in ways that don't intimidate you or the management. Often, bringing forward a problem at the earliest point will get results early on and save you a lot of stress. Many people don't know what to say, so here are some ways to handle things:

Let them know: If you're dealing with an online issue, or you've already gotten home, and you realize the fresh produce you just bought isn't that fresh, call the customer service office and explain. Stores will honor your purchase (make a note on the receipt that you talked to Sue and date it, then take it in on your next shopping trip). You don't have to save the rotten onions and bring them back—grocery stores trust their customers, and your phone call and receipt show good faith on your part. They will likely fix any problem you have by giving them a replacement item or a refund. If you don't have the receipt, take the item back, or ask if they can make a record of your conversation and honor your complaint when you shop the next time (so you can go ahead and throw away the bad lettuce).

They're there to help!

They're there to help!

How to Take Complaints to the Manager

Go to management and ask, "What can you do about this?"

Hotel Example: Assume you're at a hotel and there's a problem with your room. Offer management an invitation to help you by saying, "I need some help; my room is too noisy (give examples of noise in the hallway or whatever the problem is); what can you do about it?" The manager is there to help make your stay comfortable. If there's a way to change your room or get rid of the noise, they will do that. You've just given them a chance to solve the problem at the lowest level, and it's their job to do so.

You paid for the room, and if the plumbing isn't working right, if there's noise, a broken television, or anything else, they need to make it right. As a longtime business traveler, I've often had to bring a problem to hotel management. I was once given a room next to a group of flight attendants; you could hear every word they said. They clearly had just gotten off a trip, it was late at night, and the rest of the crew began assembling in their room to visit. It was clear the group would be loud for quite a few more hours; meanwhile, I was trying to get some sleep before a presentation the next day. I called the front desk (even let them hear the noise) and was given a new room and an offer for a bellhop to move me quickly.

If they say there's not another room available, push them a little. There are usually some spare rooms held for various reasons, so you should say, "Oh, come on, I'm sure there's something you can do or a room somewhere?" You may be surprised to find yourself in an executive suite at no extra charge. You can also ask them to adjust your room rate (if you're on your own budget and have some earplugs or a big roll of toilet paper available, this might be a good trade-off).

Finally, you can change hotels. But the original hotel should locate space for you, refund your money and arrange for a cab or courtesy van to take you there. I'm serious—this happens. You are the customer, remember? If Swanky Suites can't meet your needs on this trip, they certainly don't want to lose your business on the next trip. Or get bumped off your approved list of hotels for corporate travel. They have a van available, and they know the other hotels nearby, so they can indeed make this happen. You can definitely get refunds for rooms—I've even gotten this consideration in foreign countries.

Restaurant Example: The same phrase, "What can you do about this?" will often work at a restaurant or in any other consumer setting. Bad service? They should offer you a free dessert or take some charges off your bill. Bad food? Always, always let them know. If you explain what happened and ask what they can do, they're almost obligated to respond to that phrase. If they don't, you can go elsewhere in the future (but see below for additional tips).

I do not complain randomly, but I've been amazed at the positive steps restaurants have taken to ensure I'm a happy customer. I've been offered coupons for a free entrée, free drinks, or dessert and had my bill reduced dramatically (or entirely comped). If you dine out for business, you're eating hundreds of meals out each year. You're paying for a decent, edible meal, and you can get results by helping management know when there are problems.

Negotiate to resolve complaints; gIve them a chance to help you!

Negotiate to resolve complaints; gIve them a chance to help you!

If You Don't Get Results, Take It Higher!

Almost every firm has a website, especially if it's a major corporation. If you've had a problem with a company (store, chain restaurant, hotel), visit their website and look for the "Contact Us" link. You should be able to send an email from the page the link connects to. Some companies (very few) have only an address or phone number. If there's a phone number, call it and talk to customer service. Then call again, if needed, and talk to a higher department (even the legal department, if needed).

Messages sent from "Contact" links do get read in most cases. Here are some examples:

A complaint to a restaurant chain: While on a business trip, several of us dined at a chain known for having singing and dancing wait people. We weren't there for the floor show, we just needed a place convenient to our hotel where we could get a meal. The service was awful, the orders didn't come out right, food was delivered late, and an outside door was left open, which sent in a cold breeze. We tried talking to our wait staff, but they were too busy singing and dancing, and management was not to be found.

After the trip, I sent an email to corporate headquarters and described the above experience. To my surprise, I not only got a reply but I was also sent a letter of apology and a gift card for $50 to use on my next visit! I had not expected that sort of response, but I admit it reversed my opinion of the chain, and I continue to dine there in my home city.

Complaint to Hotel Chain: I had a very, very negative experience at a hotel in another city. The management did not "make it right," so I sent an email describing the noise, broken sink, scratchy towels, and other issues. I'd stayed at many properties with this chain, and I knew this experience wasn't up to their standards. There were no other accommodations nearby, and I was stuck. I was supposed to be there for several nights, but I checked out after the first night.

To my surprise, I got a personal phone call from a senior manager and a gift certificate for two nights at any of the chain's properties in the United States. Did I expect to get free nights? No way! But that response built loyalty in me, and I continue to stay at their properties.

I've had many other experiences of positive responses from management once I've found the right person, ranging from coupons such as those mentioned above to internal changes businesses have made in order to offer better service.

Recently, I had to buy a new car (which I'll discuss in another article). I'd narrowed my preference to one type of car, and I dropped by the nearest dealer to check them out. But I had to walk through a cloud of smoke just to get into the building! Employees couldn't smoke inside (a city ordinance here), so they gathered in front of the showroom door!

When I told the sales manager how that felt to the customer, he listened attentively. Then he left for a few minutes and came back and asked me to follow him. He had assembled his entire sales staff for a quick meeting and asked me to tell them how I, as a customer, felt about the smoking. Well, that's exactly what I did—but I also told them they'd given me the best customer service I'd seen, their sales staff had been great, and I liked the car.

The next day, when I returned to pick up my car, the manager ran to shake my hand. He told me smoking was now forbidden in the front of the building, and the containers in the rear (where smokers used to gather right outside yet another door) had been moved several feet away from the building. They now mention smoking at their weekly sales meetings and reinforce the new rules.

Write a letter!  It works!

Write a letter! It works!

And Higher Yet!

When all else fails, you still have options—they may take more time, though. Some more examples:

A warranty rip-off example: One of my dearest friends, who was widowed at a young age, called me in a panic a few years ago. She'd gotten a call from a firm claiming her car's extended warranty had expired. And she fell for it—to the tune of about $1,000 on her credit card, with another $1,000 or so expected in a later payment. When she examined her paperwork, she realized the warranty was still in effect. She'd been conned by a scamming company that regularly victimizes vulnerable people.

We checked out the company's reputation on the Internet and found page after page of heart-breaking stories about people being dunned for warranties they didn't need. So we started researching the company's "main office," which was tough—they had small sites in several states, which meant there wasn't a clear jurisdiction over them.

We drafted a stern letter of complaint and mailed it to every corporate office and to every attorney general in each state where we found an office. But this didn't get us results.

However, when her contract arrived, there was some fine print allowing for a refund (of all but $50) if she responded within 30 days. Thankfully, the 30-day period was still in effect; she wrote a letter and got back $950. She figures the $50 she lost was 'tuition' for learning a lesson the hard way.

If a company doesn't "make it right" (although many, if not most, will do something to help you remain their customer), here are a few channels for complaint:

State Attorney General: These people are usually the ones who go after deceptive trade practices and other rip-offs. While you may not get your money back, you may assist other consumers by helping state officials know who to investigate and building their files on bad businesses.

Federal Trade Commission: The FTC can go after inappropriate commerce issues conducted across state lines. There should be a local (or state) office where you can complain. Or you can complain to the federal office. As with state officials, this can be more of a case-building step, but it helps others who might get ripped off in the future.

Local agencies: If you had a bad experience with a city or county agency (or a state agency), take it to a higher level within the government structure. You can write your City Council members, visit them in person or speak in front of a board or commission. You pay taxes for these services; they need to be made accountable.

Better Business Bureau: People often assume this is a regulatory agency, but it's not. Businesses pay a membership fee so they can display the BBB sign and "look good" to customers. If they're a member, the BBB can look into it. Otherwise, they are not in a position to act. They might, however, keep track of scamming situations so they can be on the alert for them in the event they try to use BBB's name or get membership.

Regulatory agencies: If the business is licensed or regulated in any manner (a plumber, a doctor, etc.), contact the agency that licenses and regulates them. There are actual complaint processes for physicians, attorneys, dentists, CPAs, and others in whom the public places a great amount of trust. Tradesmen, too, are usually held accountable in order to retain their licenses.

I hope you never need to complain about a bad customer experience. But if you do, I hope the above tips give you strategies and ideas on what to do and who to contact.

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.


Marcy Goodfleisch (author) from Planet Earth on February 02, 2012:

@Flint - thanks for stopping by! I'm glad you found some useful tips here. I appreciate your comments!

@MichaelWhitehouse - you are right; the first step is to ask. Such an easy thing, but so many don't take that step. Thanks for reading and commenting.

michaelwhitehouse from Southbury, CT on February 02, 2012:

That is a fantastic hub. I have gotten many a comped meal when I eat out if the service or quality is bad. If I'm paying $14 for something I could have made at home for $4, it darned well better be superior to whatever I could make for myself!

It's all about asking for what you want. If you never ask, you never get.

Flint54 on January 27, 2012:

Very informative. Loved the part that says write down the name of the customer support person you talk to. So many times we fail to do that and next time around we have to tell the story all over again or they simply say they didn't know about it. An article full of advice. Thanks for sharing.