How to Complain Effectively and Get Results

Updated on March 12, 2018
Beth Eaglescliffe profile image

I write about employment issues, ways to earn money and how to get best value when spending it.

Are you upset and need to make a complaint?
Are you upset and need to make a complaint? | Source

Complain: Don’t be a Passive Customer

How many times have you been upset by a bad meal experience? Or feel you missed an in-store offer because the item was sold out? Did you do anything about it? Or did you just file it along with life’s other disappointments?

Here are some tips on the right way to complain effectively. Follow them and you’ll be surprised how easy it is to get redress. However, before you start, make sure you have a genuine complaint. You will get nowhere fast if you try it on to get something you’re not entitled to.

Guide to Making an Effective Complaint
1. Don't go in all guns blazing.
2. Know your rights and stand your ground.
3. Have empathy for front line staff and remember to smile.
4. Be clear about the result you want.
5. Be willing to negotiate.
6. Choose a convenient time so your complaint receives proper attention.

Use The 3 C’s to Get the Result You Want

  • Keep Calm
  • Be Confident
  • Remain Courteous

Tips From a Professional Complainer on How to Complain

1. Don’t Go in All Guns Blazing

If you lose your temper when making a complaint, you no longer have the moral high ground. Keep your cool and state your case calmly and rationally. Know the facts and be able to prove them. For example, if you have seen the item priced cheaper at another store, be able to name the precise store so that the manager can call them to check your claim. If you’re making a complaint about excessive wear and tear of an item, be sure to bring your original receipt so the store knows exactly how long you’ve had the goods.

2. Know Your Rights and Stand Your Ground

Many countries have laws to protect consumers. Some stores stick strictly to the letter of the law when giving refunds; others will go that bit further to retain customer loyalty. If you're unsure of your rights check your government’s information website.

In the UK you are protected by The Consumer Rights Act 2015. The money saving expert (dot) com website has a useful guide to your rights under this legislation. In US, the Better Business Bureau website has information on American consumer rights legislation which varies from state to state.

3. Have Empathy for Front Line Staff and Remember to Smile

Often the store assistant or server is the one who bears the brunt of customer dissatisfaction. Too often I’ve watched a customer make a loud and aggressive complaint to the front line staff member. This doesn’t help their cause as the member of staff may have little control over resolving the problem.

Try and gain the staff member’s sympathy and understanding of your issue. They may want to help you but be under management’s orders to deflect certain types of complaints rather than offer a solution. With a sympathetic member of staff helping you, you can learn nuggets of information that will help you progress your case. (See my real life experience below).

And remember to smile! It can be an icebreaker and help win angry people over to your side.

4. Be Clear About the Result You Want

If you have a genuine reason for complaining, what outcome are you looking for? Are you asking for an apology only or do you want the goods or service replaced? Do you expect a full or just a partial refund? Are you looking for additional money as compensation for the emotional upset or wages lost as a result of the issue? Everyone is different and will be wanting a different result depending on their own situation. Don’t be greedy; aim for a result that is right and reasonable in the circumstances.

Get What You Want is a helpful guide to effective complaining. The author, Jack Burke, tells it like it is. His down-to-earth advice will help you make good complaints, fix bad service and convince companies that you’re right.

Make sure you address your complaint to the correct person.
Make sure you address your complaint to the correct person. | Source

5. Be Willing to Negotiate

Sometimes what you feel is a fair solution is impossible to obtain in practice. Be prepared to listen to alternatives. A negotiated settlement is usually better than rigidly sticking to your original demands and heading for expensive litigation. “A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush”. i.e. it is better to reach a compromise than to wait for an ideal mega-return that may never happen.

6. Choose a Convenient Time So You Receive Proper Attention

A complaint should be made as soon as possible after the problem arises. As the saying goes “Justice delayed is justice denied.” However, this isn’t always possible or practical. For example, you may only discover that something doesn’t work properly when you get home and try to use it. Or you may be in a state of emotional breakdown at the time of the actual event and only realize you are due redress when you have regained your composure some time later.

Where possible try to use one of the quieter periods of service to make your complaint. If the manager and staff are less stressed when you raise an issue with them, they are more likely to be sympathetic. For example, if you're complaining to a store, then visit soon after the shop opens and try to go on a weekday rather than at the weekend.

On your marks. Get set. Go make your complaint!
On your marks. Get set. Go make your complaint! | Source

A True Story of How I Complained and Got the Result I Wanted

Sometimes a complaint doesn’t fall within strict legal liability. However, a store may give you the benefit of the doubt if you have a strong moral case. An example of this happened to me last week. I received an email with a special offer as part of my favorite store’s loyalty scheme. The offer was on for 7 days, starting on Wednesday and finishing the following Tuesday. The offer was “buy a pizza and get a pack of ice cream free.” The value of the pizza and the ice cream was the same, so in effect it was buy-one-get-one-free (a half price offer).

From past experience, I knew these offers sold out fast, but I couldn’t get to the store until Saturday (the 4th day of the offer). So I deliberately arrived at the store as it opened. I figured their shelves would be well stocked at that time of day.

I put a pizza in my trolley and then went to get the ice cream but there were none on display. One of the shop assistants told me “Oh we haven’t had those for days, everyone’s complaining, but the order didn’t go in on time.” I asked if I could have an alternative and when being told I couldn’t, I gently asked if I could speak to the store manager. “There’s no point” I was told, “he won’t give you anything else instead. Other people have asked but he’s refused them all.”

I could have just accepted what I was told at this point, but I felt I had a strong moral case. I had been sent the offer as part of the store’s loyalty scheme and I was a regular customer there. So I politely stood my ground and said I would wait until he was available as I would like to discuss the matter with him.

The manager said the offer was “subject to availability” and it wasn’t available.

The manager came out of his office in an aggressive mood ready for a fight. Before I had even opened my mouth he stated the store was under no obligation to have every item in stock. He said the offer was “subject to availability” and it wasn’t available. Instead of responding to this in a similarly aggressive manner, I smiled at him and said how disappointed I was that I was unable to buy the advertised offer. I told him I was a regular customer because I liked the store and its helpful staff. He calmed down because he was being complimented on his staff and it was something that he couldn't disagree with.

I then went on to tell him why I was so disappointed. The offer had been sent to me as a reward for being a loyal customer, but it was hardly a reward if it was not available. I pointed out the offer still had 3 days to run, but staff had told me that stock of ice creams had run out 3 days ago and no more were on order. I felt that this was unreasonable and not in the spirit of a 7-day offer. I said that substitution of an item of similar value would satisfy me. At this point the manager realized that allowing me an item of similar value to replace the missing ice cream would keep me as a loyal customer and would save him from having to listen to any more of my reasoned argument.

You'll feel great when your complaint succeeds.
You'll feel great when your complaint succeeds. | Source

So Why Did I Win My Case When Others Had Failed?

1. I stayed calm. I was confident of my case and I was polite and friendly throughout the discussion.

2. I clearly stated what the problem was; the advertised offer was not available. (And I had learned from staff that insufficient ice cream had been ordered to meet anticipated demand.)

3. I offered a reasonable solution; I would accept a substitution of similar value.

4. I made a “complaint sandwich”.

What is a Complaint Sandwich?

You can make a complaint more acceptable by wrapping it in two slices of positivity. Before you detail your grievance, soften the blow by saying you have always had good service in the past. The subtext of this is that you are a loyal customer who will continue to use the store (or tradesman) if only the current issue can be resolved amicably.

Next, clearly explain the problem and your desired solution.

Finish the conversation on a positive note by saying something like “I really hope you can fix this problem for me.”

The video below covers the key points of how to make an effective complaint.

How to Complain Effectively and Get What You Want

Further Information

The Better Business Bureau and have information on consumer rights and how to make a complaint about unsatisfactory products and services.


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  • pen promulgates profile image

    Imran Khan 7 months ago from Mumbai, India

    That's a lovely article Beth.