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How to Complain in Person and Get the Result You Want

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

Do it right, and you'll be a smiling, happy customer, and not angry or disappointed.

Do it right, and you'll be a smiling, happy customer, and not angry or disappointed.

Know Your Rights

  1. Don’t go in all guns blazing.
  2. Know your rights and stand your ground.
  3. Show empathy for front line staff and remember to smile.
  4. Be clear about the result you want.
  5. Be willing to negotiate.
  6. Choose the right time and place to raise your complaint.

How to Complain and Get What You Want

How good are you at complaining? How many times have you been upset by a bad meal experience, and kept quiet? Have you ever missed out on a special offer because the item was sold out? If you have a valid case, don't be a passive customer, but raise a complaint.

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. Do it in the right way and most people are helpful, but don’t take the mickey, you’ll get nowhere fast if you try it on.

Don't make your complaint in an aggressive manner. Try to choose a quiet time when you can have the staff member's full attention.

Don't make your complaint in an aggressive manner. Try to choose a quiet time when you can have the staff member's full attention.

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’ve seen a product item priced more cheaply at another store, you should 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

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, I recommend The Consumer Action Handbook which is published by the US government and updated regularly.

In the UK you are protected by The Consumer Rights Act 2015. In the US, the Better Business Bureau will guide you through American consumer rights legislation which varies from state to state.

3. Show Empathy for Front Line Staff

Often the store assistant or food server bears the brunt of customer dissatisfaction. I’m sure you’ve sometimes overheard a loud and aggressive person complaining about something to a junior member of staff. Anger doesn’t help, and the employee targeted may not have the means or authority to resolve the problem.

To make an effective complaint, 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 on your side, you may be able to gather 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 may help win uncooperative or hostile staff over to your point of view.

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 want a different result depending on their own situation. Don’t be greedy; aim for a result that is right and reasonable in the circumstances.

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. It’s better to reach a compromise than to wait for an ideal that, in reality, may never happen.

6. Choose the Right Time and Place to Raise Your Complaint

A complaint should be made as soon as possible after the problem arises. 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 distress at the time of the actual event, and only realize you are due redress later when you have regained your composure.

By choosing the best time and place to make your case, you are maximizing the chance of it getting the attention it deserves. Try to use one of the quieter periods of service to make a 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 complaining to a store, then visit soon after the shop opens, and try to go on a weekday rather than at the weekend.

Feel great when your complaint succeeds.

Feel great when your complaint succeeds.

A True Story of How I Complained and Got What 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 price of the pizza and the ice cream was the same, so in effect it was buy-one-get-one-free.

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). I made sure I arrived at the store as it opened. I figured the 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. A store assistant said “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 this, 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 the manager was available as I would like to discuss the matter with him.

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 in a similarly aggressive manner, I smiled 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 at this, 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 that the offer still had 3 days to run, but staff had told me that stock of the ice creams on offer had run out 3 days ago, and there were no more on order.

I explained that I felt 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.

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

  1. Complain to the right person. I made sure I was speaking to someone who had the authority to offer a remedy, and resolve the issue.
  2. State the problem. I stayed calm. I was confident of my case, and I was polite and friendly throughout the discussion. I was specific about what the problem was.
  3. Take the emotion out of the discussion. 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. I made my case without raising my voice or expressing anger or undue emotion.
  4. Ask for action. I was clear about the outcome I wanted. I offered the store a reasonable solution; I would accept a substitution of similar value.

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.


Liz Westwood from UK on February 18, 2020:

This is a very helpful article. You have hit upon the ideal approach. If I am on the phone to a big organisation, I sometimes say to the person on the other end "I appreciate it's not your fault, but......." It gets them a little more on my side and most times they have nothing to do with the original complaint.

Face to face, as you describe is a little different. If I don't get a good resolution, I sometimes ask politely to see the manager. It's in a business's interests to keep customers happy, whether that be in a hotel or a restaurant. Most times we have come away satisfied with the outcome. The best ones are where they spot a problem and address it without us having to do hardly anything, which unfortunately is quite rare.

Ann Carr from SW England on February 17, 2020:

Great advice and your experience backed it up so well done on both counts!


Angela Joseph from Florida on February 16, 2020:

Great advice, Beth. I compliment you on the sensible way you handled what could have been a difficult situation.

Pamela Oglesby from Sunny Florida on February 16, 2020:

This is excellent advice Beth. We all have to return things once in a while, or maybe we get a bad meal. It is goood to smile and deal with the problem as you suggested.

John Hansen from Queensland Australia on February 16, 2020:

You offer great advice here, Beth. I have found you always receive a better outcome by staying calm and being polite. Staff are often under pressure and if attacked they will rarely be helpful. Generally they do like a happy customer.

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