What’s the Best Way to Complain About Problems?

March 6, 2009

in communication

by Gabe Goldberg

“Whine, whine, whine,” “Gripe, gripe, gripe,” and even “kvetch, kvetch, kvetch” usually mean “Shut up; stop complaining.” But when things go wrong, complaining courteously to the right person with a specific remedy in mind can be rewarding.

If a company Web site has a “Contact us” link, start there with an email or telephone connection. Be polite, identify yourself, mention how you’re connected to the organization (current or potential customer, etc.), and describe your dissatisfaction. Staying calm and cheerful will set you apart from most people and will improve the odds of your getting satisfaction.

No matter what answers you get, emphasize that you’re not angry at whoever you’re speaking or emailing with and that you understand they’re bound by company policies. Whether or not you get answers you like, note names of people you deal with and — if it’s a large company or you expect to have further contact with them — request a case or “ticket” number for tracing your request.

If you’re always happy after your initial dialogue with a company, you’re a unique individual, and you can stop reading now!

All too often, however, a first complaint contact goes nowhere. That’s when it’s time to get serious. Use company Web sites, Google, and other online resources to determine senior executive names and postal addresses. Web sites often have helpful links such as “About us,” “Press room,” and “Investor relations.”

Write to the CEO by name and title. If possible, start with good news — such as you’ve previously been a satisfied customer, most of a recent experience was pleasant, or an employee was particularly helpful. Then, with a tone of regret, briefly describe what went wrong. Avoid sounding angry or belligerent, and don’t make threats.

You certainly won’t hear back in person from Ms. or Mr. Bigwig, but most large companies have an Office of the Chairman with staff tasked with calming down and cheering up unhappy customers.

After writing to the Chairman of Hewlett-Packard about a defective toner cartridge that a store wouldn’t replace, I received a call from a nice gent who expressed sympathy and asked if he might send me a replacement (worth $120 or so). More recently, I told Honda’s CEO about problems with my car’s navigation system DVD and received a call offering a refund (worth $155). Writing letters about unsatisfactory restaurant dining episodes has been rewarded with valuable gift cards and tasty meals.

And sometimes griping has fun results. I recently complained that a Web site didn’t use encryption for processing credit card information. The site owner at first disagreed but when I proved my assertion, he was outraged — at his Webmaster, for making unauthorized changes. He then asked what I’d intended to purchase and sent it to me free, along with other related items.

Don’t give up until you reach the top. After receiving an unsatisfactory response to a complaint submitted through Starbucks’ Web site, escalating to the chairman resulted in an apology and a $50 store card.

Does complaining — even to to the top — always work? Of course not. I’ve been ignored — received no response — more than once. And some responses are dismissive, offering neither apology nor any gesture of atonement.

But usually, senior management values customer feedback; I’ve established cordial relationships with company managers by letting them know of areas needing improvement. It’s easy and inexpensive enough writing letters — and after sending a few you’ll have stock phrases that makes it go fast — that it’s worth doing to remedy all but the smallest problems.

Gabe Goldberg (tiplet@gabegold.com), a lifelong computer pro and technology communicator, has written three books and hundreds of articles for audiences including techies, baby boomers and senior citizens. He enjoys sharing tips and pointers that help people use and have fun with technology.


Dave 03.16.09 at 1:27 am

I just started having problems with windows being blocked on some websites.
How do I go about unblocking. I,m far far from being a computer expert.
Also, anti virus 360 installed it’s self and that’s when the problems began. I
don’t know enough to uninstall it.
I have windows vista.
Thanks, Dave

Fiona 04.02.09 at 10:51 am

Great advice. I had to contact a VP of Walmart after the local store put the wrong battery in my car and it nearly blew up! I tried calling the local store and they insisted they had not made a mistake despite my showing them proof from another mechanic. Finally I emailed one of the corporate VPs. He called me within an hour and told me I could go to the store and a full cash refund for all my expenses would be waiting. The store manager was not at all happy that I had gone above her head but it got results.

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