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How do I complain about bad customer service and get what I want?

Updated on October 22, 2013
Hello, what's your complaint? (I don't care)
Hello, what's your complaint? (I don't care) | Source

Having been in retail services for more than twenty years and having been on the business end of customer service, I can say unequivocally that customers know how to complain, but few know how to complain effectively. Whether you are truly wronged by a business or you are just trying to resolve a simple problem, how you approach a customer service representative is critical to getting satisfaction. Approach them wrong and you probably won't get what you want. Approach them right, take the proper steps, and virtually any customer service problem, no matter how outlandish, is resolvable. Knowing how to complain is the key.

A Story

I'm not sure I'm going to remember the exact details of how this went, but rest assured the basic details are true and accurate. I flew to Houston using a "buddy pass", which meant that if one person bought a ticket, the second person flew for free. I flew down with my buddy, but he didn't fly back. When I went to the airport, I discovered that I had the buddy part of the ticket, so because my buddy wasn't flying back, I couldn't use my ticket and was asked to buy a full-priced, one-way ticket back home, which was extremely expensive. Needless to say, I was infuriated.

What would you do?

In my experience, most people, presented with my situation, completely lose their cool. They yell and scream. They become irrational. They use profanity. They become loud and aggressive with the first customer representative with whom they come into contact. To be honest, occasionally that kind of behavior can work, but most times it does not. Because I was minutes from take-off, I didn't have much time to resolve this.

What did happen?

Standing there, minutes from take-off (this was before 9/11), there wasn't a lot I could do. The airline representative insisted I buy a $400, one-way ticket. Fortunately, I did not yell or throw a tantrum. I politely, if a little exasperatedly, explained my situation, and asked for some understanding and some options. Eventually, the airline person realized that he could cancel my portion of the ticket and apply a cancellation fee of $50, thereby selling me a ticket for $50. I took this deal and dashed off to the gate. When I returned home, I sat down and wrote a letter to the President of the airline explaining, politely but firmly, my dissatisfaction. I said that the entire episode was unacceptable and that I would never fly that airline again. Several weeks later, I received a letter from the President's secretary apologizing and refunding my $50.

Polite persistence almost always pays off

The key to most customer service interactions is polite persistence. Of course, generally you have to be justified in your argument, but in most cases, you can get what you want. In fact, polite persistence can produce results in most facets of life. Here are the things to remember when it comes to resolving customer service disputes.

  • Always be kind and calm - Screaming and yelling gives a business the right and sometimes motivation to throw you out or call the police or to see you as a threat. Your bad behavior justifies a response. If you don't give a business a reason to treat you poorly, they usually won't. In many cases, they can't. Don't be mean or harassing.
  • Front-line customer service representatives are not empowered to make decisions - Always remember that the first person you speak to, the front-line customer service representative in most businesses, is rarely empowered to make a decision. In fact, it is most often their job to follow policy. Arguing with them is pointless because they're trained to follow policy. You can explain your situation to them and ask them to do something, but if your request falls outside of business policy, you are going to have to speak with somebody else.
  • Always ask to speak to a manager - When asking to speak to a manager, you should do it smartly. There are a number of ways you can do this. You can simply skip the front-line person and ask nicely to speak to a manager first. Remember, it irritates most people when you go over their heads, so be careful. Another useful approach is to explain your situation to the front-line person and actually ask them if they think talking to a manager would be useful. It puts them in your position. When people who work in retail are on the other side of a customer service complaint, they will always ask to speak to a manager because they know it's more likely to get them what they want

Another (brief) story - I bought a television from Costco. About a month later, they came out with a coupon for $200 off that television. Since they had a 90-day return policy, I figured they would give me a credit for $200 since I couldn't imagine they wanted me to bring in my old television and get a new one of the exact same model. However, that's exactly what they wanted me to do. So, I asked to speak to a manager, who reiterated the policy. I calmly and politely explained to her how this didn't make any sense. Wouldn't it make more sense to save everyone the time and hassle of dealing with the unboxed, used television and just credit me $200? Eventually, with polite persistence, she saw the logic of this, and gave me the credit.

  • Know what businesses fear from unhappy customers - Every manager in retail understands some version of this axiom: a happy customer will tell one other person about their experience. An unhappy customer will tell ten. Tell a manager in any business that you are going to make it your personal mission to make sure every person you know understands the bad experience you had and they're likely to give you whatever you want. Generally, it's smart to be subtle about saying it, but the basic concept works in most forms. Part of my letter to the airline mentioned above involved me saying I was going to tell all my friends about it and send a letter to the editor of my local newspaper urging people to avoid their airline. That's a lot of bad publicity that's worth a fair amount of money to stop.
  • Recognize when you've pushed too far - You can be as reasonable, calm, logical, and correct as anybody, but sometimes employees are either not empowered to help you, don't want to help you, or have simply reached their breaking point that particular day. You have to recognize when no means no, at which point you calmly thank them for their time, and explain what you're going to do next, which is...
  • Write a letter or email to the top of the ladder - This is sort of a last resort because, let's face it, there are going to be times when you are not going to get what you want. But if your complaint is reasonable (and gauge it with friends and family), end by writing a letter or sending an email to the president or CEO of the company - whoever is at or very near the top. Explain your situation. Tell them what you need to resolve it. Finally, explain what you will do if it isn't resolved. You will never do business with them again. You will tell everyone you know about your bad experience. You will write letters to newspapers. You will blog about your experience. If you're really feeling upset, you can include the line: "I will make it my personal mission to make sure as many people on the face of this earth know what happened and that your business treated me unfairly." In fact, you can use that axiom I mentioned above in your letter: "I'm sure you're familiar with the data that suggests that a happy customer will tell one person while and unhappy customer will tell five. Well, I plan to tell about fifty." Generally-speaking, those at the top of the business ladder see the big picture. They understand it's easier and cheaper to make you happy than to hold firm and make you unhappy. Ultimately though, make sure your complain warrants this move. Not every complaint does.

Some notes from the business side: In my experience as a customer service representative, I'm much more inclined to make sure my reasonable customers are made happy than my unreasonable ones. If your claim is unreasonable, then I'm going to say so and try to explain why. Unfortunately, many people today are entirely unreasonable to begin with, so this can be frustrating. If you're going to be persistent, try to be fairly sure your claim is reasonable. If it is, you'll almost always get what you want. Also, I am infinitely more likely to give a customer what he or she wants if that customer is a regular customer - somebody who spends money in my place of business often. In fact, I will give a good customer what they want almost immediately because I understand the value of their business. Make this point to a manager ("I spend over one thousand dollars here last year...") and you'll almost always get what you want.

How Not to Act to Get What You Want (warning: profanity)

The Dunkin' Donuts Lady

The following video is a good example of exactly how not to act in a customer service situation where you believe you've been wronged.

This is the infamous video of the lady in Dunkin Donuts who berates the employees about a receipt she didn't get.

She not only berates the employees, but so believes she's in the right that she posted the video herself.

Don't be like this lady.

Where do you generally get the worst customer service?

See results


Submit a Comment
  • kashmir-ladakh profile image


    6 years ago from usa

    customer service is very important for every business. It is a backbone of a company.

  • Father Of Four profile image

    Father Of Four 

    8 years ago from Just ahead

    Again with the quality post. You're turning me into a fan, crank. I've been in the service industry for quite some time and these points are spot on.

  • djnixon profile image


    8 years ago

    Dish Network wants to charge you 20.00 for a new remote when you've been with them for so long that your remote is worn out.. So I say, maybe I'll switch to Direct TV and get new remote and everything.. He says let me speak to my manager... I got the remote

  • MobyWho profile image


    8 years ago from Burlington VT

    1949 - 33rpm LP player attachments just came out. I bought one-it died after a month. Store said "tough" - it has an "open motor". I wrote Columbia (then in my hometown of Bridgeport, CT) suggesting a bunch of crazy things I could do with this now useless hunk of junk, and said I'd be happy to return it next time I was home. They said "Bring it in and we'll replace it." I went home, walked up that long white granite staircase to headquarters and tried to leave it at the front desk. They said "Just a minute, Mr.? would like to see you." Ooops! Well, the Pres. invited me into his office, looked up and said, "I always wanted to meet someone who would write a letter like that." At which point, he shook my hand and handed me the new player.

    I must say that was a doozie of a letter.

  • LeanMan profile image


    8 years ago from At the Gemba

    I bought a PC several years back from a well known store with a big R in the middle of its name, the PC started to crash repeatedly after a few days and I was referred to the manufacturers help line and so forth...

    After a month of repeated visits and failed repairs I tried to return the computer, but was informed that they would give it to the manufacturer who would fix and return as I had had it for too long!!

    I decided to contact the manufacturer directly - despite no available telephone numbers, addresses, emails, websites etc.. After some investigation I got the number of their manufacturing facility and phoned and asked to speak to the quality manager;

    I was transferred to his mobile phone and I introduced myself and began to tell my story of woe, at which point he politely interrupted me to tell me I could F off and tell my story to someone who cared! He had not worked for the company for 6 weeks but the switchboard still insisted on putting calls through to his mobile phone. I apologized profusely and offered to put my problem to someone who may give a "f" if he would only give me their number!

    A call at just after midnight to the general managers home telephone number had an engineer at my home with their newest and most powerful PC and a full box of the latest software and games!

    I also complained to my mortgage company after a major disaster that left my family homeless (very long story that maybe I should write a hub about), calm complaining got my family a six bedroom mansion with pool to live in for six months whilst we found our next house, an interest free mortgage and a holiday a year later when the company changed hands and sent out "customer satisfaction surveys"..

  • SavageAccounting profile image


    8 years ago

    It's always best to complain in a positive, professional manner. I am currently working retail. The customers who complain in a positive professional manner get the best attention. It's just how it works. People make mistakes. No one person and no one company is perfect. It's all about working together to get the best result.

  • infination profile image


    8 years ago from Columbus, MS

    Kill them with kindness. If you call expecting negativity, you'll usually find it. If you deal with support personnel over the phone with hospitality and congeniality, you will find that your positive actions will lead to a positive experience -- not to mention that your kindness might even make that person's otherwise miserable day! Ignore initial negativity, and win them over with persuasive, heartfelt kindness. You'll get your way 99 times out of 100 by being a positive and persistent squeaky wheel as opposed to a negative, annoying one.

  • profile image


    8 years ago

    "a happy customer will tell one other person about their experience. An unhappy customer will tell ten" - haha loved it.

    Awesome hub, and I look forward to reading more of your work.

  • wonderful1 profile image

    Sheila Varga Szabo 

    8 years ago from Southern California

    Great points, and I'll remember to apply them to my next experience. Thanks for the Hub.

  • ajaodegaard profile image


    8 years ago

    I really liked your article. Most people tend to get mad and that's when things blow up. Usually situations are diffused much easier if everyone keeps their cool. Thanks for the good read!


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