What Are You Complaining About?

Posted Saturday, February 21, 2015 in Customer Experience by Ronni Marshak

It’s snowing again! I live just south of Boston, and, guess what, it’s snowing…again. I’m sick of it! Just look at the view from the front door of my new house in suburbia! Did I move here for this?

Boston's 2015 Winter snow

For weeks, now, it seems that practically everyone in the Boston area is complaining about the weather. Not surprising, since there is record snowfall and no place to put the snow. But, come on now, realistically, what do we all expect anyone to do about it? Yes, public transportation authorities made some poor decisions, trying to keep things running with old equipment in impossible conditions, leading to people being stranded and cold. Yes, tons of money was spent clearing the path for the Patriots’ victory parade that might have been spent on clearing side streets in the neighborhoods (rather than main roads downtown that would be cleared anyway). And it goes on and on.

All this made me think long and hard (and, being snowbound, I have a lot of time) about complaining, why we do it, and what we hope to get out of it.

I started researching complaining online—kind of a fun activity—and discovered this great column by Amy Bradley-Hole that she posted over eight years ago on ConsumerTraveler.com, entitled, “How to complain effectively.” It so impressed me that I’m reprinting it here in its entirety.

“I’m getting on my soapbox about one of my biggest pet peeves: bad complainers. Look, we love our hotel guests, and we hate slipping up. We truly don’t like it when our actions lead to a complaint, and we want to make the situation better. So help us help you! Guests often make simple mistakes when complaining. The good news is that the mistakes are easy to avoid, and doing so can really help the next time you need to complain.

Pick your battles. Life throws challenges at us. There are lots of things we could complain about every hour of every day. Yes, you could get worked up over the fact that your Asian salad from room service has fewer mandarin oranges than you’d like. You could start calling managers and composing a letter to the hotel’s owner. This might make you feel better, but is it really worth the time and stress? If so, go for it. If not, consider saving your energy for a truly bad situation.

Remember, too, that it doesn’t do much good to complain about something beyond the hotel’s control. I once listened to a woman complain for 20 minutes about her horrible visit. The problem? She had come to town for an art festival and was unhappy with the quality of the vendors and the event in general. She needed to vent, and I had time to listen, so I let her rant. But I couldn’t help wishing that I could just give her the event organizers’ phone numbers and tell her to go away. Bad weather, traffic, your hangover, etc. — those are just not our problem, and there is nothing we can do to help you.

Complain immediately. I’ve received countless letters from guests who had problems during a stay but never brought them to anyone’s attention. They waited until they got home to let me know about issues that we could easily have remedied while they were at the hotel. Believe me, we don’t want you to go home, stew over a problem and then badmouth us behind our backs. We want to make you happy now, so don’t suffer in silence, speak up!

Make yourself understood. There are times when you do need to contact a hotel in a written communication. Please make those communications legible. (Im series! This is a hugh problem!) I cannot count the complaint letters I’ve received that were full of misspellings and grammar mistakes. Some have been so bad that I’ve had to meet with other staff to figure out what the heck the person was writing about. If you know you don’t write well, then either get someone to help you write the letter or call the hotel directly. We can’t help you if we can’t understand you.

Don't go up the ladder — yet. I’ve read plenty of advice that tells travelers to start complaining at the highest level possible. You know: Send your complaint letter straight to the CEO; that’s how to get prompt attention. Bad idea!

When the CEO gets your letter, he assumes you’ve been unable to get satisfaction through other channels, so he yells at a vice president to investigate. The VP then yells at the regional manager. The regional manager yells at the property manager. The property manager yells at the assistant manager. The assistant manager yells at the departmental manager. And that departmental manager then has to respond to your complaint. By now, five people have been chewed out because you didn’t start with the source of the problem. Think any of them has the warm fuzzies for you? Think anyone wants to go out of his way to please you? No, they do not.

Of course, if you fail to get help at the hotel, by all means aim higher. But start the process by talking to the person who is most responsible and most able to help you.

Ask for appropriate compensation. Hotel managers deal with complaints day in and day out. We tend to get weary of them. One of the main reasons is this: People ask for way too much. So there were some teenagers next door who were loud. Security responded promptly to your call, the kids quieted down and you went straight to sleep. No, you don’t deserve a free night for your troubles. When you ask for that, it automatically raises our hackles. And, human nature being what it is, we’ve now got hard feelings toward you.

I’ve had to complain to hotels before. I approach the situation like this: I tell the manager what the problem is. I explain that I am not looking for compensation, but that I do want to make him aware of the situation, and that I am leaving it in his hands to decide what should be done. And you know what? I’ve never been disappointed. In fact, I’ve always been surprised at how much consideration I’ve received.

Be nice. You’ve heard it a million times, but you really do catch more flies with honey than vinegar. I know how hard it is to keep a level head and stay calm when you’ve been wronged. But you are much more likely to find that employees are willing to help when you treat them with respect. Don’t start screaming at that poor operator who makes only minimum wage — she didn’t break your toilet! Don’t start threatening the valet attendant with lawsuits — you’ll be only the millionth person to threaten a lawsuit for no good reason. Don’t use profanity or be verbally abusive. And never get physical. This happens more often than you might think. I once had a man try to punch me because he couldn’t get a nonsmoking room. I guarantee that the city jail, where he did spend the night, smelled way worse than a smoking room. Here’s another cliché that is true: You really do reap what you sow.Amy Bradley-Hole

So there they are: my complaints about complainers. Follow my advice the next time you have a problem at a hotel, and see if the complaint process isn’t less stressful and your resolution more satisfactory.”

~ Amy Bradley-Hole

Even though Amy is talking about the hotel industry in 2006, the same considerations apply to any customer of any business in any industry segment today.

Her column also reminded me of my last article, “When Comcast Insults Customers: Who’s to Blame?” In the article, I proposed that there is fault to be shared among CSRs, business executives, and customers themselves when customer service goes really wrong. Amy, here, points out the things that customers do wrong when complaining. As always, I try to build on what others have said to bring more insights (or to stroke my own ego). So here are some more things for customers to think about when complaining and how businesses should prepare and react.

Why Are You Complaining?

WHAT’S WRONG? When you contact customer service, it’s important to figure out exactly why you are complaining and what you want to happen. For example, is something not working or is it not what you expected? These are different complaints. Be prepared to tell the company rep what exactly is wrong. If you aren’t clear, the CSR will have a much tougher time helping you. If you call and say, “I ordered this thing and I’m unhappy,” the agent can only sympathize. But if you say, “I ordered this thing and the instructions are too complicated; I need help with assembly,” or “I ordered this thing and I got a different color than I ordered/it broke the second time I used it/it didn’t arrive in time for me to give it for Christmas/it is much smaller and poorly made than the picture and description indicated/etc.,” then the representative has information to go on and can offer the appropriate remedy.

WHAT RECOURSE ARE YOU LOOKING FOR? Do you want the item replaced? Repaired? Returned? Or are you just looking for a shoulder to cry on because the item you bought didn’t work out for the purpose you ordered it? Are you looking for ideas for something else to try? Was the billing incorrect? Or are you just calling to let the company know that it didn’t do a good job and you wanted to give feedback (hopefully, politely and constructively). Be prepared to let the CSR know what you want to have happen as a result of your call—free return for a full refund, a replacement, credit on your bill, etc.

What Is the Minimum Recourse You are Looking for? Part of expressing out what you want is figuring out what is the least the company can do for you. It’s similar to the concept of Minimum Viable Product (MVP)—what is the smallest feature set that a product can offer to make it sellable—what is the Minimal Viable Solution (MVS) to your problem? Is it a new version of the same product or do you want the next model up for the same price? Do you not only want a full refund but also free shipping on your next order? Do you want a credit to your account towards your next invoice and, if so, how much? As Amy mentioned, compensation should be appropriate, but you should know what you would accept and what is just not enough!

ARE YOU COMPLAINING TO THE RIGHT PERSON? This can be especially problematic in B2B situations where, for example, a piece of technology isn’t working. Your software, hardware, network, and configuration are typically from a bunch of different providers. Do you know the correct one to call when there is a problem? Do you even know how to find out?

And consumers also often complain to the wrong department—shipping versus billing, etc. Make sure you have the right person or department rep on the other end of your complaint before you start talking about compensation and remedies.

What Should Companies Do?

MAKE PASS OFFS SEAMLESS. Let’s start with the last issue first, is the customer complaining to the right person: Make sure that your representatives know enough to either handle all situations themselves or to pass it along to the correct CSR in a single step (with all the relevant information that has already been given by the customer). Don’t ever make the customer dial a second number or send a second email. Just because you have different lines of business doesn’t mean that your customer will understand which one to call. To the customer, anything with your brand is from the same source. Thus, service should be available from any CSR in the company. Customers are willing to be handed off, but only if the hand off is seamless and the customer doesn’t have to repeat himself.

In the B2B situation, where multiple companies and brands are interconnected and it might be hard (for the customer) to figure out which brand is causing the problem, make sure your representatives can help determine what’s wrong, who to talk to, and can easily transfer (with all info) to the right customer service department, even if it’s in another company. If your products are highly intertwined with others in a customer solution, it is your responsibility to have the correct contact information and to make the hand off seamless, even if it means that you tell the customer that the right person will call them back, and your agent calls the other company and gives them the number to call. Make those alliances happen! Don’t pass the buck. Even if the problem isn’t yours, all the customer will remember is that you didn’t help solve the problem.

EMPOWER YOUR REPRESENTATIVES. When it comes to recourse and compensation, too often, agents aren’t allowed to offer compensation without escalating to a higher level. Understandably, there should be a limit to the flexibility in compensation (a top $$ value, for example) that a CSR can automatically offer, but make it a reasonable limit that can handle the majority of complaints. Certain compensations should be no-brainers, such as free return shipping and free replacements, free returns (with no “restocking” charges), and things like that.

You should also empower your CSRs to come up with creative solutions, including offering compensation that seems not only appropriate to the problem but that will mean something to the customer. For example, for a complaining airline passenger who says how much she hates to fly, giving a free flight voucher isn’t a reward, but a punishment. However, an upgrade to first class on the next flight (should she have to take one) will probably be very welcome! The more personalized (and unsolicited) the compensation is, the more likely the customer is to feel listened to and valued. That goes a long way to repairing any damage done by the initial problem that spurred the complaint.

HIRE SMART AND EMPATHETIC AGENTS. Sales people are skilled at getting to the core of what the prospect really wants (or at least good sales people are). That is a skill that your customer support personnel should share (although not in the cause of making the sale, but for the purposes of solving the problem and nurturing the relationship). When hiring and training your CSRs and other customer-facing personnel, emphasize the ability to get at the source of the complaint. An empathetic agent can help surface the underlying concerns and expectations of customers and can come up with effective support and compensation that will make the customers feel that they are cared for and that they have an ally in helping make everything right again!

And, as to the snow, just let me vent. I know there’s nothing you can do about it, but it feels good to let off some steam. And maybe that will help me stay warm!


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