Complaints that Make Resolutions Possible, and Ideal

By Caroline M. Cole

If you’ve ever shopped in a store, ordered something online, eaten in a restaurant, or contracted someone for a short-or long-term project, chances are you’ve had an experience that has fallen short of what you needed or expected.Complaints that make resolutions possible

A few years ago, there was a fairly standard protocol for customers who found themselves in such a situation: they would talk with the immediate employee and, if necessary, ask to speak to a manager. If those conversations didn’t bring about the desired result, customers might fill out a comment card, write a letter, or call customer service to lodge a complaint with the corporate office. Should those efforts fail, customers would then turn to the Better Business Bureau or other consumer protection services. This process may be inefficient by today’s standards, and yet the parties involved, as well as any bystanders and those told of the events readily knew how serious a complaint was by how far it had moved up the chain. Those days are gone.

In the age of social media, customer service has taken on a new life. Customers increasingly bypass conversations with those directly involved or with those who can resolve matters and, instead, take their grievances online, posting, tweeting, and otherwise transmitting their complaints to the world. In the process, the complaints are becoming less constructive, reading more like open-mic performance pieces in which consumers—often assuming dramatic license—omit context, embellished details, and exaggerate responses not only to give audiences a compelling story of woe but, equally important, to grab or maintain the spotlight, distinguish themselves from other critics, and increase the number “likes” and followers for their own comments.

Such are the consequence of online reviews negating the need for criticism grounded in thoughtful analysis, according to journalist and blogger Tom Vanderbilt. In his article “Star Wars: Online Review Culture is Dotted with Black Holes of Bad Taste” (The Wilson Quarterly, Spring 2013), Vanderbilt reports that “a good deal of the reviewing energy… is precisely an effort to establish one’s bona fides.” Yet equally problematic, Vanderbilt observes, is that “many reviewers seem to turn toward petty despotism,” moving grievances toward retribution for things that may have little to do with the product or service itself but, rather, the consumer’s emotional reaction.

In all fairness, there are values to airing objections online. For example, online forums magnify the word-of-mouth effect and bring greater awareness to problems that may affect other customers, thereby making it harder for companies to downplay or dismiss customer concerns. As such, consumers are getting faster responses and resolutions as companies scramble to protect their reputation in front of larger audiences. But does the ease with which we can grouse about every dislike, disagreement, delay, inconvenience, or faux pas on the one hand, coupled with the promise of gratuitous self-promotion on the other hand, encourage us to be less tolerant, less patient, and less forgiving of even the smallest slip ups and errors? And if so, can even well-meaning businesses and service providers do right by their customers when every unintentional gaffes has the potential to become part of the permanent collective memory online?

These questions are not to suggest that we remain content with or quiet about faulty products, bad service, or other breaches of provider–consumer contracts. Rather, they are an invitation to consider ways we might reasonably encourage better products and services for ourselves and others. The strategies below encourage such efforts.

• Have a goal. Effective communication starts with identifying the reason for the exchange, and while the purpose of a “complaint” may seem self evident, countless unsuccessful complaints can be traced to consumers who are unclear in what they ultimately want.

Robin Kowalski, Professor at Clemson University, describes two categories of complaints: instrumental and expressive. Instrumental complaints are persuasive messages in that they explain problems to evoke a particular action, say to resolve a situation or to bring about change to prevent something from happening in the future. Asking to remove an item from a bill, replace or exchange a defective product, redo a particular job, address an overcharge, request credit for damaged property, and waive a service fee are all examples of instrumental complaints.

Any proposed action or resolution, however, should be fair—something that’s becoming less common in the age of entitlement. For instance, demanding that a restaurant comp the entire meal because the server didn’t bring one of the nine appetizers the table ordered is unreasonable; asking the server to remove the item from the bill would be fair. Requesting both the replacement of and full credit for a damaged product is unmerited; asking the company to cover shipping and handling expenses for returning the damaged item and for shipping a replacement by next-day air is fair.

Expressive complaints, in contrast, are informative messages in that they report situations, concerns, or problems to convey dissatisfaction, usually as an emotional release, an icebreaker or bonding experience (for example, complaining about the weather or about waiting in a line), to one-up someone (for example, responding to a complaint about deadlines by offering one’s own list of deadlines) or, in some cases, to demonstrate expertise (for example, complaining that a particular wine is “not quite right” for the meal). Although an expressive complaint might prompt others to address the matter, resolution is not the primary goal of an expressive complaint; acknowledging or sympathizing with the grieved party is often sufficient.

Because instrumental and expressive complaints may require different details to reach their respective goals, you should decide what you want to accomplish with the complaint. Doing so can help you gauge what information to include and what tone will be most effective for achieving your goal.

• Go to the source. When a product or service is not as expected, it is often easier to complain to family members, friends, others in line, or strangers on the Internet than to address the person responsible, or those who can most easily resolve the situation. Such audiences may be appropriate for expressive complaints, but if you seek more than empathy, you need to alert the liable party that there is a problem.

Some people advise going directly “to the top” to lodge a complaint, but it’s often possible, and usually more efficient, to get the desired results by starting with those most immediately connected to the events in question. After all, the higher up you go, the more removed company representatives may be from the situation, requiring more time to identify what has happened so as to bring closure to the incident. Still, you should be willing and prepared to take your concerns to those higher up the ladder if those you address initially are unable, or unwilling, to help resolve the situation.

• Start and remain neutral and respectful throughout the exchange. One of the most important factors for resolving complaints both successfully and efficiently rests in the tone people have when raising their concern. Although you are entitled to the product or service for which you paid, payment does include a license to belittle, berate, or insult others—even when things do not work out is intended. Mistakes happen, and not all mistakes are a willful slight, so keep company representatives your ally. To that end, rather than preparing for a confrontation, approach the other party with a concern that you need help addressing. Semantics, perhaps, but shifting the language can alter the frame of reference and keep conversations dispassionate and focused on solving the problem.

If the individual with whom you talking is unable to help, ask if it might be better to speak with another person, manager, or division about your concern; such requests, however, should not suggest incompetence but, rather, a way to identify who may have the authority to resolve the matter efficiently.

Throughout your exchange, keep the focus on finding the solution, action, or recompense that would make you whole, resisting the urge to threaten companies with your business, even indirectly. The primary goal of any instrumental complaint should be to resolve the situation in a way that’s fair for both parties on the grounds that fixing a mistake, addressing a concern, solving a problem, and so on are responsible ways to do business. If, then, the only way you can get a person or company to respond is by threatening to take your business elsewhere, threatening to give bad referrals, or threatening to go viral with your complaint, you may need to rethink whether it’s a person or company you’d want to continue doing business with even if it were to resolve your concerns.

By remaining calm and respectful throughout the discussion you will increase your chances of getting a resolution that’s mutually satisfactory.

• Offer facts, rather than adjectives. Companies want to do right by their customers, but they may need context to understand what isn’t working, and the most effective way to give that information is with answers to conventional reporter questions: who, what, where, when, how, and why? Along the way, you should be prepared to offer dates, times, store numbers, employee names, order or invoice numbers, product names, and SKU numbers, as well as photocopies of any written estimates, orders, receipts, invoices, shipping records, photographs, and so on to help others see the situation as you do in a state of rational calm.

“Rational calm” is crucial, for efficient, fair resolution is often predicated upon the grieved party’s ability to project the image of someone who is both credible and reasonable. Emotional reactions, even justifiable ones, are often considered melodramatic and manipulative and, thus, dismissed as untrustworthy; they are also difficult to distinguish from expressive complaints, whereby someone may be simply venting frustration. Consider, for example, the following complaints:

“Your servers are the rudest!! They totally ignored me and when I asked for help, they were very dismissive, setting the tone for what ultimately became the most awful evening we’ve ever had.”


“I have never experienced such miserable customer service, which only added insult to injury in light of your cheaply made, outrageously priced product. And, despite calling several times to complain, we…”

Although legitimate concerns may be couched in these sentences, these adjective-infused complaints can suggest over-reactionary, hard-to-please customers. Moreover, while emotive-based criticisms may ground expressive complaints, they offer little assistance to companies genuinely wanting to resolve their patron’s concerns, or to prevent similar situations from happening in the future. After all, managers would be hard-pressed to tell employees “stop being rude,” “don’t be dismissive,” “give better customer service,” or “make better products” and guarantee that the problems these customers encountered have been addressed accurately or satisfactorily.

So, rather than assume readers will know what happened in a given context to understand what you find objectionable, give details that can help readers know what, if anything, they need to address.

 “Upon entering your restaurant at 7:25pm, I had to wait over 10 minutes for someone to appear at the host station to say that my party had arrived for its 7:30pm reservation. When a restaurant staff member appeared, I asked to whom I should give my name; he said he’d take it and put a check by my name on the reservation list, but then started to walk away without saying how long it would be before my party could be seated. I asked if he could give a timeframe, but he shrugged, said “I dunno” before walking into the kitchen…”


“On May 15, 201X, I ordered 15 1-1/4″ white PVC cross connectors (SKU: FC114X) from your website for $39.15 (Order # 19864) and received the package on May 19. When examining the pieces prior to installation, however, I noticed that seven of the items had chips on one or more of the tapered ends, and two additional connectors were cracked, prompting me to call your office to see how I could exchange the defective products. Despite calling the customer service number posted on your website for the past four days, I have only gotten your voicemail and, to date, no one has returned any of my messages…

Such details make it easier for managers to identify where communication broke down, what actions to address, and how they can mend relationships with customers. As importantly, the neutrality of the presentation, grounded in objective details any bystander could corroborate, establishes the customer’s credibility and, by extension, makes the matter more urgent to address. Certainly businesses should respond to all of their customers in a timely manner, but recognizing that most people will discredit hostile rants, the neutral, fact-based complaints will prompt a response if solely for the fact that individuals who are willing to write dispassionate responses are usually those who will seek out other, increasingly important venues to air unanswered grievances and do so in a way that commands authority.

• Stay on topic. Complaints have a tendency to bring up other criticism, regardless of whether the topics may seem connected. If your concern involves several smaller discrete interactions and problems, say, multiple conversations with different sales representatives resulting in various details about the product you were purchasing and its price, you should focus your complaint on the main concern—inconsistent information resulting in a price discrepancy—and cite the individual conversations as examples of where and how you received conflicting information. If, however, your motive in bringing up other problems is simply to exaggerate incompetency, resist, because “Oh, and by the way…” non sequitur criticism can both distract readers from your main concern and undermine your credibility.

• Be willing to go on record personally. Consumers expecting organizations to take their concerns seriously should be willing to attach their names to their complaints. Although confidentiality and, in some cases, anonymity is important in whistle blowing cases or in other instances where retribution is possible, remaining anonymous simply to make contemptuous remarks is viewed as cowardly. Comments do not have to be pleasant, but they should be plausible and defensible, so if you find that a business’s product or service deserves a harsh review, ground your comments in facts and be willing to attach your name to your complaint to indicate that you stand by your observations. Doing both will make it harder for an organization, and others, to dismiss the criticism.

Customers who find a product or service that is less than expected have a responsibility to point out their concerns, but they also have a responsibility to offer comments in the most constructive manner, giving companies a chance to respond on a level ground. In doing so customers help companies understand what products, services, and practices will be supported, and which will not.

Working toward Areté
How do you resolve the complaints you have, or those you receive, in ways that respect all parties? Record your suggestions and experiences in the space below.

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Complaints that Make Resolutions Possible, and Ideal — 2 Comments

  1. It’s difficult to reign in emotions when you are a frustrated customer whose experience with any company has gone bad for you. But the truth is, the management of any company that wants to stay in business NEEDS us to do just that: give the kind of very specific and useful feedback you recommend that allows the company to take corrective action, including figuring out where and with whom, the circumstance turned sour for the customer.

    • I totally agree, Jane, that it’s hard to keep emotions in check at the very moments you want to throttle someone; thus, despite knowing what I need do, my comments aren’t always as tempered as they should be. (That’s why I prefer written comments over face-to-face complaints; there’s time to cool off.)

      Ironically, while I think anger would make my point more emphatically, it’s actually when I’m least emotional and focused on concrete actions that companies seem to step up and go beyond what they need to do to make it right; anger certainly gets a response, but often just the minimum to shut customers up. It’s a good reminder that good companies want to do well by their customers, and mutual respect makes that possible for the short- and long-term.

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