How to Complain and Get Results

Profile photo of Liz Weston, CFP®
Written by Liz Weston, CFP®
Senior Writer
Profile photo of Courtney Neidel
Edited by Courtney Neidel
Assigning Editor
Fact Checked

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If you feel you have more to complain about these days, you may be right. 

The products we use are increasingly complex, which often means they have more ways to malfunction. Companies are still struggling to hire and retain workers, so the customer service representatives who are supposed to help you may not know how. And that’s if you can even get through to a human being after navigating websites, automated chatbots and phone systems that seem designed to thwart you at every turn.

“You're searching for where to call. Once you get through, you're going to yell ‘agent!’ in the phone 12 times, and then they send you to the wrong place,” says Scott M. Broetzmann, chief executive of research firm Customer Care Measurement & Consulting in Alexandria, Virginia. 

On average, customers made 2.9 contacts with a company while attempting to resolve problems, according to the firm’s 2020 National Customer Rage Study, which polled 1,026 consumers about problems with products or services in the past 12 months. A whopping 58% of respondents who complained got nothing — zero, zilch — as a result of their efforts. So perhaps it’s not surprising that 65% of those who had a problem experienced consumer rage.

If you want to improve your odds of getting results, and lower your blood pressure, consider the following tips for complaining effectively.

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Prepare to persevere

Broetzmann urges people to “pick their battles,” given how much effort is typically required to solve problems and how often they occur. The 2020 study found 66% of American households had at least one problem with products and services they purchased during the past 12 months, compared with 56% in the 2017 version of the survey.

“You will put yourself into a place of exhaustion and depression if you complain about every single thing that went wrong,” Broetzmann says.

Kevin Doyle, an editor at Consumer Reports, suggests people gather all the documentation they might need before reaching out to a company. That could include account, confirmation and order numbers, warranties and notes from previous interactions with company representatives, for example. Missing information could force you to start over on whatever phone or digital system you’re using to complain.

Choose your venue

People who make complaints are about as likely to use digital tools such as email, live chats, company websites and social media as they are to pick up the phone, the 2020 study found.

Social media platforms such as Facebook or Twitter have the advantage of being public, which puts some pressure on the company to resolve the problem. Posting your complaint on social media also bypasses the chatbots, phone trees, hold times and malfunctioning voice recognition software that can make customer service such a trial. 

But of the 14% of respondents who used social media to complain about their worst problem, nearly half didn’t receive a response from the company, according to the study. So if you’re tempted to turn to social media first, be ready to have a backup plan that involves connecting with a human by phone, email or chat.

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Be concise

Part of your preparation should be boiling down your complaint to the essentials, including what happened and — more importantly — how you want the company to fix it. Too many consumers aren’t specific about what they want from the company, Broetzmann says.

Just make sure the remedy you suggest is commensurate with the problem, Doyle says. If the seatback TV didn’t function on your flight, don’t ask for a free ticket; ask for a credit for a drink or a meal on your next trip, he suggests. 

“Are you going to get it? Who knows? But chances are, you're not going to get it unless you ask,” Doyle says.

Resist the urge to explain every twist and turn of your journey, or to overstate your distress for dramatic effect. Extraneous details and exaggerations could make you easier to dismiss.

“Stick to the facts,” Doyle says. “Embellishing it is going to diminish your credibility.”

Recruit the rep

Being civil or even nice can win you points with weary reps too often exposed to abusive or aggressive customers. Doyle suggests building on that connection by asking the rep to put themselves in your shoes. 

“If you invite them to imagine how they would feel, it can be effective,” Doyle says. 

If the rep can’t seem to help you, try asking for a supervisor or simply calling back to get a different agent. (I recently had to call a bank three times before I found a rep who was willing to connect me to the department that could finally solve my problem.) 

Anger is an understandable response when you get the runaround. But try to remember that the customer service rep is a human being too and didn’t cause the original problem, Doyle notes. 

“You want to keep your cool,” Doyle says. “Because that's the old adage: You really do catch more flies with honey.”

This article was written by NerdWallet and was originally published by The Associated Press.

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