How to Complain Like a Pro

As a consumer, student, employee, and citizen, we all get a little screwed sometimes.

An important measure of any institution–be it a business, school, or whatever–is how they try to rectify a mishap or misdeed. In spite of that truism, the cold reality is that your reaction to getting screwed is the critical catalyst that determines how your complaint will be heard and processed. It is up to you.

Complain the wrong way, and you can look like a fool who gets nothing but high blood pressure and a wasted afternoon. I once complained the wrong way (let’s just say my temper got the best of me and I hulked out over a voicemail to a doctor’s office), and got a lovely letter inviting me to never come back to their office ever again. As if I was going to anyway. Shitkickers.

But if you play the complaint game the right way, not only do you stand to receive satisfaction over your complaint, but you can legitimately gauge the integrity of the institution against which you’re railing. Take an ugly situation and turn it into your moment of haughty, glorious victory.

This is a brief masterclass on the art of complaining. Read and follow the instructions below to learn how to badass your way into getting satisfaction from a complaint.

#1. Ask Yourself If You Have a Legitimate, Reasonable Complaint

Before you even turn to the keyboard or phone, you need to slow your roll and examine your situation thoughtfully. Are you actually in the right? Is your gripe reasonable given the circumstances? And is it worth your precious time and energy to get the complaint train chugging down the tracks?

Remember that even a simple complaint can turn into a frustrating multi-hour ordeal of sitting on hold and punching buttons into a an automated phone system. Waiting on call backs. Waiting on email replies. Watching for a manager to come to your table.

Life is too short to lose your shit over petty stuff that you can just let go of.

For example, if Amazon Prime is delivering your widgets and doodads and tumtums in four days instead of the promised two days, let it go. If you ordered a book online and it arrived with a bent corner, let it go. If your lunch took 40 minutes to be delivered at the local restaurant, but the place is absolutely slammed and the waitress is trying her best, let it go.

If you’ve ever worked in customer service or food service (I’ve worked in both extensively), then you understand that small human errors should sometimes be overlooked. Frankly, sometimes it’s just good karma to let it go and hopefully spare other human beings from being piled upon. Instead, thank the stressed waitress and be glad it isn’t your job.

When it really is time to complain, your voice will carry a lot more weight if you are otherwise known as a customer who has exerted patience and displayed kindness on a regular basis. Karma, karma, karma.

And then, when you have a truly legitimate and reasoned complaint, it’s time to go to town, baby.

#2. Don’t Lose Your Temper

I was born and raised in Metro Detroit, and I come from a long line of hotheads (another time, I’ll tell you the story of how my retired grandfather was fired from golf course security because he took a swing at golfers for taking their shirts off), so I have a freakin’ temper.

Angry Compaint Cat.jpg

You must remember, though, that the moment you lose your temper in a complaint situation, that is the moment you have lost. Here are the simple rules:

  • Never use profanity, even mild uses
  • Never make the conversation personal–attacking or insulting the individual with whom you are  negotiating (remember your beef is with the company, not the waitress or clerk)
  • Never raise your voice louder than patient conversational volume
  • Never, ever threaten violence

Sure, I have been in a thousand different circumstances when the person on the other end of the line is clearly a moron, or just a Grade-A asshole. But unloading on them–whether they “deserve it” or not, accomplishes absolutely nothing. Hell, even if you’re thinking, “well, at least I’d feel better”, eh, we know you really wouldn’t. Once your blood pressure lowers and the anger juices stop flowing, you’ll realize you’re nowhere.

You lost. They provoked you into being the King Asshole of the situation. The King Asshole always loses.

Don’t be the King Asshole. Let them take that role. Or hopefully, everyone can keep cool heads and you can get to the nitty-gritty of negotiation and getting things right.

#3. Set a Goal For Your Satisfaction

I cannot stress this enough: When you initiate a complaint, know ahead of time what your goal is and what will achieve satisfaction.

Stop and consider this really carefully and calmly.

Thinking that you won’t stop until people lose their jobs is rarely reasonable in an ordinary (non-police) situation. Demanding a full refund plus compensation for your inconvenience and time off of work is never going to happen (outside of a court of law). And don’t think for a second that people can break the laws of physics and the postal service. That manager is never going to get that package to your door today, or even by tomorrow morning.

Also, if you’ve used or consumed something, do not assume you are entitled to your money back. This isn’t a lesson on how to con things out of people, and you should never expect to get something for nothing.

If you have had a bad day, week, month, and just want to yell at someone, think twice. Don’t be the King Asshole.

At the same time, don’t go into a complaint just ready to whine that things aren’t going your way. Have a target in mind, along with a reasonable timeframe to go with it. Here are some examples of objectives that might be reasonable, depending on the situation and the level of offense:

  • A verbal apology
  • Free expedited shipping
  • A refund on shipping costs
  • A partial refund to effectively give you a discount, or store credit toward a future purchase
  • At restaurants: A free dessert or appetizer
  • A free extension of a subscription
  • A balloon for your kid (I actually stooped this low at a car dealership once when I could get absolutely no other form of satisfaction. My kid got a damn balloon, though. Ha!)

This list is far from exhaustive, but this is just to get the brain churning.

Now, if they don’t offer what you had hoped, can you be satisfied with something slightly less? (Again, maybe just for the sake of civility and your blood pressure.)

Think of this like a negotiation. If you’re haggling with someone at a flea market, you know what you hope to pay, but you also know secretly in your head just how high you would go.

My personal example is a recent botched online order for a patio set. It was supposed to be delivered in two week, and it wasn’t. Three weeks. Four weeks. Eight weeks later and no delivery. I had been charged for the item. And they couldn’t explain what the problem was. Eventually I got to the point where I set the goal for the complaint that I wanted a 50% refund on the set. This seems steep, but this was after an extensive amount of time phoning and waiting on calls from managers, etc. They were polite and kind, but promises kept getting broken. Still, I knew a 50% refund was a little pie-in-the-sky optimistic. In the end, I accepted a lower offer–they sent me a free umbrella and umbrella base to go with the patio set. Both freebies arrived before the patio set did. Ha. It wasn’t perfect, but it was a token acknowledgement that they regretted the inconvenience. Satisfaction achieved.

Remember, if you don’t know what you want, then they won’t know what you want. Customer service hotlines aren’t there as your therapist. To paraphrase The Godfather, “It’s business, it’s not personal.” So make a business decision that makes sense, and then go after it.

#3. Use Your Manners and Make a Friend

Remember the adage about catching more flies with honey than vinegar? This couldn’t be more true in the world of customer service. A good rule of thumb is to play the part of Winston Wolf (see: Pulp Fiction) during the course of a complaint. Not only should you keep your cool, but it is startlingly effective to use excellent manners. Please. Thank you. I very much appreciate your help. You are very kind. And if they ask if they can put you on hold, smile and say “no problem at all,” even though holding is the worst.

Good Manners Gentleman Cat

Even try to make the service rep or manager your buddy. Commiserate with them. Remember their name, and address them accordingly, “Carol, hopefully you’re having a lovelier Friday than I am, because an order has gone haywire over here.”

Most people working in food service and customer service spend their days and nights eating shit from angry, disgusting people. Try to stand out and be their friend. They may just go to bat for you and get you that extra bit of help.

This isn’t easy. Trust me I know. But dig deep and start sugary sweet with a smile, as if you assume they will be kind and gracious and it was just an innocent, silly mixup. Even smile (through gritted teeth if you must). When I worked in a call center they taught us during training to keep a little mirror in front of us as a reminder to physically smile during calls, because it turns out that you can actually “hear” a smile over the phone. It sounds crazy, but it’s true. Try it. Even if the other person isn’t smiling back.

I’ll admit this sugary approach will only make a difference a portion of the time. Too often I get dead-voiced robotic customer service reps who won’t talk to me like I’m human. Or sometimes they are King Assholes. And other times, no matter how sweet you are, the reps have their hands tied by bad policies.

But start sugary anyway. From there, you can move on to being firmer and more assertive as the situation dictates.

#4. Don’t Give Them Your Life Story

So there you are, on the phone. Or face to face with a manager. You have your grievances and you have your goal for satisfaction. You’re calm, with manners and smile ready. Now it’s time to complain.

You have their attention for, at best, two minutes. After that, you’re going to sound rambling, exhausting, and crazy.

  • Do not give them a sob story.  You didn’t get paid on time. Your mother’s in the hospital. There was a long line at the grocery store. Everyone has a sob story, and yours is only distracting from your specific complaint.
  • Do not lean on how the issue made you feel. Feelings are for therapy. If you want to resolve a complaint, leave your feelings out of the conversation. Stick to the facts and your requests. I cannot stress this enough. This is your time to suck it up and be a (friendly) negotiating machine.
  • Do not give them your entire life story. Even if your complaint has many layers and incidents, keep your summary short and sweet. Edit. You can fill in more details later, but start your complaint with just a brief overview. Not a novel. No one has time for that.

#5. Don’t Be Afraid to Ask

So far I’ve been preaching about not losing your temper. But what surprises me most is how many people are so shy and sweet, they are afraid to ask for what they want.

In the world of sales, they always say that there comes a moment when you have to ask for the money. This applies to you as the complainer. You can ramble on about your ordeal and dissatisfaction for a limited amount of time, and then you have to tell them what you want.

Let me tell you now, once a company (for instance, your cable provider) has recognized your issue, made notes in their computer, and apologized, they will try to get you off the phone. When they ask you if there’s any other way in which they can help you today, don’t let them off the hook. ASK.

“Well, now that we have addressed the problem, is there a way in which your company is going to make this right?”


“Kevin, we haven’t discussed the possibility of a refund yet. I was hoping you could get me a store credit in consideration of these troubles”

Verrrrrrry few reps (and pretty much zero non-managers) are ever going to offer you compensation or discounts freely. To get them, you must ask. Remember those cable company operators that are ready to end the call? Almost 100% of the time, I can get a partial-month credit against my account for service interruptions. They’ll never offer it though.

If you’re cringing because it feels greedy or rude, pull yourself together. If you’re asking for something moderate as consideration, there is nothing to be shy about. Pull up your panties and ask! And if they resist, politely request a manager’s consideration.

#6. Keep the Upper Hand

Now you’ve succinctly explained your problem in a friendly way, and have told them what a reasonable outcome looks like to you.

What if they refuse?

Keep your cool and get ready to play your cards. This is a game, after all. First of all, if the rep or waitress (for example) is limited by the little amount of power (s)he has, or if that person is being rude, ask to speak to a manager. Go to the source of the power.

Even if the rep insists “my manager won’t be able to help you either” (I’ve heard that whopper a thousand times before!), my answer is always, “well that’s okay, I need to speak to him/her anyway. What is his/her name?” You wouldn’t believe how often the manager can bend the rules for you. Move up, move on. And stop engaging with the powerless one.

This is where things can get dicey. Make sure you keep the upper hand.

What do I mean?

Most of the time, the phone rep will try to give you the brush off with a long hold time and/or an insistence that the manager is unavailable and can call you back. Do not accept this. Managers never call you back if they don’t know who you are. Never. Not once. Ever.

Politely, cheerfully, get the rep’s name and the manager’s name–this will set the rep on her back foot, wondering why you need either of those things and what you’re planning to do. Then sweetly inform the rep that you cannot accept a call back, but you are happy to hold. Then put your feet up and get comfy.

Cat On Phone.jpg

If they truly stonewall you and don’t allow you to talk to a manager, you’re going to have to accept this and call back another day to start all over. Use the names of the reps and managers when you call back. Hopefully that will flag you as someone who is tenacious and a pain in the ass–meaning they can’t shake you off so easily. Eventually you’ll probably break through.

#7. Understand What Cards You Hold

Hopefully by now, you’ve been able to reach a nice resolution with a rep or manager and you don’t need this final tip. This is the tip for people who have reached the end of the complaint road and have not been able to get any degree of help, respect, or resolution.

I’m sorry. It does happen. I’d say I have success with about 90% of my complaints. But there are just bad companies out there. Some of them are swindlers. Some of them are incompetent. Some of them wouldn’t know good customer service if it bit them in their one-star asses.

When you’ve exhausted your friendliness and persistence, and still they do not offer any even quasi-reasonable resolution, you can remind them (or threaten, if you can do so without losing your temper) that you have recourse. You do hold some cards.

You can report them to business associations, to their higher ups, leave bad reviews online, and pull your business from them permanently (which you assure them is a great loss on their end, and a damn shame). Some people lean on Yelp or Google for customer reviews, but never underestimate the power of a Trip Advisor review. Bwahaha!

And never make idle threats. You’ll sound looney tunes if you tell a restaurant manager that you’re writing a letter to the Governor. Com’on. You won’t do that. And if you did, no one cares. Don’t threaten legal action unless you really, truly intend to follow up with an attorney. Keep your recourse honest and effective. Never violent, never insulting, never outlandish.

Then follow through.

And then accept that you’ve lost. It happens to the best of us now and then.

It happened to me with Hanson’s Windows (based in Michigan). They are the WORST WINDOWS COMPANY IN MICHIGAN. Phew, that felt good to reiterate. They sold us a low-quality sliding glass door, sent us the wrong model twice, left a mess in our yard, and for that privilege, broke our outdoor light during installation, and we waited over twelve weeks from our original measure date. The customer service reps were snotty about the fine print of our contract. I hated them with the heat of a thousand suns. But I lost. So I wrote online reviews cautioning other consumers about their shady business practices, and warned all my neighbors not to use them. Maybe I helped one family. Maybe I cost them at least one piece of business. I can only hope.

But back to you. If you’ve lost, it isn’t because you have flipped your lid and become one of those embarrassing social media videos. You’ve been honest, polite, and measured. You’ve accepted that some situations cannot be totally rectified, and you’ve given the company every chance to make it right.

That’s because you know how to complain the right way. And therefore you know that this defeat is uncommon and a sign that there just is no winning with that company for anyone.

You’re a badass who will bask in righteous victory next time.

In the meantime, care to share in the comments which companies have the BEST customer service? How about the worst? Share with us.



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