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The www.FedPrimeRate.com Personal Finance Blog and Magazine

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

The Art of Complaining

The Art of ComplainingMy husband and I volunteer as a host family to a Russian student at our local university. Over spring break, Masha traveled to see her mother and spent a day and a half in Chicago O'Hare International Airport because her flight was late, causing her to miss her connection.

Masha and I had lunch after her trip, and she told me about her ordeal, being awake for 18 hours straight, going from counter to counter, being bumped off flights, not sleeping and not even having the luxury of being able to study.

"You must write a letter," I told her.

"I have no idea how to do that," said Masha.

Her dilemma was not only rooted in a cultural difference, but a generational one. With the technological ease of e-mail and instant messaging, many people today simply do not have the knowledge of how to write a good old-fashioned letter of complaint. But I have found that even in the electronic age, a hard-copy letter, signed with multiple CCs has a power all its own.

As we sat, waiting for our lunch, I helped her craft a draft to United Airlines, which began with "Dear Customer Representative." We told her story in detail, including the poignant line, "My American friends could not believe that I didn't even get airport vouchers for a Cinnabon purchase."

As I advised, Masha sent a hard-copy letter to United, CCing every official entity she could think of, including the Russian Embassy.

Two weeks later, she received a letter of apology and a voucher for $150 on her next flight.
As I enter middle age, I have discovered that there is indeed an art and efficacy to the complaint. And there are rules.

First, you must find the proper person to whom to complain. If you have had a problem with a Walmart clerk, do not complain to that person, but that person's manager. Do not be afraid of asking for a supervisor. When I was trying to negotiate to delete a late charge with Discover, the phone representative said there was nothing I could do. I asked for his manager. As a result, I, as a long-term customer who had never been late on bill before, was not only able to get a refund on the late fee but also have my promotional rate restored.

Second, make sure you have evidence to support your complaint -- a broken product, receipt, or witnesses.

Third, follow the old aphorism that honey is more effective than vinegar. Do not yell or have a hissy fit -- particularly if you are a woman, as you will be seen as hysterical rather than justly injured. Try to stick to the facts as much as possible, but don't be afraid to insert an honest and sane appeal, such as, "I have been shopping here all of my life and have never experienced such poor customer service. As a long-time and loyal customer, I am disappointed in your treatment."

Finally, suggest a reasonable and acceptable appeasement. When my husband and I were literally chastised by a Walmart employee while purchasing an iPhone, I complained to the manager and told him that I would be happy with a deluxe phone case for our problems. We went home with the case.

Last week, I purchased a Roomba from KMart. When I bought it, the clerk asked if I wanted the three-year guarantee, which I declined. When I got home, I discovered that the Roomba had been used. I immediately returned it to KMart for a replacement. While at the service desk, I asked the clerk if KMart would be willing to comp me the guarantee for the inconvenience. She phoned her manager, and it was done. I walked out of the store, as a satisfied and well compensated consumer.

When you feel you have been wronged in business transaction, don't bite your tongue, but respond in a reasoned and respectful way. You will be surprised by the results.

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