How To Complain and Get Results

Getting mad may make you feel good but it's rarely effective

Why do some consumers get satisfaction when they complain and others don't? There can be several reasons, but in all likelihood one consumer complains in a way the offending party takes seriously, and the other does not. receives hundreds of complaints each day and, it's apparent from reading them, some of the writers could use a little coaching on the art of effective complaining. And if you'll indulge me, I'll begin with a personal account.

Many years ago my wife and I set out to visit family for the Christmas holiday. We had not quite gone 100 miles when a car pulled out in front of us, forcing us into a ditch. No one was hurt but our car was badly dented and scratched. The police came and filed a report, we traded insurance information, and returned home, where we took the car to a body shop.

The body shop provided us with a rental car and we set out again, this time completing our trip. When we returned, the claims adjuster for Allstate, the other driver's insurance company, had still not inspected our car so we kept the rental car about two weeks longer than was normal, until the body shop had completed its work.

When the settlement check arrived from Allstate it did not cover the extra two weeks for the rental car, which amounted to about $140. When my wife called the local Allstate office to dispute the matter, the agent was belligerent, insulting, and made her cry.

Now it's personal

I phoned a different local Allstate office and asked for the names and addresses of Allstate's district manager and the CEO. The cheerful receptionist was only too happy to oblige.

I wrote long, rambling accounts of the incident, along with cover letters to Allstate's CEO, district manager and the state insurance corporation, the industry regulator. Before mailing them I called a friend, at the time a young associate at a large law firm, and read him my missives.

He listened patiently and offered some constructive criticism. The account was too long and contained too much needless detail, and he showed me where I could tighten it and make the wording more businesslike and less angry.

"You've just let off steam, you haven't really told them what you want from them," he said. "At the end, tell them what you want them to do to make you happy."

And there was one other thing.

"You didn't mention that Luci was pregnant," he pointed out.

So I changed the opening paragraph of my complaint from "My wife and I were in an accident..." to "My pregnant wife and I were in an accident..." and put the letters in the mail.

Within the week I had received a personal letter of apology from the CEO of Allstate telling me the matter was under investigation. The next day the distract manager telephoned with the same news and an apology. A day after that the poor local Allstate agent telephoned my wife to offer his most humble apologies for his boorish behavior and to say the check for $140 would be arriving shortly.

Lessons learned

I never forgot the sweet taste of victory, nor the lesson in effective complaining, and how that can make the difference in a company taking you seriously or writing you off as a crank.

True, not everyone's going to have a pregnant wife for leverage, but the point is this: the fact that my wife was pregnant and in an accident, the fault of their insured driver, was an extremely relevant fact that I had completely overlooked. Including it helped Allstate reach a decision in my favor; "Let's not do anything," they must have thought, "to further offend this consumer and wind up with a multi-million-dollar personal injury suit."

When there are circumstances like that in your favor, no matter how minor, include them.

I was reminded of this long-past incident last week when received a complaint from a consumer named JoAnn from San Jose, Calif., who was angry at her treatment by Chase Bank.

Chase, it seems, had jacked up their credit card interest rate from five percent to 28.5 percent, prompting the consumer and her husband to immediately pay off the $10,000 balance. On the next statement, she said, was a charge for $78. After complaining and asking that it be removed, she had received no satisfaction.

"Since there was no reasoning with them, I wrote a letter and sent proof of our having paid our bill in full to our District Attorneys Office of Consumer Affairs," she wrote. "On January 19, 2010 my husband received a call from Chase stating our balance was zero. They followed that up with a letter stating our balance is zero. I just thought it might help someone to know that if you can stick to your guns it sometimes works."

Sticking to your guns is important, but here are some other steps for effective complaining:

Be firm but polite

In many cases you are dealing with a customer service employee who is yelled at all day by angry consumers. If you give them the benefit of the doubt, and expect them to be helpful, it's surprising how many times they actually will be. They are usually so grateful you aren't yelling at them that, if they can help, they will. If you don't get satisfaction, then it's time to escalate.

Spell it out

Put your complaint in writing, but wait until your anger has subsided. Be clear, concise, explain why you think you are in the right and conclude by telling them exactly what will satisfy you. Include all relevant facts that bolster your case or perhaps give you leverage. Be firm and professional but not angry or threatening. At the end, spell out exactly what you want the company to do.

Complain to everyone

Address your complaint to the department at the company that handles complaints, but also send copies to individuals in superior positions, including the CEO. Much of that information is available on the Internet, but if you call the company and just ask, someone will tell you.

Make sure you mark the letter with a cc: to all those individuals to whom you are sending it. Be sure to note that you are sending your complaint to for posting online. If the business is in a regulated industry, send copies to state and federal regulators. Also, make sure your state attorney general and the Federal Trade Commission are on the list.

When the decision-maker receives your complaint with notations that copies are going to their superiors and regulatory agencies, they are much less likely to ignore it. If a state or federal agency were to begin an inquiry, it would be much more trouble than just giving you what you want.

Don't overdo it

Be careful about threatening legal action. An implied legal threat -- a possible personal injury suit on behalf of a pregnant accident victim -- is powerful enough without adding unnecessary bombast. Also, if you openly proclaim your intention to sue, many companies' policy manual dictates that your complaint goes directly to the legal department, where you will be stonewalled by experts. Laymen should never deal directly with a corporation's lawyers; you can shoot yourself in both feet without feeling a thing.

Be persistent

As our consumer JoAnn points out, you have to stick to your guns. You may not achieve satisfaction on your first attempt, so keep at it. Each time, try to step up the pressure in small ways. At some point, if nothing else works, you can take the company to Small Claims Court. For a major corporation, this is the nuclear option.

Small Claims Court, in your town, costs you only a small filing fee and a little of your time. Many large corporations won't bother to show up in court, which virtually guarantees your chances of winning.

If you're interested in how small claims court works, read this.

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