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How to Complain Politely

Have you noticed that, since the economy has been slow, customer service has seemed to take a nosedive? You would think that people would be more polite and helpful than usual in order to make/keep sales in such a competitive marketplace. My experience, and that of many of my friends, is the opposite. Salespeople with little empathy or motivation to help solve your problem seem to abound online, by phone and in person these days.

I am one of those people who learn by seeing something done wrong. To me, seeing something go downhill fast is an easy way to see the RIGHT way to handle certain situations. Some of my experiences have been with me as the consumer, and some are from my customers who need my help. Of course, I am learning something new each day, but here are a few tips for how to complain and get the outcome you want.

1. Assume that the person wants to help you and that the problem is a random mistake (a.k.a. not a conspiracy against you personally.) This is probably the most important tactic that I employ, and I have found that even less helpful people are more inclined to help you if you couch your complaint as something like, “I’m sure this is a random mistake and not something that happens all the time, so I’m hoping you can help me figure it out.” We all make mistakes, and we rarely do it on purpose. (or it wouldn’t be a mistake, right?)

This is in direct opposition to, “This is unacceptable, and it is not my problem; it’s yours. You need to fix this problem and make it up to me immediately.” Statement #2 puts the person on the defensive, and you will do better to have their favor, rather than attacking them. Plus, chances are that the person you’re complaining to is not the one who caused your problem. Even if they are, it’s very unlikely that it was intentional.

2. Have your facts easily at hand, i.e. receipts, emails, warrantees or notes. This will help the person to look up your purchase (or whatever your event) and get to the bottom of the situation faster.

3. State your problem clearly (and politely) and state what result you want from the complaint. Do you want a refund, an exchange, a store credit? Do you need an apology from a nasty salesperson? Or do you just want to find out why your item hasn’t arrived and estimate a new shipping date? Perhaps you feel you deserve a discount on your purchase because of this hassle. These may all be acceptable solutions, which the vendor may be willing to extend to make a customer happy. Definitely ask for what you want, but do so in a polite way. You never know; the vendor that you demand a refund from in a not-so-nice manner may have been planning to give you a refund AND a gift certificate for a later visit (or night at the hotel, dessert at the restaurant, etc.)

4. If your problem is not resolved on the first try, resist the urge to argue with the person. Ask for his/her manager. Most of the time, a manager or supervisor has the authority to make things happen that a sales person doesn’t. They can extend special treatment when needed. Definitely don’t give up, but do keep your composure and treat everyone with respect (even if they are not reciprocating.) This is hard, but it’s always the right choice.

5. When a problem is resolved to your satisfaction, resist the urge to bash the store, restaurant, hotel, or other business online.Remember that mistakes are made all the time, even by you and me. It is important in today’s Internet-focused marketplace to manage corporate reputations carefully. If someone mistreats you and refuses to make it right, then that is information that a future customer should know. It may save them from having the same experience. But if you find that a business made an honest mistake and they corrected the situation to your satisfaction, there’s no need to bash them for it publically afterward. That doesn’t serve anyone.

I have been on the giving and receiving end of customer complaints, and I can assure you that being polite and assuming the best in a person is always the way to approach this situation. My grandmother says, “You catch more flies with honey than vinegar.” In the case of resolving complaints, I definitely agree.

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