How to Complain (Effectively)

See also: Assertiveness Skills.

There are some people who are incredibly effective at making complaints. They seem to know instinctively how to pitch their problem, what to say, and what to do to get apologies, refunds, or other satisfactory outcomes.

Other people find that they just seem to end up shouting in frustration down the phone.

So what is it that the first group does that the second does not?

This page unpicks some of the issues involved in complaining and helps you learn how to complain effectively, whether in person or on the phone.

What is an Effective Complaint?


An effective complaint is one that is heard by the person at whom it is aimed, and which gets a result that pleases the complainant.


There are a number of simple rules to follow that will make your complaints more effective.

Rule 1:
Know what you want to achieve

The most effective complainants are those who have a clear idea of what they want to achieve from their complaint, and who set it out clearly to the person to whom they are complaining.

If you want a refund, for a product or service that didn't live up to your expectations, say so. If a refund won’t be enough, say that too. If you are simply looking for an apology, then make it clear. This makes your complaint much easier to deal with and also more likely to be resolved to your satisfaction.

See our pages on Assertiveness to learn how to put your case forward, clearly and effectively.

Rule 2:
Threaten the company’s reputation

Effective complaints threaten to damage the company’s reputation in some way.

Not overtly; you don’t have to say ‘If you don’t respond, then I’ll go public’. It’s enough to say ‘I was really happy with you, and would have recommended you to all my friends, but now I don’t think I will’.

This will make the company concerned aware that you might just start telling your friends about your experience or, worse, talking about it via social media.

Rule 3:
Aim high and get personal

Most companies have a designated complaints procedure. You will probably get a reasonable result if you go through that procedure.

However, you’ll get at least that level of response if you write or email the chief executive directly, by name. You can generally find the details on the company’s website or via Google.

At the very worst, the chief executive’s PA will send your letter or email straight into the general complaints procedure. But it’s quite likely that the chief executive will at least see your email and that you will get some kind of personal response.

Rule 4:
Write or go in person, don’t phone

It is possible to make effective complaints by phone but, in general, the odds are stacked against you.

In the first place, you can’t see who you are talking to. You are therefore easy to fob off. A very junior person may promise to look into it and then do nothing. If you write or email the chief executive, your complaint is much harder to ignore. And if you’re standing at the reception desk, or on the shop floor, demanding to see someone senior every two or three minutes, you’re likely to get a much faster response because you’re embarrassing them.

Reputational damage is bad news for most companies.

If you really have to complain by phone, then remain focused on what you want to achieve and state it clearly:

  • Make sure that you keep a full record of the conversation, including the name of the person to whom you spoke.
  • If you’re not satisfied, ask to speak to that person’s manager and don’t allow yourself to be fobbed off with ‘He/she is on a coffee break right now’. Ask when they’ll be back and request that they call you back on return.
  • Ask for the manager’s name and, if they don’t call you back, call again and ask to speak to them.
  • Be persistent.
See our page on Assertiveness Techniques for more ideas.

Rule 5:
Use social media, especially if you don’t get an immediate response

A complaint expressed via Twitter, especially with the hashtag of the company’s name together with ‘bad customer service’, is likely to get a very quick response.

Most large companies have someone monitoring Twitter for any sign of activity about them. Again, it’s about reputational damage. To make the matter even more high profile, aim your tweet at the chief executive if he or she is active on Twitter, using their @handle at the beginning of your tweet. Make sure that you have spent time crafting your tweet carefully to express the nature of your complaint, or saying how long it has taken to respond to your original complaint.

Rule 6:
Expect the unexpected

Don’t be thrown by a company’s response to your complaint. If you’ve complained effectively, you may well get a much higher level of response than you were expecting.

For example, the chief executive’s PA or a very senior manager may call you, or you may get a personal email or tweet from the chief executive. Whatever the level of the response, don’t feel that you need to jump at the first offer made: you can always say ‘Well, that sounds quite good, and I’d like that very much, but I’m still not confident that you’ve really taken on board x’. Quite apart from anything else, that gives you thinking time.

Rule 7:
Don’t get mad, get even

You’re angry. That’s why you’re complaining. But try to get calm before you email or pick up the phone.

Make sure that you’re right to be angry before you start jumping in at the deep end. Are you sure you haven’t misunderstood? Sometimes it can be better to wait a day or so before deciding whether to complain, although there will obviously be times when you just need to wade in, all guns blazing.

Rule 8:
If you don’t get the response that you want, say so

There is no point in seething to yourself. If you are talking to someone and they don’t seem to be listening to you, then say so.

If they are responding to a completely different point, then make that clear. If they are being downright rude, then ask politely if they are aware of how rude that sounded. And if you’re not happy that the person to whom you are talking has the authority to agree the response that you want, then ask to speak to their manager.

At all times, remain polite and clear about what you want to achieve.

See our pages on Tact and Diplomacy and Politeness for more.

Follow these rules but, above all, remain calm and focused on what you want to achieve. Your effectiveness at complaining should improve dramatically.

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