Social Minefield: How To Effectively Complain

When life gives you lemons, sometimes you can make lemonade. But sometimes you want to take the lemons right back to the lemon store and tell them where to shove them. Our advice on complaining will help you do that.

Social Minefield: How To Effectively ComplainS

First off, complaining is difficult. It requires being assertive, which many people find difficult — and women especially are sometimes discouraged from speaking up when something's wrong. I've definitely suffered through bad meals, bad haircuts, and months of bad Internet service because doing nothing was easier than making a stink. But you don't have to! Here are some tips for getting your grievances redressed in a variety of situations:

Bad Haircuts

This is a good place to start if you are a newcomer to the art of complaining — because you're practically invited to complain. When the stylist gives you the hand mirror and asks if you like the way things look, but you actually hate them, don't just smile and slink out in defeat (as I've done several times). Instead, politely explain what the problem is and give the stylist the opportunity to fix it. Obviously every salon is different, but Roxy of Brooklyn's Meura Salon says if a customer is dissatisfied, she'll fix the cut right then at no extra charge. If someone does this for you, it's probably a good idea to tip extra. Only if you still hate your style after retrimming do you need to give up, wait for it to grow out, and take your business someplace else.

Bad Food

I'm of the mindset that you shouldn't send food back at restaurants just for being not that tasty, or not exactly what you expected. If, however, your food is cold, or improperly cooked, or has cleaning fluid in it (this happened to my mom), you're within your rights to say something about it. In this as in all food or retail situations, Sadie has some key advice: "it changes everything when someone says, 'I understand this isn't your fault/purview/responsibility' rather than being accusatory or weirdly personal...these things are rarely a deliberate affront." Not only are culinary screwups usually not deliberate, but the server did not cook your food, and a little politeness goes a long way.

Bad Service

This is a tough area for me, because people in service professions often have hard jobs, and I feel bad criticizing them for something that's kind of subjective anyway. It's also the most confrontational — if you want to report bad service, you often have to go to a supervisor or manager and call an employee out. If you grew up in a no-tattling household, like I did, this is extremely hard to do. That said, you probably have a hard job too (whoever you are), and nobody deserves outright rudeness or discrimination. If you seek out a manager to report someone treating you truly badly, you're doing future customers a favor. And while I personally have trouble reporting people for thoughtlessness or sloppiness alone, I agree with Sadie that if you choose to do so, it's better and braver to do so openly than to wait for the anonymous safe haven of Yelp. Jessica also notes that a well-written letter to a company expressing your displeasure can sometimes have good results — she got 25,000 free miles from Delta this way.

Phone Complaints

The above can be stressful, because you have to confront people directly — but really, there is no complaining hell like the one you enter when you have to make a complaint over the phone. Here, the problem is less about getting up your nerve (even the most polite among us have known to flip out on telephone customer service rep, which is why it's a difficult job), and more about actually getting the problem solved before you give up and/or set your phone on fire. I'm no expert on this, which is why I turned to my friend Marisa, a veteran complainer so seasoned she has even considered setting up a business where she lodges complaints on others' behalf. Here are her tips:

1. Get your story straight. Before you [make the call], take a couple of seconds to put it together. I usually emphasize all the things I tried to do right, and then how everything still seemed to go wrong despite my best efforts. Painting yourself as the unwitting victim despite your best efforts makes people sympathetic to your problem and less likely to accuse YOU of being the one who made the mistakes that lead to the problem.

2. Have something specific you want them to do. If your phone company has screwed up several times and your bill is wrong again, make it clear that a) you want them to fix the billing issue permanently, b) you want them to refund you the difference or credit it to your account, and c) you want confirmation IN WRITING (either a code, email or real mail) that this transaction has taken place. Coming in with a clear goal can keep you out of arguing-about-semantics territory.

3. Sometimes the lowest level employee (aka the one answering the phone) does not have the authority to give discounts or refunds. If you ask and they say that they can't, you can politely request to speak to their manager to relay the situation and get help from someone who has actual power to help you.

She also adds that when navigating telephone customer service, you should get everyone's name. I agree — especially if someone promises you something, having his or her name will make it harder for the company to renege later on. Marisa also offers a key piece of advice for avoiding the need to complain in the first place:

Speak up and be proactive. If it looks like the person is screwing up, don't be afraid to ask questions to clarify. "So I just want to make sure that we said just 1 inch trim on the bangs?" "Is that the model with the DVD player right there?" Better to seem picky and obsessive than to go home with fraggle hair or the wrong appliance. If they have made a mistake, they will be grateful you brought it up sooner than later... and so will you.

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