Why We All Need To Become Expert Complainers in 2021

How to deal with arbitrary rule-setting and vague small print policies by polishing your complaining skills.

Illustration of person holding up phone with a man wearing a headset on the screen.
Illustration of person holding up phone with a man wearing a headset on the screen.
Image credit: Jane_Kelly

The Age of Consistently Inconsistent Rules

Name something more undignified than air travel. The experience is unpleasant and fraught with staggering logic gaps that the airlines attempt to disguise as policies “for your safety and the safety of your fellow passengers.” From inefficient security and boarding policies to wildly inconsistent onboard COVID rules, airline policies are reactionary Hail Marys designed to pacify would-be whistleblowers and the ever-hovering news media.

“You may now bring a bottle of Purell as large as 12 ounces onto the plane… All other liquids and gels, however, are still restricted to 3.4 ounces… If people are now allowed to bring 12-ounce bottles of hand sanitizer onto planes, won’t the planes blow up?… The TSA can declare this rule change because the limit was always arbitrary, just one of the countless rituals of security theater to which air passengers are subjected every day.” — Dan Kois for slate.com

Don’t forget to remove your shoes!

Remember the Shoe Bomber? On December 22, 2001, while traveling on American Airlines Flight 63 from Miami to Paris, British terrorist Richard Reid attempted to detonate a bomb hidden in his shoe. Thanks to the rain and foot sweat that rendered his fuse too damp to ignite, he failed.

He kind of succeeded, though, didn’t he? Because 19 years later, we’re still removing our shoes at the security checkpoint.

So we do the security checkpoint dance in perpetuity, hopping on one foot, tugging off our trainers, and lining up in stocking feet (or — the horror! — bare feet) for our turn at the full-body scanner, side-eyeing the fully-shoed TSA Pre-Check crowd, who will, apparently, never hide a bomb in their shoe, because — well — they’re TSA Pre-Check.

We should fuse our palms to our foreheads.

Consumer frustration is at an all-time high.

Arbitrary, inconsistent rules are frustrating, especially because we’re mad at ourselves for indirectly endorsing them with our compliance. What can I do, you think, as you witness a TSA agent patting down a 90-year-old grandma, it’s just the way it is.

Stupid rules don’t change unless and until consumers reach a collective tipping point (remember when the Federal government enacted tarmac rules after an Air Canada flight sat on the tarmac for over 12 hours?). In the meantime, we still have agency over how we’re treated, and there is recourse.

How? Enter the well-crafted complaint.

Complaining 101: What Not To Do

A “Karen” meme.
A “Karen” meme.
Image Credit: Geoffry Widdison via Quora

“The best fighter is never angry.” — Lao Tzu

The problem with complaining at the moment is we’re overly emotional. Plus, circumstances may not be conducive to getting a resolution (e.g., you’re boarding a plane). It’s unproductive to complain from a position of heightened emotions. Consider these typical scenarios:

Scenario #1: Your finger hovers over the send button on a dramatic, profanity-laced I-was-wronged manifesto, a deliciously sharp current of righteous indignation coursing through your veins. It feels good. You’re regaining control.

Scenario #2: You’re in line at the customer service desk, waiting for your turn to implore the manager to deal with that rude cashier. With every passing minute, your blood gets hotter, your heart races, you’re fueling your self-righteousness and a desire for justice. By the time it’s your turn, you’re ready with (figurative) guns blazing.

Not so fast. If you send that email or confront someone aggressively, here’s what will happen next:

  • You won’t be taken seriously. The minute you infuse a message with vitriol (a.k.a. profanity, name-calling, drama), you lose your edge. You won’t be taken seriously because the recipient will dismiss you as a “Karen” (a.k.a. professional complainer).
  • You will turn a potential ally into an enemy. No one wants to be on the receiving end of a nasty diatribe. It’s off-putting and sends the recipient into defensive mode. This is unproductive and contrary to your goals.
  • You will lay all your cards on the table too soon. Complaining is a negotiation. You’re dissatisfied, and you want compensatory action. The worst thing you can do is verbally vomit your entire argument, which will happen if your emotions are running high.

There’s nuance to any negotiation, and make no mistake: complaining is a negotiation. Winning depends on your ability to temper frustration and focus on the desired outcome.

The Steps to a Well-Crafted Complaint

A laptop placed on a desk with the words ”be kind” on the screen
A laptop placed on a desk with the words ”be kind” on the screen
Photo by Dayne Topkin on Unsplash

“… the most effective way to have your complaint understood and yield a response that brings about change is to create empathy with the person you’re complaining to — or about.” — Danielle Page, NBC News

Effective complaining requires a clear head, good timing, and finding the right person to engage. Customer service representatives are used to verbal abuse, so they tend to dismiss wildly emotional complaints as invalid. Do not complain when you’re angry. I repeat: do not complain when you’re angry.

Focus on a successful outcome

“In the end, the only thing your salty language will accomplish is raising your blood pressure.” — Bob Niedt for Kiplinger

Timing is everything: don’t gripe to the UPS Store clerk at 4 p.m. on Christmas Eve while s/he warily eyeballs the endless line of harried customers behind you. It’s going to escalate, you’re going to make 20 new enemies, and someone will post a meme about you on Twitter. Know that time won’t dilute the importance of your complaint. Wait.

Find the correct individual to hear your complaint. The poor cashier is just doing their job. They likely don’t have the authority to give you what you want, so don’t burden them with your issue. If it’s a big company, you may need to visit their corporate website and find a customer service number. If it’s a small business, [politely] ask for the owner’s contact information.

Once you’ve found the correct representative, wait for the right time, and try these tips:

  1. Start and end with kindness. Remember, you want to gain an ally and incentivize the representative to see things your way. Try the complaint sandwich method: greet your adversary warmly and thank them in advance for their time and help. State the problem and what you expect. Thank them again for listening.
  2. Establish a rapport. A good way to accomplish this is to find something in common: ask about their holiday, ask where they’re based (if you’re on the phone), or lament a recent news headline. It’s also important to remind the representative ahead of time that your displeasure is in no way about them. They’re human beings. Treat them as such.
  3. State your case clearly and without emotion. Stick to the facts. Don’t veer off into a long explanation of how you felt. If the gate agent was rude, explain how it affected your travel experience. Get specific. Detach yourself and tell the story as though you were a bystander or a journalist.
  4. Include all relevant facts and copies of documents. Be prepared. Bring receipts, screenshots, and all related paperwork. Communicate the timeline of events, touching on all the relevant Ws: where, when, what, and who. You’ll get better results with a well-documented, fact-based presentation.
  5. Communicate what you expect. Remember, this is a negotiation. What will make it right? A refund? An apology? We usually complain because we want compensation, but sometimes acknowledgment of your problem and a heartfelt apology is all you need. If it’s the former, communicate exactly what you expect and respectfully inform them that you won’t be satisfied with anything less.
  6. Be realistic about timing. Can you settle your issue with one phone call, or will it take documentation and a review period? The smaller the issue, the easier and more quickly it should resolve, but if you’re tackling a corporate behemoth (try disputing a hospital bill), it’s probably going to take more than one phone call. You control the timeline to an extent, but sometimes you need to follow a set process.
  7. Don’t take the first ‘no’ for an answer. Companies, especially the big ones, know how to deflect the most common complaints. They set retention goals and train staff to defuse issues with minimal financial impact. It’s likely the ‘there’s nothing we can do’ response is programmed —they are counting on most customers to give up. Don’t be one of them.

Complaining Is an Art Form

Tomato-faced, fist-clenched intimidation doesn’t work. It’s theater, and only bullies and Yankee fans (go Red Sox!) can get away with it. Sure, maybe they’ll get their way, but at what cost? It’s embarrassing and such low rent behavior. Doesn’t it always seem like these rude, ignorant buffoons are parents? Their kids are learning how to be a**holes. Great modeling, Mom and Dad.

We will weather this age of arbitrary rules by meeting them with artful complaints. We will put the ‘civil’ in civil disobedience. We will use measured, proven tactics that put us on the offensive and gently persuade a desirable outcome.

Written by

Writer for Better Humans | The Virago | The Writing Cooperative | In Fitness and In Health

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