Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Art of Complaining - Or Try Some Sugar Instead of Just Vinegar

I know life is unfair and people can be miserable ass hats such that the injustice of life does make one want to complain. Believe me, I am a complainer. My complaining has gotten me some benefits such as rebates and various forms of compensation. So I can appreciate the desire in others to complain about their perceived injustices.

Lately, I've noticed people have no sense of the art and skill of how to complain effectively.

This is even more important as you consider that much of complaining, of a non-personal nature, is done via email.  Email is a thin medium, that doesn't have all the features of face-to-face interactions. Thanks to email, it's easier than ever to complain to companies, agencies, institutions, and governments.

Too many people, however, go in with their first message with all guns blaring and throwing vinegar in the eye of their intended target. Their emails are full of accusations blaming the receiver in the harshest terms of malevolent wrongdoing and instantly brandish threats that the sender will seek reprisal to the highest levels. This tactic is a form of intimidation. But when dealing with authority figure or a distant and unresponsive customer service agent, this tactic doesn't tend to get them on your side. Vinegar begets more vinegar. And your offending email can easily disappear or be given a low priority.

You can catch more flies with honey than with vinegar is an age-old adage because it states a universal truth. Humans like sweetness. We like to feel appreciated and to be treated well. Threats and rants may work some time, but they cause damage to one's reputation (not to mention psyche) and may result in long-lasting damage. Once you go dark, it is next to impossible to reverse that.

Instead, the first tactic in complaining is to offer sugar.  It is surprising how effective a polite inquiry can go towards getting you what you want. So here are my steps to complaining effectively via email or other digital media.

#1 Cool off 
We all make mistakes. Most people don't intend to harm others. Don't assume that everyone is out to get you. Give people the benefit of the doubt. So the first step in an email complaint is to thank the person for their time and/or effort. You may not feel very thankful depending on the circumstances of your situation, but give it a try for your first communication. Give people decent human respect until they have proven conclusively that they don't deserve it - and even then sometimes its advantageous to ape respect for undeserving "superiors". Never insult people, directly or indirectly, as this will never help. Keep your communications non-personal and level-headed.

#2 Ask for clarification
Often things can be a misunderstanding or error that can be quickly rectified. A few weeks ago, I  purchased something online and when I received it was very poor quality. My first email was polite and expressed how disappointed I was. I was preparing in successive emails to mount an extensive case for why they should accept a return of the item, but upon receiving my first reply I received a full refund and they said for me to keep the item. This has happened to me before.

#3 Provide evidence
Facts sway opinion and get intended results. Your subjective opinion can backfire and come across as a scam or someone trying to get something they don't deserve. (There are people out there trying to pull things so distinguish yourself from them with evidence and logic). Photographs or screen-captures are great sources of evidence.

#4 Declare the stakes for you
The goal is to generate sympathy not come across as a self-righteous ass hat. In a brief and somewhat emotional manner, state why this is an issue for you - what you lost as a result or are not able to do now.

Advanced tactic, if appropriate play the victim card and let them know how you have suffered. When a flight was cancelled at the airport for our trip to Disney World and none to be reschedule my wife was resigned to acceptance. I went up to the company agent without any anger or attitude (as it was most definitely not her fault) and explained how we had booked a special event at Disney World and we would now miss it. I told my daughter to come with me. In the end, the agent was incredibly helpful and really wanted to help us, she spent an hour of her time made numerous calls but got us on another carrier there (we were only 2 people to get a flight).

#5 Declare your desired recourse
At some point (and not too early), you will need to state what form of redress or action you woud like. Don't come across as too demanding or asking for things you aren't really entitled to (e.g full refund or completed overturning a decision as this isn't likely to ever happen). I like to begin by implying what I want. If the idea comes from them, there is a much better chance it will be implemented.

If these initial tactics don't work then try...

#6 state the stakes for the company or organization
Declare what a valuable customer you are, for example. Be careful to not threaten as no one likes to be threatened. Always be polite. But sometimes you have to be very clear at what you will do if the your problem is not addressed.

#7 Escalate with caution
Don't instantly go over someone's head or cc their boss. At some point and times, escalation is the only way to go, so don't be afraid to do this if and when it is necessary. Exhaust the previous tactics first though!

Be transparent when escalating to the people you were previously communicating with. Don't try to vilify the person to their boss as that person still works there and creating an enemy which is never helpful for your immediate or future needs.

Assuming some responsibility for the situation and being contrite can go a long way to avoid making the problem worse and can help you come across as a reasonable person with a just issue. At this point, ask to take your discussions offline (and instead proceed in-person or via telephone) is recommended.

Email has made complaining so much easier and effective than before. But it can definitely backfire if one sends out emotional and hasty emails.  I have followed these above steps for years, and I'm still surprised how frequently everything works out very well for me and surprisingly early and without emotional turmoil.  For the sake of everyone, give sugar a try!

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