Five ways to deliver a meaningful customer complaint

Bad customer service bothers the hell out of me. I know I’m not alone on this: nobody likes receiving something less than he pays for. But for me, it’s something of an obsession, having worked in businesses where there is nothing quite like a “quality problem” to put the brakes on your career (or derail it entirely). And perhaps unreasonably, I have incredibly high standards – which I do reward commensurately, from gratuity to word-of-mouth advocacy. Whatever the driver, I am quite comfortable approaching a hotel or restaurant manager with both criticism and high praise, and I’ve found out what works and what doesn’t.

If all you want to do is go for the jugular when you get unacceptable service, don’t bother reading the rest of this: it won’t help you out. When you encounter a service failure, sometimes you have to fight every urge you have to win and stay focused on what really matters: delivering a meaningful customer complaint. In the end, you will feel much better about how you’ve behaved. I had to bite my tongue Saturday night at a hotel‘s resturant here in New York: it hurt, but in the end, I’m happier with the outcome (which is limited to my behavior, since the restaurant’s manager failed to take interest, let alone action).

So, the time comes to talk to the manager … here are five ways to do it effectively:1. Forget about free: nothing annoys me more than people who bitch and complain just to get a 10 percent discount next time. It’s as transparent as it is demeaning to all involved. The human race, quite simply, deserves better. O, the next time you have a service gripe, open with, “I’m not looking for anything out of this,” or “Don’t worry about a discount or free anything, I’m just looking to have a situation fixed.” It changes the nature of everything that follows.

2. Be constructive (and show it): focus what you say on the situation at hand, and explain your problem in detail. At the same time, offer ways that it can be fixed. Most restaurant and hotel managers, for example, will throw a discount or a comp at you (which, at least, is better than the airlines, who won’t help to remedy a situation without a struggle). This may make the immediate problem go away, but it doesn’t solve anything. If you’re specific and contribute something worthwhile, you’ll get better results.

3. Be calm and clear – but firm: yelling and screaming may give you some temporary satisfaction, but that wears off quickly. Wouldn’t you rather get a resolution that’s more enduring? Approach the situation with a cool head, and remain rational. If you make a point, back it up with examples from the experience that bothered you. Report the facts, so to speak, and be very careful to avoid a tone that comes across as accusatory. At the same time, however, you do have a right to stand up for yourself. Use it.

4. Follow it up in writing: this goes for both good and bad service frankly (email and letters rarely reflect the former, and it does make a difference). Even if you have a conversation, summarize it in email, and click send. This will add a bit of weight to your concern and increase the likelihood that it will be addressed. Also, it will keep the manager honest with his employer and himself.

5. Prepare to offer a second chance: okay, this can be tough after you’ve had a bad experience. If you have offered targeted constructive criticism that has been taken seriously, and you’ve been in touch with the establishment after your initial encounter, you do owe the property a chance to win you back. When you do return, you should thank the manager for any discounts offered but refuse them. If this isn’t possible, add your savings to the gratuity (if service warrants it). The experience alone should be your reward, not the financial incentive.

[photo by star5112 via Flickr]