The Fine Art of Complaining

Trending around the blogosphere today, I see a lot of comments about some diner who wrote to a NYT advice columnist about how he handles his complaints in a restaurant.

I've been in customer service since forever and I've been getting customer service even longer. :-) Here are ten things you can do to improve your customer service experience and complain more successfully when things go wrong.
  1. Be polite. If you've had a bad day, venting on your waiter is not going to improve it and could easily snowball into giving you the day from hell. You can tell your waiter or your manicurist that you've had the devil's own day; if you do that in a friendly and slightly weary way, you may even find that they have a heart and will extend you a little extra kindness. Start out on the offensive, though, and you will most certainly OFFEND. 
  2. If something isn't right, getting mad is not the first step. Follow the correct steps toward a resolution. First: determine what is the smallest step that would solve the problem. A fresh glass, throw the steak back on the fire, a seat in a different area, whatever. Then you need to politely inform the proper person. Make sure you are complaining to a person who has some power to fix the problem. Telling the front desk clerk that you object to the rates you are paying for electricity doesn't really get you anywhere. After you have politely informed the proper person, give them a chance to make it right before you start making demands. It has been my experience (read my closing paragraph) that simply pointing out the problem nicely and letting them come up with a solution will get you more than you would have asked for as a solution.
  3. Make sure your complaint is timely. It doesn't do any good to tell the hostess, after you paid, that the soup was cold but you ate all of it anyway. How is she supposed to fix it then?
  4. Make sure that your complaint is something that can be fixed. Some things are the way they are. Put on your big girl panties and learn what is worth worrying about. Complaining about the long lines at the checkout works when only one or two cashiers are open. If all of the cashiers are open and the store just has a rush, get over it.
  5. Be reasonable in your initial expectations. There are places where you can reasonably ask for special accommodations and places where you can't. The most you can usually expect from a fast food place is to have your burger plain. You have all heard this guy: he goes to the local taco stand and wants them to create a new menu item just for him. "I'll have the crunchy chicken taco combo, but I want the chicken cooked with the breading you put on the fish, and instead of taco sauce could I have ketchup and no lettuce but I'd like some drained coleslaw on the taco instead." Usually, that guy is in front of you when you're about to faint from low blood sugar and he also wants to know if the Pepsi was bottled in Oklahoma or Nevada because he doesn't like the Nevada bottler, who fired him in 1990 over something really ridiculous and totally unjust and...... Seriously, folks. If your palate or your diet is that restricted, don't go to a fast food place. 
  6. You are not the only person on the planet. Even if you don't see any other diners, the cook may be putting together a go order for 10, or your server maybe be preparing for a banquet in another room. If you call a business on a Monday morning, you should expect that you are one of a great many callers and might have to wait your turn.
  7. Be clear. Help the receptionist get you to the right person. Help your customer service representative prioritize. If your house burned down last night, please make sure the receptionist knows this when you call your insurance agent. That truly is more important than reprinting someone else's auto ID card. 
  8. Don't be afraid to escalate! If the salesperson is too busy in a personal conversation or too busy texting to attend to the customers, don't be afraid to go to the customer service desk and ask if there is a salesperson who is actually interested in the job around. When you do speak up, be clear and calm. Cussing is never permitted in this situation. If you do not get satisfaction from the first higher-up, keep climbing.
  9. Give praise where it's deserved. Managers need to know who is keeping the customers happy as much as they need to know who can't seem to put down their smartphone. Letting them know when you have received superior customer service can only improve the quality of their staff in the long run. It also helps you get better service in the future because people remember who said nice things about them. They also remember who complained about them.
  10. I saved the most important for last. Remember that your own personal taste and the quality of customer service received may not be the same thing. If you don't care for the taste of the food in the restaurant, honestly? That's just tough. You have a right to complain if the food is cold, late, burned, raw or not what you ordered. If you order the lasagna and it's not like momma used to make, that's just too bad. If the waitress is efficient and polite and clean, but you object to her having a spiky Mohawk hairstyle, that is just too bad. You don't get to complain about the color of carpet (Yes, a customer did that) or the soft music in the background. 

Many years ago, Sweet Hubs and I went to a favorite Italian restaurant in Scottsdale. This was back when I could eat salad. :D Hubs ordered the house salad with ranch and I had a small Caesar salad as our first courses. There I was, happily munching away on my yummy salad when a tiny, green, dressing-covered lettuce bug struggled out from under a leaf of romaine.

I quietly called the waitress over and laughingly told her that we usually kill our critters before we eat them. I had already eaten enough salad (and bugs) and was saving room for my meal, so I didn't ask for anything. I just mentioned it so they could run the lettuce through the rinse again in case there were any more clingers.

The waitress was mortified and very appreciative that we weren't upset at all. The manager came out and apologized, too. They offered us a free dessert when the meal was over, and then the manager refused to let us pay for anything at all.

I don't know how that would have turned out if I had been the sort to get mean and nasty with the waitress. She probably would have offered me a cup of the minestrone instead and maybe comped either my meal or a dessert. I truly do believe that being understanding and HUMAN about the whole silly thing encouraged them to want to be generous with us.

But then, I'm not afraid of bugs. If that'd been a squirrel in my salad? Yikes!

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