The Gentleman’s Guide To Complaining

Complaining. It’s easy right? Anyone can do it. You just raise your voice and talk loudly, or maybe even shout at the object of your frustration until your problem gets sorted. If that is all it takes, then that’s it, end of article. Wow, that was easy!

OK, if you read the first few lines and agree then this article is for you. Trust me, you will get nowhere fast if that’s your tactic.

A few things I should say first. I do not promise if you complain in the way I suggest here that you will always get your own way. You probably won’t but you will stand a better chance and, more importantly, you’ll lose less hair (and self respect). Also, I draw some references to UK law, I’m sorry but I don’t know how your domestic law operates, so you’ll have to go figure that bit out yourself. For most of the article I use a situation in a restaurant as an example, but the same rules apply to any complaining you need to do. Finally, I am not a management consultant guru type (can you tell?) so all I describe here is what I’ve found works for me so I am willing to share. Your mileage may vary!

How should we complain? Well, let’s take a step back first and ask ourselves a simple question. Do I have the right to complain? I mean, say you buy a £10 pair of running shoes and after 3 months they have fallen to bits. Do you think you got value for money? What about if you spent £300 and they fell to bits after 2 weeks? Do you think you then have a right to complain?

The point is be reasonable. If you’re going to complain about something be sure that your original expectations were realistic. If you’re going to demand something be sure that what you’re demanding isn’t unreasonable. If you order food in a restaurant and you ate it don’t expect to get the food for free when you, afterward, complain it wasn’t up to scratch. That’s just not reasonable. You ate it, you pay for it. Simple!

We’ve established we have a valid reason to complain. We go and hurl abuse at the appropriate person and they fix it, right? OK, let’s try it. You’re in a restaurant (yeah, you’re hungry again!) and the waiter brings you food that isn’t quite up to scratch. Yell at him, go on… it’ll be fun to humiliate him. After all, it’s his fault he deserves it. There you go, off he trots back to the kitchen and within 5 minutes he’s back. Your new plate of food looks yummy, I bet you won’t even taste where he spat in it because he thinks you’re a jerk!

OK, how about we try a different approach? Firstly, the waiter is just doing his job. He didn’t cook it, he’s just bringing it to you. Sure if it looks crap maybe he could have told chef but, come on, you’ve seen Gordon Ramsey (right?), would you want to tell him he’s serving crap food if you worked for him? No, of course you wouldn’t (well, I wouldn’t!). Also, this poor waiter’s probably been on his feet for about 6 hours now without a break and he’s still smiling and being attentive to you.

So how about this? How about we smile back at him, thank him for bringing you the food but point out to him that, for whatever reason, you can’t accept it. Explain to him why, ask him to return it to the kitchen for a replacement. Thank him. If there is an issue, if the waiter says he can’t return it that’s fine. He’s still just doing his job. It’s not his fault, he’ll get shouted at by chef if he returns it! Remember, don’t blame the messenger if they bring you bad news! Ask to speak with the manager. At this point, you’re talking to someone who doesn’t have the authority to make a decision so take it to someone who can.

The waiter wanders off and gets the manager. Now we have the right person to yell at. Sure, we could but let’s not forget the manager also has the authority to just throw us out. We’re hungry, we don’t want that. When the manager comes up to the table, again, explain to him (or her) why you wish to return the food to the kitchen. Be polite, keep smiling but… and this bit is important… be firm. Make it clear you are not prepared to accept this plate of food but you are willing to accept a replacement, after all you’re not being unreasonable you just want what you’re paying for.

At this point, as long as you’ve been polite you’re going to get new food. And since you’ve been so nice about it I promise it will be spit free. The manager is not going to argue over a plate of food, as long as you’ve been reasonable, at the risk of causing a scene. Of course if he does, ask yourself, “do I really want to eat in this restaurant when there are so many others I could eat in?”. Get up and politely inform them you are leaving and you are not paying. In the UK you only have to pay for what you eat (assuming you are rejecting the food due to a problem), so just go elsewhere that will appreciate your customer (and good manners). If your law differs you may have to find a different resolution… but I’d be very surprised if it does.

What else do we need to know about complaining? Well, as well as making sure what you’re complaining about is reasonable it also helps to know what your rights are. For example, a lot of shops will try and tell you that once you’ve purchased something any problems must be taken up with the manufacturer. Well, this may or may not be the case where you live but in the UK your contract is with the vendor so it is down to them to repair or replace your faulty item. It is down to them to send it away for repair and it is down to them to bear the full cost of doing so.

What about if you return something and it’s faulty? Well, again, this depends upon your domestic law but in the UK for the first 6 months after purchase it is up to the shop to prove the item wasn’t faulty when you purchased it and not down to you to prove it was. Make sure you tell them you know this, most shop assistants either hope you don’t or don’t even realize it themselves.

Again, be polite but be firm and if necessary demand to speak with the manager. I once refused to leave a shop where I was returning a faulty mobile phone because I knew my legal rights and I knew they had no choice but to replace it. The manager and I were at logger heads for nearly three hours and all I did was politely but firmly repeat my legal rights to him over and over. Eventually, I ground him down and I got the replacement phone and some free gifts too. It pays to be nice 🙂

Successful complaining can be summarized as three key things.

  1. Be reasonable, don’t set your expectations higher than your should
  2. Be nice (smile!), never swear or be rude — but do be assertive
  3. Know your rights before you complain otherwise you will probably just be fobbed off

The art of complaining is all about winning over the person you are complaining to. It’s almost like a sales pitch, you need to convince them that you are right and that your expectations are reasonable and, thus, they should be met. If you are instantly dislikeable due to a poor attitude you will not win, even if you should (especially when being rude to waiters).


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