Watch CBSN Live

How to Complain Effectively to Anyone

This time of year the stores are packed and tensions are high. You don't always get what you want. It's a perfect recipe for complaints, but even when you do speak up, it doesn't always work.

So how can you get real results?

Jaimee Zanzinger, special projects director of Woman's Day magazine, offered some advice on how to complain the right way at each step of the process.

Zansinger offered these rules for consumers:

General Rules of Complaining

Complain to Correct Person - Address your complaint to the correct person. Venting to your friends might make you feel better in the short term, but you have to take some sort of action to get results.

Remain Calm and Polite - Be as unemotional and polite as possible. The more angry, aggressive or insulting you are, the more you put the person on the defensive.

Be Prepared and Proactive - Arm yourself with knowledge. Save receipts, remember names of the salesperson/people you spoke with, and research how the company is legally obligated to deal with your complaint. When you're informed, you convey authority - and the company will take your complaint more seriously.

So when should you complain, and when shouldn't you?

Complain to Service Professionals - Absolutely complain to a service professional any time you feel you've been taken advantage of or did not get your money's worth.

Timing is Everything - Complaining upfront can at times make the situation worse. Complaining to the waiter during your appetizer, for example, when you still have three courses to go, may not be smart. After all, you don't want anyone to spit in your food! You may be better off pulling the manager aside after the meal.

Watch out at work! Be very careful when complaining about anything at work. You risk being viewed as a whiner, and, chances are, your boss is powerless to do anything about your complaint anyway.

And, according to Zanzinger, complaining in different situations calls for a different protocol - with choices along the way on how far you'd like to go with your complaint.


Problem: When you're spending hard-earned money on clothing, electronics, or housewares, you want to be completely happy with the quality. So if that new sweater started unraveling the first time you wore it, but the store won't refund your money because the 30-day return policy period has passed, you have to take action.

Best way to complain: Even though you're annoyed, take a step back and remember that the salesperson didn't make the sweater - or the store policy - so she's not the enemy. Treat her like a friend and get her to sympathize with your plight, so that she can do everything in her power to make it better.

Start out by saying something like, "I want to apologize if I sound annoyed, but I'm sure you can understand how disappointing it is to spend $50 on a sweater only to have it fall apart." Ask whether she can make a compromise - can she give you store credit?

Next Step - If that doesn't work: Idea 1 - If you're unsatisfied with the salesperson and the manager's answer, try the 1-800 customer service line.

If you can't reach a person, hit up websites like or These sites list (and constantly update) hard-to-find phone numbers that will help you get directly to a human being! Plus, users leave reviews, tips and shortcuts, and the sites even list how long the average wait and hold times will be, so that you can prepare yourself for the call.

If you get nowhere with the first person on the line, ask to speak with a supervisor or manager - keep climbing the ladder to find a resolution.

Next Step - If that doesn't work: Idea 2 - If ALL ELSE FAILS and you've paid for a product or service by credit card, you can always stop the charge. Contact your credit or charge card company and explain the situation. If they feel you have compelling evidence that you've been wronged, the credit card company will first suspend the charge while looking into the matter. Your credit card company may not side with you, but the threat of disputing a charge may be enough to get results.


Problem: You sat on the runway for two hours before taking off, or your sleeping quarters at a hotel were not quite what the website promised (You booked a queen-size bed with an ocean view, and wound up facing the parking lot).

Best way to complain: This might seem obvious, but not everyone does it - complain right away and request a reasonable compensation. In most instances, the problem can be remedied on the spot. Go back to the front desk of the hotel or call the airline's 1-800 number and give them a chance to resolve the issue. And as much as possible, know your rights: When you purchase an airline ticket, you and the airline have entered into a contract that covers many situations that you may face during a flight, including cancelled fights and lost luggage. There are already rules and limits about what they can and can't do. But if, say, you are involuntarily bumped from your flight due to overbooking, you are typically eligible for some kind of compensation from the airline, and you can feel free to counter-offer if you're not happy with their first offer.

Next Step - If that doesn't work: Idea - Social media can really help you get results. Harness the power of your voice and let other people - the airline or hotel's potential customers - know about your experience. Write about it as your Facebook status, tweet about it, write a review on or; include a picture snapped on your cell phone, if you can. Images of dingy towels and a view of the parking lot will send a very loud message!

More and more, companies are monitoring social media sites and responding to complaints that could be damaging to their reputations. Think about it: if you have 500 Facebook followers, that's 500 people who now have a negative view of the company, not to mention the thousands of people who rely on user-driven review sites before booking hotels and flights.

For more complaining tips, go to Page 2.


Problem: When you've had poor customer service or food, it's tempting to get angry and ask to speak to a manager.

Best way to complain: Your go-to tool in this instance is what we like to call a complaint sandwich - you start with a positive statement, voice your complaint, and end with a positive statement. Try something like, "the soup was delicious, but the server was incredibly slow and unfriendly. And that's a shame because I really like this restaurant." If you are saying not everything is terrible, the manager will usually go out of his way to make sure you leave satisfied, whether that's offering to comp your meal or giving you a free dessert. Plus, in most cases, the management actually wants to hear what went wrong so they can improve it - and keep your business.

Next Step - If that doesn't work: Idea - If you don't get anywhere, your next step is filing an official complaint with the Better Business Bureau on the website The Bureau then sends the complaint to the company. If the company is among the BBB's 400,000 participating businesses, they must respond. Member companies adhere to the BBB Code of Business Practices, which means they must maintain a BBB rating of B or higher. Other non-participating businesses regularly respond to complaints, too. Consumer complaints are also filed into the BBB's database of publicly-available reliability reports. The Bureau says that 70 percent of complaints are closed within 30 calendar days.


Problem: Your muffler fell off one week after it was fixed; your roof still leaks.

Best way to complain: Talk directly to the technician who did your repairs, but don't show up right before lunchtime or the end of the day - they'll be in a rush to get out the door and won't want to help you. Come prepared with warranties, written estimates and whatever paperwork proves your case. Then move on to the service manager, and the owner of the shop.

Next Step - If that doesn't work: Idea 1 - Write to the highest-ranking person at the company you can find-the chief executive officer, ideally. Type a letter - don't e-mail, because e-mails get overlooked - and clearly state what happened. Use underscores, italics, bold and indents to emphasize your key points - these are all subliminal ways of catching the reader's eye. Most importantly, ask for compensation. Surprisingly, a lot of people forget this part. They complain about the problem, but don't offer a solution. So spell out exactly what you want in compensation for your troubles. If you don't ask, you don't get!

Good companies are almost always responsive to a complaint letter, but don't settle for a form letter. Write back, this time upping the ante, stating that they might lose you as a loyal customer. A hit to their bottom line is something every company cares about.

Next Step - If that doesn't work: Idea 2 - File a formal, written complaint with whatever agency licenses the contractors in your state. Go to to search for the appropriate bureau in your state. Many states now have automated complaint forms you can fill out online. But do it quickly: many states will only accept complaints made within 90 days or 3,000 miles after the repair, whichever comes first.

Next Step - If that doesn't work: Idea 3 - This is another example of where the Internet can boost your voice! Check out Angie's List (which collects about 40,000 consumer reports each month covering plumbers, roofers, dentists, electricians, auto mechanics and more). Here you can read thousands of unbiased reports and reviews about service companies in your area. The service will cost you $25 for a one-year membership, but it's well worth it.

View CBS News In
CBS News App Open
Chrome Safari Continue
Be the first to know
Get browser notifications for breaking news, live events, and exclusive reporting.