Had a Lousy Retail Experience? Complain About It!

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After attending a conference in San Diego, I stayed for a few days, planning to share a hotel room with my adult daughter. Although we’d been promised a 3 p.m. check-in we wound up sitting in the lobby for close to two hours – irritating to the average conference-fatigued consumer, but downright debilitating to my daughter, who has a chronic illness.

Ultimately we made enough noise that the desk clerk grudgingly gave us a room slightly larger than the one I’d reserved. There I did what I tend to do when faced with a service snafu: I wrote a letter.

It was a very specific, very genteelly furious e-mail, sent to the hotel chain’s corporate headquarters. Then I visited that company’s Facebook page, where the first thing I saw was a post that asked, “What’s your best experience of the summer been so far?”

So glad you asked.

I left a comment that began along the lines of, “I can tell you what it hasn’t been: my current stay at this particular location.” I asked that someone from the hotel chain read that e-mail I’d just sent and contact me as soon as possible. The next day I got a personal apology from the hotel’s general manager – and a refund for that night’s stay.

Mistakes happen. But that doesn’t mean you have to accept them.

Complaining is helping

Managers can’t be everywhere, and they can’t address problems if they don’t know about them. You’re actually doing the company a favor if you complain. A smart manager knows that in the days of Facebook, Twitter, and Yelp it pays to give a damn – professionally, if not personally.

Start in person, when the problem is occurring. Say you ordered your steak medium-well but it comes to the table blood-red in the middle. Name the problem (“This isn’t what I ordered”) and a possible solution (“I’d like it put back on the broiler, please”).

Or suppose the valet who brought your car spilled coffee on the seat. Ask to speak to his supervisor – but first, take a moment to think about what you want to happen. Are you simply interested in letting the boss know, so this doesn’t happen to someone else? Do you want the cloth seat professionally cleaned at the restaurant’s expense?

One thing’s for sure: You should ask for your parking fee back.

And if the waiter/manager/whoever doesn’t seem to care? Write that letter to the parent company. Be succinct, since a five-page rant might make you seem less than credible. Include the basic details of what happened, including the date and time and the names of anyone with whom you interacted.

More to the point, explain why you’re taking your complaint to the top: “I talked to the valet parking manager but nothing was resolved. I’m contacting you because I’d like help fixing this.”

How to complain so people will listen

My daughter recently ordered three months’ worth of asthma medication for her husband from an online pharmacy. The customer service rep verified all the health and insurance information, but failed to read the prescription closely. As a result, only three inhalers were sent instead of the six Tim needed.

Rather than giving up and filling in with locally bought inhalers, they refused to sign off on the order. “It took some back and forth with the doctor and the pharmacy. But we ended up getting the missing three inhalers without paying another cent,” she wrote in a post on her website.

Due to her own health issues, Abby has dealt with medical and social-service bureaucracies for 15 years now. She knows how to cut through the jargon, how to suggest alternate strategies, and – most important – how to ask for what she wants.

It gets results: When Amazon recently asked how her shopping experience was, she wrote back that the two-day Amazon Prime order took three days.

Amazon wrote back a “so sorry!” note – and offered an extra month of Prime without asking. Naturally, she said “Why, thank you” and accepted.

A few more tips for effective corporate communication:

  • Make sure you really have a beef. That fast-food cashier isn’t paid to chat with you about the weather or world affairs. She needs to take care of the half-dozen other hungry folks in line.
  • Be civil. Don’t insult the people with whom you interacted by phone, or make dramatic threats about lawsuits.
  • Be specific. “We were seated at 6:30 p.m. It is now 6:50 p.m. and we haven’t been acknowledged by a server or given a menu” should get a manager’s attention. (And if the manager doesn’t acknowledge you either? Leave the restaurant, and write that letter to someone above his pay grade.)
  • Use a positive framework. For example, you might say “I’ve always had great experiences at the Hotel XYZ chain, which is why I chose it for this trip. That’s why I was so surprised by our experience.”
  • Don’t tee off on the wrong target. If there are only three servers for a large room, it could be that management is cutting corners. Or maybe half the staff has the flu. Either way, address your concern to the manager rather than griping at the waiter.

To sum up: When service goes south, say so. Complain, preferably in writing. Do it reasonably. Do it courteously. But do it.

And if it turns out management doesn’t give a rip? There’s always Facebook, Yelp, and Twitter.

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