How to make a retail complaint without being an asshole

There are about a zillion articles out there that try to tell you, the consumer, how to effectively complain when you’re dissatisfied with something in a retail or service context. I’m someone who has been the drone on the other side of the counter for many, many years, and I’ve read many of those articles to see what sort of information is being suggested to the general public. And I have to say, almost every single one of those articles pisses me off. Most of them advocate customers being loud, aggressive, rude assholes to retail employees until the customer gets what they want because the employee or store wants them to shut up and go away. Since I’ve been that employee more than I’ve been the customer, I’d like to offer a more realistic guide to how to effectively complain and still maintain your integrity as a human being.

Make sure your complaint is reasonable. Are you trying to replace a piece of merchandise because the item is defective, or are you trying to obtain a free replacement because you/your dog/your child dropped the piece of expensive electronic equipment on the floor/stepped on it/sent it through the washing machine? I assure you, store employees can tell the difference, and while it’s certainly nice of a company to replace an item that was ruined due to the customer’s actions, it’s absolutely not their responsibility.

Are there rules, and are you following them? All stores have return policies. All coupons have expiration dates or exclusions. If you’re complaining because you just don’t like the fact that the rules apply to you, well, you may just have to accept that you need to follow the same rules as everyone else. Once again, it’s great if the store or restaurant bends the rules for you, but they don’t have to, and they may not be able to.

Begin the interaction in a calm, reasonable way. Don’t start off angry. Employees are people. I can tell you, from years and years of experience, that the amount of help I’m willing to give a customer with a complaint is almost entirely dependent on how they start the interaction. Don’t get me wrong, I follow the rules completely and entirely for each and every customer, as do most, if not all, retail employees, but if you begin the conversation politely and calmly, explain your complaint clearly and concisely, and are not yelling, screaming, swearing, or throwing things (yeah, that’s a true story), I can almost guarantee that the employee you’re dealing with will be more willing to go above and beyond for you. It’ll also make the whole interaction much less stressful for both of you.

While you’re at it, avoid these phrases:

“I’m a very good customer.” Here’s the thing. Everyone thinks they’re a very good customer. And there are lots of very good customers. But people who pull out this line tend to be the sort who return more than they buy, who are rude to the employees, and who are generally problematic.

“I’ll have your job for this.” Threatening to get someone fired because you aren’t getting what you want not only doesn’t help you achieve your desired result, but it makes you a pretty horrible human being.

“I’m never shopping here again.” I’m just going to go ahead and reveal one of the great retail secrets: When you say, “I’m never shopping here again,” any employee within earshot is thinking, “Good riddance.” Once again, there’s a certain kind of shopper who feels the need to make this proclamation, and it’s not a kind that anyone will miss.

“Do you know who I am?” Yes. You’re a rude jerk who is making my life extremely unpleasant.

Stick to the issue. Don’t use your complaint as a springboard for every little thing that has ever annoyed you. If your issue is that a sale item was rung up at the wrong price, or that the shirt you bought has a hole in it from where the security tag was removed, focus on that. Going off on a rant about how high the prices are and how no one cares about customer service and how there are never enough registers open just obscures the issue and makes you seem unreasonable.

Treat the employee as a human being. I wish that this didn’t have to be spelled out, but it does. I have two degrees and I work in customer service. I love to read. I have a family and friends. I am not a lesser life form. I am not a servant, an idiot, or a punching bag. Treat me like a person, and this whole thing will be much more civilized. Put yourself in the employee’s place and think of how you’d like to be treated.

Escalate appropriately. It’s very important to know that the first person you talk to may not be able to do what you want. They have rules they have to follow, and breaking them may put their job in jeopardy. If they can’t give you your desired result, demanding to speak to their manager is kind of a crappy way to escalate. Back to the human being thing, saying something along the lines of, “I understand you need to follow your policy about this. Is there a manager or owner I can speak to?” is a far more polite way to move up the food chain. And thanking the employee for their help in front of the manager is always appreciated. If your issue is still not resolved, or if the manager is unable to override corporate policy (which is very often the case), you may need to go to corporate directly. Call the company’s customer service number. While explaining the situation, please keep in mind all of the above steps. The person answering the phone is a person, too.

If you’re still unable to get a satisfactory resolution, go to the top. The CEO of a company is generally not thrilled to have a customer complaint letter (and letters do work better than email) come across his or her desk, and although the top dog may not deal with it directly, they will most likely make the appropriate calls so it gets dealt with. In your letter, if applicable, please mention that the store-level employees were as helpful as they could be, but that due to policy, they were unable to give you what you were asking for.

To recap: Be polite. State your complaint clearly and concisely. Don’t be a raving lunatic. Don’t yell or throw things. Recognize that you are dealing with fellow human beings. And if you do get the result you were looking for, thanking the employee is always a nice touch.

(This post originally appeared in Persephone Magazine)

2 responses to “How to make a retail complaint without being an asshole

  1. Also, if you are a woman, deal with it yourself, don’t bring your husband for intimidation purposes. Because that makes it clear to me that he found out you spent $300 on a ring and HE wants you to return it after you got it sized up 10 sizes, it’s not that you *actually* think its a different ring than you purchased.

  2. Thank you! This is all great advice, and I hope more people read it. I would also add “Check to make sure the person you are talking to has the power to help you before you take up half an hour of their time.” I used to work for a third-part reporting agency that ran 1-800 numbers, and I would occasionally get very angry callers who just could not understand that I was not actually employed by the insurance company in any way.

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