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Communicating Complaint

On Friday last week I received news that really thrilled me. After a “negotiation” lasting approximately 2 months a local Retailer and their overseas Manufacturer finally agreed to cover, in full, the cost of importing a part required to repair a very expensive piece of equipment that had failed.

I learned a great many lessons from my father but two of the most valuable pertain to The Art of Complaint. His rules were simple and governed by two over-arching mandates:

  • Get it in writing, and
  • Get a name.

When I was told in September that the rather expensive and robust piece of equipment – bought to be used my daughter during rehab from two operations – required almost its purchase price in “service” in order to remain functional after only 23 months, I was horrified and immediately embarked on the normal avenues of complaint.

I contacted the local Service Centre telephonically – and as per Dad’s mandate GOT THE NAME of the person I spoke to. When I called back it became significantly harder for the person I had spoken to to pass the buck…… Knowing her name and having had a polite and pleasant conversation with her I had established a basic “relationship,” and people generally try to look after their relationships.

Unfortunately, despite regular to-ing and fro-ing between me, my Service Agent friend and the people on her end, no-one locally was willing to step up with a solution that addressed the problem to my satisfaction.

When lodging a complaint, it’s evident pretty quickly whether the situation will be resolved or whether you have a battle on your hands. If the latter, you need to brace yourself to approach complaining like a Marathon, not a Sprint: You need stamina, principled conviction, and some idea at what point you would be willing to cut your losses because the effort required takes more than you stand to gain.

You have no idea how intimidating it can be for an organisation’s Senior Management to be presented with a detailed list of every person you have spoken to, every promise that has been made and broken and so on… Keeping a record like a Secret Police operative from the very beginning of the process really arms you for the battle so make sure you write it all down (ideally with call log references).

Another rule applies irrespective of whether the process is being conducted via direct communication or email: You need to be EXCEPTIONALLY polite, and I mean polite in the way that a cat stares at an empty corner late at night… i.e. SCARY polite!

Extreme politeness provides the opportunity for the Supplier to save face because your manner communicates your confidence that they will do the right thing….. It also strengthens your credibility should the situation end up in front of any sort of Commissioner, particularly if someone on the Supplier’s side ends up behaving badly in the face of your relentless persistence.

Taking a strategic approach means you research your target; their reputation / their composition / how they present themselves to the world etc. In my case, I found the international manufacturer’s website where they stated very publically as part of their brand promise that they seek to deliver “quality products that exceed customer expectations of function, form and value.”

This is where the whole “power of language” point kicks in: On the basis of that ONE publically professed promise I was able to make a case to Senior Management both locally and internationally that they finally listened to – because it connected to THEIR story. Oh happy me!!

A few final strategies that I have found really useful:

  • Be reasonable and realistic: Think about whether the matter you are pursuing is worth it holistically or whether you are on a senseless crusade.
  • Don’t make threats. If there are further avenues to pursue that would start to create the wrong sort of public attention (hellopeter/ legal representatives etc) then it’s fine to give a timeline and state your intention to pursue them…. If you do so, make sure you follow through! Just don’t threaten – it diminishes your credibility.
  • Don’t get angry – get organised. It wastes your energy to spend time fuming. Rather spend it planning.
  • Cultivate a sense of humour and engage it strategically – I am convinced that one reason I finally succeeded in this latest matter was because I was mildly humorous about the situation, both in discussing it with friends (which alleviated my own stress and frustration) and in my emails to the Executives when I finally approached them. It provided another way to break through the barrier of defensiveness that people put up when under attack and allowed them to engage with me on a personal level.
  • If you really believe you are defending a principle, and that by doing so others will also benefit, then grit your teeth and hang in there! If you decide to let it go then for your own sanity – really let it go!

You may not always win, but using language with deliberation and discernment will certainly help to improve the odds!