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More how-to guides for life
Sunday, November 10, 2002 - 12:00 a.m. Pacific
How to's for life
A monthly guide

HOW TO
COMPLAIN EFFECTIVELY

By Patti Jones, Seattle Times staff reporter

IllustrationYour $50 theater ticket offers a five-star view of a ... pillar.

Your phone company bills you for a $200 midnight call to Santiago, presumably made by your cat while you sawed zzzzs.

Complain? Many of us would rather not. After all, complaining is an art. It takes know-how to do it well. And if you don't do it well, you come off looking like a loony.

That's why we've filled this page with tips from complaint experts. Touching on issues from the personal to the professional, we aim to give you a leg up on how to object, gripe and kvetch in a way that will get you what you want — and still feel good the next morning.

THE WRONG WAY
Dear Manager,

Your gas station stinks. I purchased fuel for my car and was charged for 12 gallons of super, when my tank only holds 11. Explain that! When I protested, your pea-brain cashier just brushed me off. FIRE HER! Or at least give me free gas, after all you've put me through.

I will expect to hear from you. Or else.

Sincerely,

K. Smith
 
Barbara Held
Barbara Held
"When people are given a chance to put complaints into words, it helps them to calm down and find new options to cope. But they need to be careful about who they kvetch to because we live in a culture that's all about have-a-nice-day and look-on-the-bright-side. If they spill their guts indiscriminately, they will end up alone."

Barbara Held, psychologist and author of "Stop Smiling, Start Kvetching."
TIPS
1. Be cool. If you flame, you'll put others on the defensive and consign your complaint to the trash, says Ellen Phillips, author of Fight Back and Win: How to Work with Business and Get What You Want (First Books Library, $15). A better idea: Behave as if you need help with a problem. ("I'm not sure what to do about this. I was at the gas pump and ... ") If you appear reasonable, your target will respond in kind.

2. Be specific. Investigators need times, dates, places and names of people you talked to, says Craig Leisy, manager of Seattle's Consumer Affairs Unit. (If you don't know names, try a description — "the teller with ruby glasses.") Also helpful: a copy of your receipt and other records.

3. Be fair in what you ask for. "I knew a man whose baggage was torn by an airline," Phillips says. "In return he demanded first-class tickets to anywhere, and the airlines never responded. Had he asked for new baggage or a $100 voucher off his next flight, he would've received it."

4. State your full name and phone number. The name proves you're a real person with a legitimate gripe rather than, say, a disgruntled ex-employee, Leisy explains. The phone number allows inspectors to ask follow-up questions and to report their actions.

5. Provide a deadline. If you say, "I'll expect this matter to be resolved by Nov. 31," it'll be clear that you won't just fade away, Phillips explains.

IllustrationWORK GRIPES
Maybe you've been passed over for promotion or denied an office with a view. Or maybe a coworker is hogging the credit for your joint work. Should you gripe to your chief?

Perhaps — if you have a responsive boss. But before you do, consider the advice of Corey Fagan, a UW psychology professor and departmental ombudsman:

1. Try first to solve the problem yourself. For example: Talk to your coworker about feeling snubbed; it could be that she didn't mean to slight you and would be happy to let others know how much you've contributed.

2. Plan what you want to tell your boss. Write down all that's gone on, chronologically. ("Last May, when I received my evaluation, I was told I could expect a promotion. Then when fall came I was told ... ")

3. When you talk to your boss, avoid black-and-white claims, such as "I've tried to work this out with my partner, but he's a hot head." Talk like that makes you appear unfair.

4. Be clear about the outcome you'd like: A rationale for why you weren't promoted? An inquiry into why you didn't receive a window office?

5. Give a good reason for your boss to intervene. If you say you need a window office because you crave sunlight, you'll seem self-serving. A more appealing claim: "If I have a window office, I'll save money by bringing clients to me rather than going to them."

6. If your boss does intervene, say thanks. Folks like helping those who appreciate it.
 
Ellen Phillips
Ellen Phillips
"If people don't complain, products just get shoddier and services continue to decline. We work hard for our money. We owe it to ourselves not to be taken advantage of."

— Ellen Phillips, author of "Fight Back and Win."
MANNERS QUIZ
Take this multiple-choice test to find your Complaint Etiquette IQ.

1. You and your spouse are enjoying a plate of sushi when you are disrupted by a yammering cellphoner at the next table. Do you:

A. Glare at the guy until he disconnects.

B. Tell him he has no right to take calls in a restaurant.

C. Talk to the maitre d'.

Answer: C. The problem with glaring at or approaching a stranger: You never know how he will respond, says psychologist Fagan. Your meal could go from bad to worse.

2. You want to vent to your office pal about your roving-eyed boyfriend. Should you:

A. Kvetch away.

B. Keep quiet, knowing most folks don't like complainers.

C. Ask for your pal's go-ahead to gripe, then watch for cues that she's uneasy: fidgeting, trying to change the subject or edging for the door.

Answer: C. Some folks don't want to hear about your pain, says psychologist Barbara Held, author of "Stop Smiling, Start Kvetching: A 5-Step Guide to Creative Complaints" (Griffin Trade, $9.95). So it's a good idea to ask first — "I've had a bad day. Can you stand to listen?"

3. Someone — obviously an inept complainer — sends you a flaming e-mail. What should you definitely not say in a return note:

A. "Thanks for your thoughts. I'll try harder."

B. "Up yours!"

C. Nothing, just hit return, allowing the writer a second (hopefully sobering) look at the original missive.

Answer: B. If you receive an untactful, angry e-mail, don't reply with a similar note. It will only start a flame war.

GRIPE-CATCHERS
No. 1 complaint collector? The communications industry. Main gripes include unauthorized switching of long-distance carriers and billing for unwanted phone services.

If you have a beef with your phone company or any other service provider, call customer service and, if you get no help, move up the line to the CEO and, finally, regulatory agencies. (While CEOs are usually too busy to address your problem themselves, they will often assign someone to the case.)

If your beef is with your long-distance service, you could contact the Federal Communications Commission's consumer center at 888-225-5322.

Other handy numbers:

Washington State Utilities and Transportation Commission: 800-562-6150 (local phone and gas service).

State Attorney General: 206-464-6684 (lemon cars, time shares, spam).

Seattle's Citizens Service Bureau: 206-684-2489 (garbage pick-up, street lights and other city services).

City of Seattle's Consumer Affairs Bureau: 206-386-1296 (store scanners and taxis).

Better Business Bureau of Oregon and Western Washington: 206-431-2222.

FACTOIDS
The Better Business Bureau serving Western Washington and Oregon received 20,783 complaints in 2001.

The Washington State Attorney General's office collected $5,436,190 in restitution for complaining consumers in 2001.

Nearly 70 percent of those experiencing a consumer problem don't complain. The majority just take their business elsewhere (according to "Consumer Complaint Handling in America: An Updated Study for the U.S. Office of Consumer Affairs 1986).


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