How to complain.

After BlogHer 2011 ended my daughter and I stayed in San Diego for a couple of extra days. I’d used a Travelocity voucher I’d gotten through Eversave to get a decent deal for a hotel in the city’s Gaslamp section.

The conference had been pretty tiring, so we were ready to lie down by the time we showed up for the 3 p.m. check-in. A desk clerk told us it would be another 20 minutes because our room had not been cleaned.

Twenty minutes went by. Abby, who has a chronic health condition, was so fatigued she could barely sit upright. I inquired again. Still not clean, but they’d let us know as soon as something was available.

Another 20 minutes elapsed, during which I saw the clerk have a soft drink and chat with co-workers. What he didn’t do was call housekeeping to ask about the progress of the room. Meanwhile, I was wondering just how big a bitch I needed to be to get this fixed.

Of course, I knew that being a bitch wasn’t the answer. Being a smart consumer was.


How long would we have sat there?

At 4 p.m. the employee told us he was sorry, but the hotel had been full the night before and housekeeping was running late.

Given how close the hotel is to a major convention center, I wasn’t surprised that it had been full the night before. What did surprise me was that management didn’t schedule enough staff to make sure rooms were ready for the next night’s customers.

Finally my daughter approached the counter, pleading with them to do something. If she didn’t lie down soon, she knew she’d wind up in bed for most of the next day – or, as she put it, for half of the time she had to spend with her mom.

The clerk put us in a pair of adjoining rooms with a shared bath. While I was grateful that Abby was finally able to rest — she was swaying with exhaustion – I had questions:

  • Had that room been available the whole time and he just didn’t want to give it to us?
  • We were the only people waiting. Couldn’t the housekeeping staff have been asked to clean our room, then work on others?
  • How long would he have allowed us to sit there if we hadn’t forced the issue?

I posted the situation on my Facebook page and soon had more than a dozen comments, ranging from “This is appalling” to “This REALLY irks me. I have had similar things happen at other hotels. Unfortunately, a lot of management teams/corporate owners DON’T CARE.”

At that point I tended to agree with both statements. So I did what I’d suggest you do when faced with a service snafu: I wrote a letter.


‘We can’t change what we did’

Actually, I sent my genteelly furious note via e-mail. Then I visited the hotel’s Facebook page, where a post asked visitors what their best experiences of the summer had been thus far.

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 hotel.” I said I’d sent a note detailing our problem and asked that someone from the hotel chain read that e-mail and contact me as soon as possible.

The next day I got a voice-mail message from the general manager with an apology, his cell number and an offer to help make things better.

When I spoke with him he said all the right things: It shouldn’t have happened, he’d sat down with housekeeping and front-desk staff to discuss where the ball had been dropped, and they’d like to comp one night of our visit.

“We can’t change what we did,” he said, “but we can make sure it doesn’t happen again.”

I hope you never experience a customer-service snafu. But I know better than that. Mistakes happen. A smart manager knows that in the days of Facebook, Twitter and Yelp it pays to give a damn professionally, if not personally.

I once wrote an MSN Money column about how to talk to management about a poor restaurant visit. One of the experts noted that the people in charge can’t be everywhere and thus need to know about problems: “You’re doing the company a huge favor if you complain.”

So when service goes south, speak up. 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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  1. So glad to hear you will be getting a free night out of the deal, Donna! Funny coincidence that your post tonight is customer service related. Right now, I am writing up my own blog post about an issue I had with my water delivery service.

    It definitely pays to be a squeaky wheel! All too often, people complain to their family or friends and leave it at that. Your experience proves that most companies are willing to “make it right” and it is always worth a try.

    • Donna Freedman

      @Karen: Here’s hoping your company responds. It should, given how many people you reach every day with My Bargain Buddy.
      Thanks for reading, and for leaving a comment.

  2. Holly Samlan

    Over the years (I am 65) I have written quite a few complaints. As a general rule of thumb ALL I ever get back is a canned response from some minimum wage CSR along the lines, “Sorry. We will look into this.”

    i am actually ‘prepping’ for one today as a local grocer has a 1 day sale on an item i have NEVER seen in the store.

    Waste of my time & effort.

  3. Shellye

    You’re so right, Donna. Facebook has become my vehicle of choice for consumer complaints. Recently, toward the end of my recent home purchase, the realtor representing the buyer of my house dropped the ball on a few things, which caused the closing of the deal to be pushed back an additional week and a half. Total incompetence on her part. I was so ticked that I posted a nasty comment on the broker’s FB page. At first they denied even being part of the problem, but the next day, the realtor in question got off her butt and made some things happen. In hindsight, I probably was a bit too nasty, but it got results.

    The second time was just a few days ago when I was getting nowhere with an order I placed through one of the social media sites, so I put a note on their FB page and got 4 emails back within 30 minutes to resolve the problem.

    I’d say Facebook is turning into a very effective ombudsman for the consumer…

    I’m glad that, at least, you got a free night out of the hotel for their shoddy service.

  4. Michele

    I’m learning to speak up more and take advantage of social media, especially when dollars get harder to keep.

  5. Elizabeth

    Excellent tutorial. I’ve also had good experiences politely speaking up. Far too often I fail to say anything, though, and allow the inferior service/product/etc. Thanks for the reminder. I’ve also tried to take the time to give positive feedback more often, especially when I can give a complement or say “thank you” in person. A good way is also on the comment card in a hotel if you’ve had good service – from housekeeping or otherwise.

  6. jestjack

    Good job speaking up! So many times this is the only way management can find out where they are lacking in service. My thoughts are this is where there is a “fork in the road”….where management can make it right…and gain a loyal customer OR lose a customer for life not to mention the many folks who will get to hear of the poor experience.

  7. ImJuniperNow

    And don’t forget my two best friends – The Better Business Bureau and the local “Forums” on the Web.

    Complaints to the Better Business Bureau can now be made on their website and you get the result of their investigation quickly. You may not get the result you want, but the embarrassment to the company alone is worth the effort.

    The local Forums are full of angry people to begin with, and posting a complaint brings ’em out of the woodwork. Again, it may not produce any results but making your experience(s) public (and under the veil of a user name) can bring pleasure.


  8. christy

    it usually takes a manager, owner or in the case of big business someone from corperate. But almost always a little complaining will get you something discounted or comped. Actually, you can almost always get something discounted or free just by asking without complaining. I had my car brakes worked on, I was quoted a price, the place was busy with lots of customers, I just leaned over and asked quitely if he could do better and I would pay cash. He typed and said a price 20% lower and that he apprieciated I didn’t draw attention by asking loudly. I have my own business, if people ask loudly I say no, if they ask quitely I give them a discount. The rule of business is if someone is happy they tell ten people about a good thing, but unhappy people result in 100 people finding out. Actually those numbers were pre-internet! yikes.

  9. I actually just had an experience with Dunkin Donuts (poor product issue). So I emailed the company expressing my frustrations. Within two days, I got an email back from the store owner. She asked for my address, then mailed me a hand written note apologizing and thanking me for bringing to issue to her attention. She also included coupons for 2 free donuts & 2 free coffees. Pays to voice your concerns!

  10. @Donna Yes! I had a fantastic outcome. And I didn’t even have to mention the MyBargainBuddy wrath! lol 😉

    • Donna Freedman

      @Karen: Oooohhhhh, that MyBargainBuddy wrath…no one wants to fool with that.

  11. They were lucky to have you waiting and not me. That’s all

  12. I had a similar experience a few years ago. A new chain restaurant had opened and a friend of mine took me to dinner. There was something wrong with the appetizer. We brought it to the servers attention and it was replaced. But I still went to the company website when I got home to let them know. A few days later I got a personal call from the manager of my local restaurant to discuss the issue further. A few days later I got a $25 gift card in the mail!

  13. good thing they fixed it right after you complained.

    yelp is a good resource for posting reviews. i’m an elite yelper myself and have gotten responses from restaurants for bad reviews that i’ve posted.

  14. Ro in San Diego

    I recently had a very awful experience with the Best Buy company. It took them one entire month to get a service technician out to rework a shoddy installation job on my built in microwave oven.

    After the technician finally showd up, I immediately “yelp”ed about the experience, and completely filled out my customer service form that was sent me via email.

    I have one more customer service survey to complete regarding the technician who showed up 1 1/2 hours later than the “appointment window” of 8am to noon. I was not impressed.

    Some companies put on a show that they care (Best Buy appears to be one of them), but some companies don’t care at all. I’ll see how my complaint with Best Buy is resolved.

    Their customer service team fell all over themselves apologizing but nobody had the power to actually get a service tech to my home in a timely manner.

    I’m glad you were comped for one night’s stay. I’m also glad you politely complained about it. BTW it was a pleasure meeting you!

    • Donna Freedman

      @Ro in San Diego: Likewise! It was a very pleasant breakfast confab. If you come to Seattle, let me know and it’ll be my turn to host.

  15. I can attest to the fact that companies who care about product quality and customer service do want to hear customer complaints. I used to be a product manager and some of our products were run on high speed lines where items couldn’t be inspected 100% of the time, but were audited periodically. Sometimes the only way to know there is something wrong with the product is when a customer files a complaint. Then we can dig into the history and do a root cause analysis.

    I’m glad you received a good response and it’s also best to be specific with details and stay professional.

    • Donna Freedman

      @First Gen American: Exactly! They can’t fix what they don’t know is broken, so to speak. It’s particularly true of restaurants — people get mad and not only don’t go back, they gripe about it to their friends and some of their friends will avoid the place, too.

  16. Your posting was timely for me Donna. I just got off of a followup phone call that I received in response to a compliment/complaint that I sent to a corporate office regarding visits to different chain restaurant locations. One was fabulous and deserved Kudos, and the other was heinous.. Anyhoo, it was refreshing to get a corporate team that actually gave a darn, and in return they thanked me profusely for the feedback as they were already considering management/staff changes at the bad one. The moral of this story is complain when things aren’t good.. but make sure that you compliment the great stuff! It evens out the karma. thanks again for the timely post and welcome back!

  17. whachagonnado

    If here is a company mess up, what usually works for me is a letter to some bigwig at the main office, sometimes I look up the Chairman of the Board’s name on the company website, so I address the letter to him (it’s always a him…)

    My letter starts: “I need your help….” and then I tell my unhappy experience.

    Sometime I get something interesting, like a new camcorder or a new drill.

  18. bagelgirl

    Donna, I recently had a nightmarish experience with airfare.com. We couldn’t even get a supervisor on the line during our numberous calls. Claimed he wasn’t there?

    We don’t Facebook or Twitter. How do you deal with complaints about internet companies with no address to write to?

    Any suggestions?

    • Donna Freedman

      @Bagelgirl: If you don’t have Internet at home, could you get it at a library or at someone else’s house? I’d definitely do Facebook and Twitter on this one, and while I was online I’d look up the mailing address of the president of the company and complain in writing. The company home page has a “contact us” section somewhere, so comment there as well.
      Do an online search for others who’ve had problems with airfare.com and see if you can add your voice to the chorus. Maybe contact the Better Business Bureau in the state in which that company is headquartered?
      Keep at it. Just remember to be polite and succinct. Avoid name-calling, threats, etc. Say what happened, explain that you couldn’t find anyone to help you — and suggest what you would like to happen, whether that’s an apology or some kind of partial refund if the trip you booked was messed up.
      Good luck.

  19. Donna, would you consider a guest post on how to complain effectively? I can detail this for you…

    • Donna Freedman

      @Cindy Brick: Right now I’ve decided to do all my own writing. But thanks for the offer.

  20. I had no idea! I didn’t realize you had such a bad experience with the hotel at the conference, Abby was so cheery when I met her she must have put her game face on.
    I haven’t used social media to complain, I usually say it to their face, which makes me feel better….for about 3 seconds until I start getting heartburn. But I think social media is more effective, especially when I don’t have tums handy. I will try your route next time.

    • Donna Freedman

      @Kathryn: Well, we had pretty much decided not to let it ruin our visit. After all, we hadn’t seen each other for eight months. However, I had also decided to complain (in a civil way) no matter what, and if we were ignored I would vote with my feet, i.e., never again stay at a Ramada.
      But I was very glad that I was heard. The discount didn’t hurt a thing, either.
      Thanks for reading, and for leaving a comment. It was nice meeting you at the con and I’ve bookmarked your site. See you at the PF con in October.

  21. bagelgirl

    Thanks Donna. It never occurred to me to go to the home page for airfare.com. Sometimes I’m astonishingly technologically illiterate. I already left an unhappy email there and will also write a snail mail to their home office.

    Again, thanks for the tips.

  22. A relative “gifted” me with a new TempurPedic bed on my recent move purchased at a local dealer at retail (several thousand dollars). I spent most of a year trying to get a problem (controls did not work on my adjustable bed) resolved through the dealer (“not our problem, we delivered it and cashed your check”), the manufacturer’s Customer Service and Tech Support, etc. I spent hours on hold, etc. to absolutely no avail. In frustration I documented my problem on their Facebook page and had a response within 24 hours directing me to contact a specific person (providing their direct phone line). I called and the person told me she could not help despite my having been given her name and number by her direct supervisor (who had not given me his phone number). So I went back to Facebook and posted the updated info. The supervisor contacted me with an apology and said he would have his employee contact me. This time she had been appraised of the situation and now she could help me after all. It still took over a month to get a replacement control unit with lots of nonsense on the company’s tech support suggesting that I should replace the batteries (when only one button did not not work and the others worked correctly) but eventually I did get a replacement controller. I estimate that it took 3-5 hours worth of time on my cell phone (and my own time), etc. and listening to significant abuse from the controller group just to get a product that should have worked from the start. It took persistance and patience, lots of time and effort.
    Did they respond to a public notification of a problem on Facebook? Yes.
    Would they have ever responded otherwise? No.
    Would I ever recommend that anyone purchase the product? Absolutely not.
    Would I ever recommend that anyone purchase a product from that dealer? No way.

  23. lessons learned

    I have found in some cases you have to be very stubborn. I have not veered into rude when complaining but I am sure I have been a source of frustration for a couple of companies.
    For our honeymoon we booked a trip on a website, the resort we had booked was undergoing renovations. We got an email a week before the trip and were givent the choice to move to another resort or accept a discount which would be paid by a certain date. We took the discount and had a wonderful time. But the refund did not come through. We called and waited another two weeks, no refund. My husband called a few times and got so frustrated that he refused to call them again.I called the customer service line and asked for the elusive person who had authorized the discount. Not there but they did assure me he existed (my husband was sure the name was a code word for frustrate the customer until they give up!). I asked what time his shift started, I called back then, they offered to put me through to his voice mail but I said I would wait on-hold (1-800 line). They put me on hold for a bit and kept returning to the phone and I kept assuring them I was fine waiting. Finally the woman said I couldn’t stay on hold any longer as I was tying up her phone – I insisted I was fine and the only way to get me off hold was to hang up on me as I was waiting to speak to someone who could help me. They agreed to issue the cheque by a certain date, I gave one more day then called back and went through the hold process again. Finally we got refund – the reason they gave for it not being issued in the first place – they just got a single bulk refund from the resort and didn’t know what individuals it belonged to until they called in….!!!

  24. I definitely agree with the sentiment that you’re doing management a favor by complaining, since it alerts them to shortcomings in their service. After all, imagine yourself as a small business owner or as a manager. You’d want feedback and constructive criticism, so you can learn how to improve your processes. But if the customers stay silent, you’d never know what needs to be fixed.

  25. I’m really glad that they did something in the end…

    I know for me, if I were with someone who needed to lie down, I wouldn’t have hesitated to ask if there was a clean room we could check into right away… or if the cleaning crew could clean our room now and finish the other ones later… if they gave me a weird look, i’d ask for a manager…

    I guess i’ve just been burned to many times… But if there wasn’t a medical issue, I probably would have waited and complained afterwards.

  26. Thank you for noting that while complaining is sometimes necessary, it is best to do it politely. Social media unfortunately often seems to make it easier for people to leave very ugly rants and walk away. The Golden Rule – “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” and the adage that you get more flies with honey than vinegar are still true. I think courtesy can go a long way, when complaining or in any situation.

  27. Good work, Donna! As a former Master of the Dear-Sir-You-Cur Letter, I congratulate you.

    As to your wonderments:

    * Had that room been available the whole time and he just didn’t want to give it to us?
    That is correct.

    * We were the only people waiting. Couldn’t the housekeeping staff have been asked to clean our room, then work on others?

    Of course not. That would have defeated the purpose, which was to show you he was the boss and you had nothing to say about it.

    * How long would he have allowed us to sit there if we hadn’t forced the issue?

    Several hours.

  28. Good for you for speaking up Donna. And good for you for being courteous and respectful about it. I find that complaints always fall on deaf ears if I come across too harshly. If I present a complaint as a situation with a problem that can be solved I give whomever I’m complaining to a chance to help. And I find that I often will get help under those circumstances. If I just rip into someone though and tell them they did a bad job I (deservedly) get no help and am left to languish in my own frustration. It goes back to the old adage about the two monks carrying a woman.

    I’m very glad to hear that everything worked out for you.


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