Nobody likes to be a whinger. But there are some situations in which you absolutely shouldn't put up and shut up: a cockroach runs across your table in a restaurant; your new-ish mobile breaks down; you fork out for a fancy weekend away and find the accommodation needs a serious facelift.
When bad things happen, you have to be able to complain - and get results.
Dr Catriona Wallace is the chief executive of customer experience analyst Fifth Quadrant. According to its research, complaints account for 1 million of the 21 million interactions Australian consumers have with organisations on any given day. While that sounds like a lot of whining, Wallace says Australians are actually reluctant to complain. "It's tied into mateship culture that we, sociologically, don't really like to complain," she says.
She thinks more Australians should be expressing their dissatisfaction. "It's not about being the whingeing, whining consumer. It's about being a consumer with a genuine problem that needs to be resolved and it needs to be approached in that way."
Small-business owner Natalie Alaimo is not backward about voicing her complaints. A couple of years ago she booked to spend Christmas Day with family at a five-star resort near her Gold Coast home. But a number of issues spoilt the festive feeling. They were charged for breakfast that was included in their room rate; they couldn't book a table for 15; public holiday surcharges were slapped on food and drink orders, and some staff were reluctant to deliver drinks to the poolside. When the hotel sent an email feedback form a couple of days later, Alaimo let rip. But her expectations of getting any results were low. "Sometimes you fill in these surveys and then you never hear from anyone," she says. Not this time. Her comments prompted a call from the hotel's general manager, an apology and an invitation to return.
Alaimo estimates that invitation led to about $1800 worth of apology, including dinner in the restaurant, an upgrade to a suite, and chocolates and sparkling wine in the room on their arrival. So what does it take to whinge in a way that works?
Pick up the phone Tempting as it may be to vent on social media, you'll get a better response if you pick up the phone. "Business-to-business literature is peppered with examples of somebody who is in an airport lounge and their flight was late and they tweeted and someone came and offered them an upgrade and they got on a plane," Wallace says. "But these are few and far between." According to Fifth Quadrant, Australian organisations handle less than 1 per cent of complaints via social media. It tends to be phone (54 per cent); email (13 per cent) and letter (5 per cent).
Arm yourself Be ready with specifics. Before dialling, gather your account details - policy numbers, warranty details and receipts. Be clear on the chronology of the complaint - when you bought the item, when the problem occurred, and any previous attempts to contact the organisation. Scan and email supporting documentation at the end of the call, Wallace suggests.
Guy Winch is a New York psychologist and author of The Squeaky Wheel, a book about how to complain effectively. His tip? Rather than unleashing a torrent of anger and frustration, disgruntled consumers should serve up a "complaint sandwich". "Sandwich your complaint between two positive statements so the recipient doesn't get defensive and is motivated to help you." For example: "I ate at your restaurant last month and really enjoyed it. I asked to speak to you as the manager because the service was extremely poor today. I would like to keep coming here but I wanted you to know how disappointed I was." "Expressing yourself in a calm and respectful way and getting the result you want will make you feel calm, mature and especially empowered," he says.
Know what you're after Be clear about the outcome you want. Is it an apology or a financial outcome such as a refund, a replacement or a discount?
Jo Ucukalo, chief executive of Handle My Complaint, an organisation that goes
into bat for consumers with complaints, suggests asking for something the business can do. "Generally you get better results where it's not a direct cost on the
business - where they can provide an additional service or something in-house - to solve a problem rather than having to refund or pay for something extra from a third-party provider."
Confirm the action plan
Once you've voiced your complaint, confirm the actions that will be taken by the organisation and the time frame.
Escalate if necessary Alaimo says: "I will always try to find the person who can actually make a decision about it." If you're getting nowhere, appeal to a manager or a business owner. Andrea and Daryl Bolton handed their complaint over to an expert. The Geelong couple had spent two years trying to get a response to a complaint about their car's fuel injectors. Despite having an independent mechanic's report verifying their concerns, all they got was the run-around. "I normally would have handled something like that myself," Andrea, 51, says. "But I've had breast cancer and chemotherapy, and I just wasn't up for the fight." It was only when Ucukalo's firm, Handle My Complaint,
threatened the car manufacturer with media exposure that all four fuel injectors were replaced.
Find other whingers
A complaint has more clout when you band together with others in the same position. Googling and checking out consumer forums can help locate others with the same beef.