How to Complain Effectively—About Anything

Jo Piazza
·Managing Editor

Stop beating your head against a wall. (Courtesy: Thinkstock)

"I think a compliment ought to always precede a complaint, where one is possible, because it softens resentment and insures for the complaint a courteous and gentle reception” -Mark Twain 

You could argue that complaining has beaten out baseball as the American pastime. Never before in the history of man have we had so many ways to lodge so many different kinds of complaints—you can complain in person, over email, by letter, by Facebook, or by Twitter.

But for all that complaining, how often does it actually accomplish anything? 

We checked in with Guy Winch, an expert on complaining and the author of The Squeaky Wheel and Emotional First Aid. Guy doesn’t like to use the word complain. Guy likes to say “negotiate.” That is probably why Guy typically gets what he wants.


Words to live by. (Courtesy: Felipe Tofani)

According to Winch, there are three basic things to think about before you complain about anything—including your travel mishaps:  

1. Before you start to complain, figure out exactly what it is that you want to achieve. The more specific you are, the more likely it is that you will get exactly what you want. 

2. Figure who you want to talk to. Too often, we vent our frustration and flail our arms at the first person we see. Unfortunately, those are the people who are the least empowered. Your room has one bed instead of two? Don’t ask the bell boy. Want to replace your entree? The bus boy can’t help you. Ask for a manager.

3. Don’t be a jerk. In theory, this sounds so simple. One of the biggest mistakes we make is to mount our frustration at the person who we are asking for help. You know who isn’t going to help you? The person you are berating. It is fine to be annoyed but it always helps to add a disclaimer: “I know this isn’t your fault, but I am really frustrated.”


Don’t get mad, get on Twitter. (Courtesy: Thinkstock)

Now that you’ve got the basics down, Winch gives the tools to success if you hit the following bumps in the road. 

What if …

You need to send food back to the kitchen: Most people are afraid to send food back and, instead, opt not to return to the restaurant. Huge mistake. No one wins if you don’t let management know that the food isn’t up to par. Make it known what you know what you want. Do you want the same dish or a different dish? Do you want the dish to be taken off the bill? Do you want a free dessert? Remember to be polite. The waiter didn’t make the food.

Your hotel room isn’t ready: Again, know what you want right off the bat. Do you want a room right away, no matter what? If that is the case, you may need to accept a room that isn’t exactly what you requested. If you can wait, consider asking for a free meal at the bar, an upgrade, or a discount. Many hotels are willing to offer all three of these things to keep their customers happy and find it easier to respond to a specific request than vague disappointment.

When you miss your plane: This is your fault. You shouldn’t be complaining … but you will. The best thing you can push for is to get a free ticket on the next flight. Keep in mind that the airline doesn’t have to do this, so becoming indignant won’t do anything for your cause. Try out a complaint sandwich here. Sandwich your complaint/request between two positive statements to motivate the person to help you.


Here’s what you can say: “I am a frequent flier and a loyal customer on this airline. I am late, I missed the flight, and I need to get on the next one. I really want to continue being a loyal customer, so I would appreciate it if you could help get me on the next flight.”

Sounds a lot different than yelling and screaming, doesn’t it?

This is also one of those situations where social media is your best friend. Most airlines these days have an entire staff dedicated to responding to Tweets. Again, be very specific about what you want.

Bad Example: 


Good Example: 


Why does this work? It is short, sweet, and to the point. You have given the airline a way to  actually help you. What doesn’t work—insulting the company.

A restaurant makes you wait even though you have a reservation: This is a good time to engage in a negotiation. Use their inefficiency to ask for a discount, a free dessert, or free drinks. Remember to stay positive and assess the situation. If it looks like you can’t get a table right away, then try to get the most out of it.

You are overcharged at a hotel: Documentation is important. Always have all of your reservation docs at the ready, printed out or on your smartphone. “Have patience and be polite,” Winch says. “When we are frustrated about money we will, on average, tell twelve to sixteen people about the problem, getting aggravated anew each time.” Immediately request to speak to a manager. Stay calm and lay out the case for why you believe you were overcharged. It is in a hotel’s best interest to make you happy. 

So what have we learned? Stay calm, know what you want, and above all, don’t be a jerk. Remember: people in the service industry want to help you. Let them help you.