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Learnig to Complain

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Business Spotlight - epaper ⋅ Ausgabe 12/2021 vom 24.11.2021


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Complaining: there are better ways

If you do complain, decide what solution would satisfy you

It’s never easy to complain. In our personal lives, many of us simply suffer poor service in silence and avoid using that service again. But in business, we have to complain: when deliveries are late, bills are not paid or software doesn’t do what it should. The danger is that some of us have to work ourselves up in order to complain. And our complaint is then made as an angry, personal attack.

This can be exaggerated when working in a second language. Language skills may function perfectly when relationships are positive and work progresses smoothly. But in difficult, negative situations, words may fail us and emotions take over.

Let’s look at a step-by-step process that helps you to ensure that your complaint is dealt with effectively.

1. Know ...

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... what you want to achieve

Before you complain, decide whether the complaint is worth making. Perhaps the problem is simply a minor glitch and complaining would unnecessarily damage a business relationship.

If you do go ahead, first, decide what solution would satisfy you. If the person

receiving the complaint understands exactly what you expect, your complaint is easier for them to deal with. For example, if all you want is an apology, say so. Or maybe you want a refund on faulty goods or a replacement at a reduced cost.

Next, state your complaint very clearly — either in writing, on the phone or in person. In many cases, it is best to complain in writing. You then have a formal record of the complaint, and it allows you to include back-up evidence.

2. Be calm

Your complaint is more likely to be dealt with in a positive way if you use the right tone. When you complain in writing, write in a formal, polite and matter-of-fact way. If you are on the phone or speaking personally, stay calm. Speak a little more slowly than usual and try not to raise your voice or let any anger show.

People put up defences when confronted by someone who is obviously angry. This may prevent them from taking positive action to help you. Staying calm means that it is easier for you to think clearly and keep control of the situation.

3. Be descriptive

Give a clear description of the situation. Describe the context of your complaint. State the facts clearly and concisely, but give all the necessary details. Include, for example, timelines, quantities, prices and a clear description of what went wrong.

If you are writing, provide evidence to back up your statements. This might well include photographic evidence. Relevant, wellexplained facts make your complaint more substantial and more authoritative.

At the same time, avoid generalizations. Try not to make statements beginning with the words, “You always…” or “You never…”. Such generalizations can damage a relationship. So, keep the tone of your complaint as neutral as possible.

4. Be specific

Talk or write about the “here and now”. Your complaint should deal with the specific problem. This allows you to be concise. Long, complicated explanations may simply confuse the person you are complaining to. They can make your main message unclear and prevent the person receiving your complaint from acting in the way you want.

In a written complaint, have just one clear message in each paragraph. Keep your sentences short and use bullet points.

5. Be realistic

Your complaint should lead to a positive change in the situation that is causing you problems. Any suggestions for change that you make should be realistic and practical.

In business, most complaints are based on clear contractual agreements. The contract usually specifies exactly what is expected of the parties involved. Your complaint should, therefore, be based on these clearly defined expectations and commitments.

Complaining about staff behaviour is trickier, as you often do not have evidence of what happened. Then it is important to describe exactly what happened from your perspective, how you felt about it and what you expect to happen in the future.

6. Be positive

It is much easier to digest a complaint if some positive feedback is also included. If you can, discuss how well things have worked in the past and how any problems have been successfully dealt with. And, if this is the case, talk about how well things are working presently, except for the case in question.

Never apologize for complaining. When you complain, you are doing your business partner a service. Therefore, pitch the complaint as a learning experience. Your constructive approach will allow them to look carefully at what they are doing wrong and to make the necessary adjustments to prevent it from happening again.

7. Be persistent

Set a deadline for when you expect to get a response. If this deadline is not met, be persistent. Follow up your complaint immediately by saying how you intend to take the matter further. Usually this means escalating the complaint to a higher level in your business partner’s organization. As a last resort, you might need to get help from your legal department.

KEN TAYLOR is a communication consultant and personal coach. He is the author of Fifty Ways to Improve Your Business English (lulu.com). Contact: skills@business-spotlight.de


What words do you need when making a complaint? Start a mind map of the different elements involved in complaining. Write down expressions you can use and add the vocabulary that you will need.