Complaining about a product or service is more than huffing and puffing and threatening to blow a company's house down. In fact, that's the last thing you should do if you want your beef resolved to your satisfaction.
Just ask Maria Smith.
About two years ago, she and her husband bought matching dishwashers, but one had defective parts.
"Ten days came and went, and I called," said Smith, president of the WordSmith Group in Dallas. "They said, 'It's going to be another week or so.' Then it got to be about Labor Day. That's when I found out that it was going to be Christmas until they got the parts."
She called the salesman who sold her the dishwashers. He tried to help her find the parts but was unsuccessful. He also said he couldn't find her an exact replacement dishwasher because it was a closeout item.
Smith found that unacceptable and said she contracted with the store to buy two matching, working dishwashers. When she tried to pursue the matter, the salesman gave her a cool reception.
"He made the mistake of acting like it wasn't his problem anymore," Smith said.
That was the last straw for Smith, who said she had been more than cooperative.
"I've been patient," she said. "I've been nice. I'm out of nice."
After talking with her credit-card company, she called the store back and told them they had until 5 p.m. that day to find the machine parts and install them or get her two matching, working dishwashers. If they didn't come through, she would pursue the matter through her credit-card company and get her money back.
That day, store officials told her they had found a matching, working dishwasher. "It was miraculous," Smith said.
Complaining about a product or service is as much an art as it is a matter of having all your receipts. In the end, it's about a relationship between you and the representative of a company.
In that context, it really is true that you catch more flies with honey than vinegar. So calm down before you air your complaint.
"You can be angry, but if you act angry, everybody gets angry," Smith said. "People get defensive, so they're not thinking about what they can do to help you and make it a win-win situation. They just want to win then."
State clearly and matter-of-factly what you want to happen to have the matter resolved to your satisfaction. But don't ask for the moon. Request a fair and reasonable solution that compensates you for your time and trouble.
Jennifer Wasserman of Plano, Texas, wrote to American Airlines Inc. some years ago after her flight from Dallas to New York was delayed because of bad weather, and she and other passengers had been cooped up in their plane for seven hours, partly because the airline had to bring in a fresh crew.
Wasserman, who was traveling in the coach section, said that when she asked for nuts, a flight attendant told her they were reserved for first-class passengers.
"They wouldn't offer any food or beverages, other than water," said Wasserman, a corporate communications specialist who recently became a full-time mother. "It was a big disaster."
She wrote American, calling its treatment of the passengers "egregious and unacceptable."
"I explained that not only was it poor foresight to not know that your crew would not be able to fly, but the attitude of the flight attendants was bad," Wasserman said. "I wanted some sort of voucher or ticket as compensation for the seven hours that I spent on a hot plane."
The airline sent her a ticket voucher and a letter saying it regretted that she was inconvenienced.
Fort Worth, Texas-based American Airlines considers complaints on an individual basis when it comes to deciding whether to award vouchers or upgrades, said spokeswoman Andrea Rader.
"We don't have a standard set of one-size-fits-all resolutions about every complaint," said Rader, who gives this advice: "Calmly state what your problem was, when it occurred and what we can do to help you make that right."
Be respectful when complaining.
Have all your facts in order, such as dates when the problem occurred and any product numbers. Keep important supporting documents such as receipts.
"The company will need all the information from the product and/or package any manufacturing coding information, serial numbers, in order to record and report the information properly," said Cathy Dial, chairman-elect of the Society of Consumer Affairs Professionals, which represents consumer affairs, customer service and call center managers at companies.
Lay out the information in a logical way and direct your complaint to the person who has the power to make things right. That may be a local manager, district manager or a company executive. Be clear about what you want the company to do.
Some companies, like Southwest Airlines, give employees in the field the power to resolve customer complaints on the spot.
Get the name of the customer service representative you are speaking with, and don't hesitate to take your issue to the next-highest level if you feel your request isn't getting the attention it deserves, the Society of Consumer Affairs Professionals advises.
Make it worthwhile for the company to resolve the situation. Define your value to the company by putting into numbers how much money you've spent with it and how much money you probably will spend in the future.
Don't threaten to never buy the product or service again, except as a last resort.
Remember, it's a relationship. If you end it, the company loses its incentive to make you happy.