Saturday 11 June 2016

How to complain (again)

Things go wrong. Every store, every restaurant, every supplier of everything will sometimes make mistakes. That’s because companies aren’t staffed by robots. The owners, management and the employees are all human beings and human beings aren’t perfect. We’re flawed, imperfect creatures who occasionally screw things up. Admittedly some of us more than others, but none of us is immune from making mistakes.

Here’s a warning for you. Whoever you are, however senior or junior, if I ever interview you for a job, either myself or for a client, I’ll ask you two specific questions. The first is easy. What has been your greatest professional success? Every one can answer that question easily but rest assured I won’t necessarily believe you. I’m also not that interested in what you have to say because I’ll be building up to the question that matters most to me. What has been your greatest professional failure?

Some people have replied by saying they’ve never had a failure. If they do the interview often ends very quickly and I’ll politely escort them from the building and wish them a happy life, knowing I’ll likely never see them again. That’s because anyone who claims never to have had a failure is either lying, stupid or is a sociopath. I certainly don’t want to work with any of those types (and I have, trust me, I know how damaging they can be).

What I want to hear is what people learned from their mistakes and how they have ensured the mistakes don’t repeat themselves. Wisdom comes from your mistakes, not your successes.

That goes for companies as well as individuals.

Companies make mistakes and when they happen it’s up to both parties, the company and the customer to help fix the problem. No, it’s not just the company’s job to fix the problem, it yours as well. Even though you were perhaps the one wronged, you have an obligation to help the company fix the problem to your satisfaction. That’s also the best way to help yourself.

Here are some tips, based on 12 years of helping people fix problems.

Write stuff down. As soon as you possibly can after a problem happens, find a way to write down the exact circumstances. Do it now, not later. Type a note on your laptop, tablet or smartphone or just SMS yourself or your partner the basic facts, the dates and times, people’s names, phone numbers and email addresses.

Get the names and contact details of as many witnesses as possible. If someone was standing behind you in the queue when the server was rude to you get their details.

It’s incredibly hard for you, us or anyone else to help you fix a problem if you’ve forgotten the basic details. It’s also incredibly important because you know what? You can’t trust your memory. Despite what many people think, your memory isn’t like a DVD or video tape that records everything perfectly. Your brain reconstructs the story every time you try to remember an event from the past and every time that reconstruction will be slightly different. After a while you’ll have a very inaccurate story replayed to you. Facts written down from just after the event will be much more reliable.

Then send those facts to a friend or relative. Give them a photocopy or better still email them the story.

Perhaps the most important piece of advice I can give is to remain calm. However badly you feel, take a slow, deep breath, walk around for a few minutes and calm down. I promise you that if you express your complaint in a calm, measured, reasonable manner your chance of getting a solution will be much, much better than if you go in all gun blazing. The reasonable complainant will probably even be thanked for his or her complaint. The shouting, rude ones will get the same treatment a Managing Director I know well is about to give the customer who stormed into her office shouting and swearing having already abused her receptionist and another customer. “Here’s your contact with us, torn in half and that gap in the wall over there is the door. Use it now.”

That MD is well-known for being the nicest of people and a creative problem-solver. But not when you shout at her staff. Then she bites.

Don’t forget that however nice you might be, you are free to complain (politely and calmly) in the way that suits you best.

Feel free, for instance, to completely ignore a company’s official complaints procedure. I don’t care how much money they spent developing the policy, if it doesn’t suit you, ignore it. Instead use the Consumer Watchdog Three Step Consumer Complaints Procedure.

Step 1. Complain to the person who offended you. Whether it was the teller who short-changed you, the surly waiter or the vanishing bank teller, that person is the person to whom you should first complain. If they refuse to accept your complaint or don’t show suitable humility and contrition, go to Step 2.

Step 2. Complain to the most senior person in the building. Their title will be something like “Branch Manager”, “Hospital Manager” or “Restaurant Manager”. Don’t bother with supervisors, administrators or team leaders, only the most senior person will do. If they don’t fix the problem, go to Step 3.

Step 3. Complain to the most senior person in the entire organization. Their job title will be either “Managing Director” or “Chief Executive Officer”. In special cases you might accept people with titles like “Country Manager” or “Regional Manager” but it must be someone who has the capacity to frighten the person who originally offended you.

Some of you will say that companies have complaints policies and that customers must follow them. I say why? Why should I be forced to follow a procedure that was written for your convenience, not mine? Who actually pays your salary? Forget your policies and procedures, I’m the one who pays for things and I am therefore the one who decides who I complain to.

So be reasonable, calm and back up your complaint with the facts you recorded. Trust me, it’ll work.

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