How To Complain About Bad Service And Negotiate Effectively

Libby Kane

When something doesn’t go our way (at, say, a restaurant, or with our cell phone plan, or at a store), we don’t want to be rude, but we also don’t want to be pushovers. Whether we’re protesting unfair credit card fees or trying to return a t-shirt that spontaneously developed a hole between the store and our home, it’s important that we master the art of socially-acceptable yet effective complaining.

The book Women Don’t Ask shows that women negotiate about half as frequently as men. From salaries to cell phone bills, readers tell us that they don’t stand up for what they deserve because they’re worried about what other people will think. A complaint shouldn’t be your way to lash out—it’s a simple negotiation.

These are the 5 things you need to know in order to be an effective negotiator:

1. Appeal On A Personal Level

Work/life success coach Marilyn Suttle calls it “asking for a champion.” Set your service providers up to feel great about themselves for helping you by letting them know how happy you’ll be to receive their help. She recommends phrases like: “I need a hero to help me out of this jam,” “I have a feeling you’re about to make my day,” and, “You seem like someone who can really make a difference for me.”

2. Think Of It As A Critique Rather Than A Reprimand

Narrow your problem down to something that can be fixed. Whenever possible, state your problem in terms of what you want, rather than what you don’t have. For example: “I really need my package to arrive by tomorrow, but the representative told me it hasn’t been shipped yet—even though it was supposed to go out three days ago. Is there anything you can do for me?” Compare that to: “Your shipping is too slow!”


3. Stay Calm And Polite

Never, ever, ever be outright rude, since that just inspires spite, which almost never gets you what you need. Instead, use “controlled, strategic anger,” says Barry Maher, motivational speaker and author. It’s “particularly effective when coming from someone who, up to that point, has been nice.” If you haven’t slyly mentioned your leverage—like withdrawing your business or reporting someone to a superior—while being nice, this is the time to do so, in a calm but forceful manner.

4. Know What You Want

Always keep your goal in sight. If a clothing store sent you the wrong color sweater, your goal is to get the correct color. Sandra Lamb, etiquette expert and author, reminds us: “Your expectation should be to be made whole. Not to cash in or try for a bonus pay-off.”  This means that, if the barista messes up your coffee order, you have the right to a new coffee—just don’t start asking for a new coffee plus four doughnuts. Having a specific goal will also help you know when to hold your ground and when to back down.

5. Speak To Someone With Influence

Don’t shoot the messenger!  When the AT&T customer service rep tells you that he doesn’t have the authority to change your bill, then don’t yell at him. Recognize that you need to speak with the manager. Don’t belittle the person you’re speaking to when asking for the manager; if your current representative tells you that she doesn’t have the power to help you, ask politely for the person who does.

Whatever your tack, remember that it’s not wrong to insist on something you deserve—just make sure to do it constructively.

Posted in: , ,
  • Raanah

    My mother seems to think that every store is a Bazaar in Iran and that she can negotiate the prices down- and she usually does! She's very sweet and personable (like tip number 1) and very tiny so I think that's how she does it. I also agree with tip 4. People are definitely willing to own up to their mistakes and change them for you for free, but asking for a correction and a bonus gift is too much.

    • melissamarieharrison

      That's hilarious! My friend has a tiny Greek mother who is just like that. We can definitely learn something from women like that!

  • Hansoul Kim

    From one strategic “complainer” to another, my best advice, in addition to the fantastic list above, is to do a bit of homework before heading to 'battle.' It has been my experience that oftentimes, the rep or whomever is on the other end of the conversation (phone, in person) are savvy to typical complaints and have certain protocol for “diffusing” the situation — not always to your benefit (or fair gain). Do your homework, know what other experiences have been like, what the actual rules or policies are, and speak knowledgeably. Let them know that you're not a clueless chick – you're a LearnVest reader and very smart. Go get 'em!

  • JackieAU5

    I have an ongoing strong dislike for cable companies, so I sporadically call up to challenge my bill and see what free stuff I can get. Last week I called up, asked about my bill line-by-line and after it was apparent there was nothing I could do, I simply asked if there were any specials going on and “what can you do for me?” Apparently, my cable company was offering free Showtime for 6 months…and there are 17 channels of Showtime! Although my bill didn't get minimized, I'm proud of getitng my free Showtime and I will still continue to call up to see what else I can get.

    • Allison Kade

      Jackie, I just laughed out loud and shared this with my coworker (@LaurenLyonsCole, our financial planner on staff)! I think this is really funny!

      • JackieAU5

        Thanks! I think everyone needs to do this! Cable prices are outragous.

    • Alexa

      Jackie, this is genius. I am going to do this right away.

  • melissamarieharrison

    These tips are great. I typically despise talking to customer service reps (or anyone along those lines) over the phone (I tend to get intimidated easily), but I think putting these ideas into action will boost my confidence!

  • Fiona

    Great tips! I need to get better at this…if something goes really wrong I'll complain, but I'm often nervous to really hold my ground. My boyfriend's mom is great at this, though…once our locked hotel room got robbed and she convinced the hotel to not only reimburse us for everything that was stolen (their original offer was about $500 even though we had a computer, camera, etc stolen!), but to also give us vouchers for 2 nights free. Normally I agree that you shouldn't try to get a “bonus,” but in this case a hotel employee had actually let the thief into the room.

  • Allison Kade

    No joke–I JUST negotiated with my credit card company because there was an issue with my statement. As I did so, I was thinking about today's Daily!

  • Lambbast

    To complain effectively:
    1. Take a moment to calm down if you are upset.
    2. Start your complaint on a reasonable and positive note. In an restaurant when the chicken isn't done, for example, you could start with the fact that “the sauce is excellent, but the chicken is undercooked. May I have this cooked a bit more, please?” If you're making a complaint to a company you've done business with for a long period of time, you might mention that first. “I'm a long-time customer of..” This helps align the person to whom you are complaining with you, and is helpful in convincing them to try to make things right.
    3. Name your complaint clearly and concisely (and positively), stating your expectation that the person to whom you are complaining wants to make things right.
    4. Always remember to be reasonable. Your expectation should be to be made whole. Not to cash in, or try for a bonus pay-off.
    5. You might be in a position to say something about your future relationship with the organization. If so, you might end with that.
    Sandra Lamb, author of How to Write It;

  • Steve Wilson

    If you liked the comments from author, speaker, Barry Maher, cited here visit for more on getting what you want, creating complaining and many other topics.

  • Jane

    This was very helpful. Thank you for the tips!

  • Madchess

    I have created a website to vent your anger. It is called REDCARDIT