Retail Ladyguide: How to Complain Without Being a Jerk

There are about a zillion articles out there that try to tell you, the consumer, how to effectively complain when you’re dissatisfied with something in a retail or service context. I’m someone who has been the drone on the other side of the counter for many, many years, and I’ve read many of those articles to see what sort of information is being suggested to the general public. And I have to say, almost every single one of those articles pisses me off. Most of them advocate customers being loud, aggressive, rude assholes to retail employees until the customer gets what they want because the employee or store wants them to shut up and go away. Since I’ve been that employee more than I’ve been the customer, I’d like to offer a more realistic guide to how to effectively complain and still maintain your integrity as a human being.

Make sure your complaint is reasonable. Are you trying to replace a piece of merchandise because the item is defective, or are you trying to obtain a free replacement because you/your dog/your child dropped the piece of expensive electronic equipment on the floor/stepped on it/sent it through the washing machine? I assure you, store employees can tell the difference, and while it’s certainly nice of a company to replace an item that was ruined due to the customer’s actions, it’s absolutely not their responsibility.

Are there rules, and are you following them? All stores have return policies. All coupons have expiration dates or exclusions. If you’re complaining because you just don’t like the fact that the rules apply to you, well, you may just have to accept that you need to follow the same rules as everyone else. Once again, it’s great if the store or restaurant bends the rules for you, but they don’t have to, and they may not be able to.

Begin the interaction in a calm, reasonable way. Don’t start off angry. Employees are people. I can tell you, from years and years of experience, that the amount of help I’m willing to give a customer with a complaint is almost entirely dependent on how they start the interaction. Don’t get me wrong, I follow the rules completely and entirely for each and every customer, as do most, if not all, retail employees, but if you begin the conversation politely and calmly, explain your complaint clearly and concisely, and are not yelling, screaming, swearing, or throwing things (yeah, that’s a true story), I can almost guarantee that the employee you’re dealing with will be more willing to go above and beyond for you. It’ll also make the whole interaction much less stressful for both of you.

While you’re at it, avoid these phrases:

“I’m a very good customer.” Here’s the thing. Everyone thinks they’re a very good customer. And there are lots of very good customers. But people who pull out this line tend to be the sort who return more than they buy, who are rude to the employees, and who are generally problematic.

“I’ll have your job for this.” Threatening to get someone fired because you aren’t getting what you want not only doesn’t help you achieve your desired result, but it makes you a pretty horrible human being.

“I’m never shopping here again.” I’m just going to go ahead and reveal one of the great retail secrets: When you say, “I’m never shopping here again,” any employee within earshot is thinking, “Good riddance.” Once again, there’s a certain kind of shopper who feels the need to make this proclamation, and it’s not a kind that anyone will miss.

“Do you know who I am?” Yes. You’re a rude jerk who is making my life extremely unpleasant.

Stick to the issue. Don’t use your complaint as a springboard for every little thing that has ever annoyed you. If your issue is that a sale item was rung up at the wrong price, or that the shirt you bought has a hole in it from where the security tag was removed, focus on that. Going off on a rant about how high the prices are and how no one cares about customer service and how there are never enough registers open just obscures the issue and makes you seem unreasonable.

Treat the employee as a human being. I wish that this didn’t have to be spelled out, but it does. I have two degrees and I work in customer service. I love to read. I have a family and friends. I am not a lesser life form. I am not a servant, an idiot, or a punching bag. Treat me like a person, and this whole thing will be much more civilized. Put yourself in the employee’s place and think of how you’d like to be treated.

Escalate appropriately. It’s very important to know that the first person you talk to may not be able to do what you want. They have rules they have to follow, and breaking them may put their job in jeopardy. If they can’t give you your desired result, demanding to speak to their manager is kind of a crappy way to escalate. Back to the human being thing, saying something along the lines of, “I understand you need to follow your policy about this. Is there a manager or owner I can speak to?” is a far more polite way to move up the food chain. And thanking the employee for their help in front of the manager is always appreciated. If your issue is still not resolved, or if the manager is unable to override corporate policy (which is very often the case), you may need to go to corporate directly. Call the company’s customer service number. While explaining the situation, please keep in mind all of the above steps. The person answering the phone is a person, too.

If you’re still unable to get a satisfactory resolution, go to the top. The CEO of a company is generally not thrilled to have a customer complaint letter (and letters do work better than email) come across his or her desk, and although the top dog may not deal with it directly, they will most likely make the appropriate calls so it gets dealt with. In your letter, if applicable, please mention that the store-level employees were as helpful as they could be, but that due to policy, they were unable to give you what you were asking for.

To recap: Be polite. State your complaint clearly and concisely. Don’t be a raving lunatic. Don’t yell or throw things. Recognize that you are dealing with fellow human beings. And if you do get the result you were looking for, thanking the employee is always a nice touch.

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[E] Rachel

I punctuate sentences with Oxford commas, and I punctuate disagreements with changesocks. Proud curmudgeon. Get off my lawn.

9 thoughts on “Retail Ladyguide: How to Complain Without Being a Jerk”

  1. I have a dirty secret to admit: despite being a retail veteran myself, I’ve gotten indignant and angry at customer service people–but it was tempered with lots of “I know this isn’t your jurisdiction and you can’t do anything about it but I need to vent about this a little because I’m frustrated and you sent my something from Old Navy’s baby selection instead of the limited-edition item I wanted and I’m pissed because now it’s not available anymore!” I was really angry about that, because I was actually looking forward to wearing that sweater and instead I was given a baby’s sweater. And returning it was an absolute nightmare, despite them assuring me that it was possible to do so at a Gap. I did end up getting a discount, however. (Asking for something reasonable always is useful.)

    A few weeks ago when we were at one of our favorite restaurants we had really bad service (I mean, REALLY bad service. We had reservations at 8, didn’t get seated until 8:45, and didn’t get our entrees until 10:15) and I didn’t take it out on the waitress, but I asked to talk to the manager, spoke rationally (a miracle given that I had had some drinks on a mostly empty stomach) and got a hefty discount on dinner, which is all I wanted. The waitress still got a nice tip because it was never her fault.

    Wholly cosign on being kind, direct and precise on what you want–it will do wonders. Only enlist what Consumerist calls the EECB (executive email carpet bomb) when it’s really egregious, because otherwise it loses its power.

  2. I think some of you have heard this story. I had a lady trying to exchange some $68 pants she bought during a half-off promo for $34… for another pair of $68 pants. She kept repeating that “the value” of the pants she bought was $68, so she should obviously be able to exchange them for another pair of $68 pants, right?

    She was a nightmare. She was rude and irate that she couldn’t get the more expensive pants. She threatened to cancel her membership if she wasn’t given the $34. For starters, our computer doesn’t even do that. Secondly, you’re asking for a min. wage employee to steal from the drawer and give you $34 because you want it? WHAT?!?

    In the end, she raised enough hell to get what she wanted at a $34 loss to the store, which I was vehemently against. Sometimes, the customer is wrong. And you can’t give in to people’s demands simply because they are throwing a temper tantrum. That’s like retail terrorism.

  3. Sorry for the comment mishap. Commenting via phone can be tricky.

    Anyway: You thinks she’s “talking to me about my attitude/why I won’t help the customer.” Really, the manager is telling me that you, the customer, are unreasonable. Courtesy goes so far in retail. If someone is polite but the request breaks policy, I’ll be more likely to try to bend the rules. My managers are the same way.

    Escalate appropriately is great advice. Again, I have no authority or pull, especially if you’re being rude. There is no point in going off on me when I can’t do anything. Don’t be afraid to ask for the manager if you’d like to start moving up the chain. The managers I’ve had would rather come and explain policy to the customer themself than have a customer have a bad experience with the cashier and give othed customers a bad vibe.

  4. Excellent! I’ve worked in a department store and a small grocery store.

    So many customers don’t understand that my job is not worth their complaint. If I can fix it, I will. If it’s unreasonable or you’re rude, I’ll call the manager and let her know exactly what you said. Exactly. And I’ve never had the manager disagree with me. You think she’s “talking to

  5. This is excellent advice. I worked as a cashier in a department store at the end of high school and beginning of college, and people can be so rude and so shitty for no reason. In relation to “escalate appropriately,” make sure that you’re bringing the problem to someone who can actually do something about it – I used to have people ramble and rant about returns or something that happened at another store, when only the customer service desk could do returns and obviously I can’t do anything about the service you got at a different store. And if you don’t know who to talk to about it, just ask.

    Something else that I always do now if I’m ever complaining about something, especially if I think it’s possible that my irritation may creep in, is say, “I know this is not your fault and it’s not you that I’m irritated with.” (Only if that’s true, obviously.) Having been on the receiving end of very grouchy and unnecessarily spiteful complaints, I always really appreciated when a customer would acknowledge that they knew it wasn’t me personally who wronged them.

  6. I especially like the advice about going upchain. Anyone who has ever worked a customer service job can tell when the employee is sticking to a script because they have to or they WILL get fired. Yelling, screaming, and threatening will not get you around this fact. Demanding to see the manager is a tactic to humiliate. Asking politely to speak to someone who may have the power to override policy is showing understanding of the situation.

  7. Thank you for such a wonderful list! This is something that is important to me. I work the returns counter for a major Canadian retailer and I’ve suffered through an insane amount of rudeness since starting. A man who tried to return a pair of sunglasses without a receipt threatened to get me fired; it just made other customers call him an asshole to his face. A lady started insulting me in French, and I shut her up by telling her I could understand her. Another lady almost cut my face open with a pair of skates. Some customers have been permanently banned from the store because they were abusing employees.

    Luckily I also deal with some wonderful customers who follow many of these rules. They understand that I can’t always help them, they politely ask for a manager, and then they solve the problem. It feels wonderful to help a customer and have them thank you profusely, even if it does take a while to achieve the desired result. It’s understandable to be upset at a situation, but remaining calm and polite can mean getting the best service the employee can offer.

    1. You had someone try to cut you with a skate? Holy crap. I’ve had all sorts of things thrown at me, been called every name in the book, but I think you win for worst customer interaction EVER. One of my favorite stories involves a customer threatening to follow me out to my car and beat me up . . . and the next person in line was a city cop who was a regular customer. People are not smart sometimes.

  8. Oh well said. I worked in retail during high school, and many people (typically middle aged folk in suits who would get louder and stand closer and threaten to talk to my boss) thought they could bully me because I was really young. A little bit of politeness and I was going to do everything in my power to help a customer. But I was reduced to tears more than once by people berating me loudly, questioning my work ethic, and even calling me names. It was not worth the almost-minimum wage I was being paid.

    This might seem like a bizarre thing to point out, but retail employees are not a hive mind. Don’t get upset if you have to explain your situation multiple times for multiple people. (Once when our store was being remodeled, it took five people to find some wire. By the time I came along, the customer was screaming at me).

    Sometimes it takes a bit of time and patience to get the outcome you want.

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