Got a complaint? Never say these 5 words

Orna Lenchner did it.

She emailed a while back, claiming she’d contacted a United Airlines executive — someone very high up in the “costumer care” department.

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Costumer care? Yes.

Lenchner wanted to know why United wasn’t helping her, and I suspect I know why. There is no “costumer care” department.

You’d be shocked at how many readers make that obvious typographical error — “costumer” instead of “customer” — and yes, it does affect the outcome. Spelling the name of the department counts.

So when I think about the five words you shouldn’t use when you’re trying to fix a customer-service dispute, that one ranks the highest: using the wrong word. Getting the name of the company wrong: Untied instead of United. Delta Airlines instead of Delta Air Lines.

Maybe you will disagree. I know travel bloggers who don’t bother to copyedit their own work and make colossal and embarrassing errors; then they ask why I never quote them in my stories. (Because they have no credibility, perhaps?)

But there are other words you shouldn’t use. For example:

Stewardess, waitress, bellboy.

Maybe that’s what you used to call them, but they have no place in the 21st century unless they’re in a costumer drama. I mean, costume drama. Seriously, if you want the company to immediately side with the employee in a dispute, just refer to one of them as a steward. Go on, I can stay here and wait for the result.

F**k that!

Four letter words may accurately express how you feel at the time you’re writing the letter, but they never help your case. I was just reviewing a complaint from 2015 that involved several profanities, including multiple F-bomb drops. I won’t name names. Can you guess how it turned out? That’s right, it went absolutely nowhere. Complaints with salty language get tossed into the recycler.

It was a dark and stormy night.

Can anything be worse than profanity? Maybe. The novel-length complaint — too many words — can easily doom an otherwise reasonable complaint to the “no” file. And that’s too bad, because we are taught to include lots of details in school and at work, and making our complaints succinct seems so out of character. But remember, if you’re complaining about an incident, chances are the company already has a file on it. If they need specifics, they’ll ask. Keep. It. Short.

You ruined everything.

Here are the most difficult words to omit from your complaint, but trust me, you don’t want them. Emotion, superlative, drama — all of them are the enemy of resolution. The most common variety in my line of work is: “This experience ruined my vacation.” I remember seeing it on a recent cruise case where the staff accused a passenger’s daughter of bringing drugs on board. The cruise line’s “crime”? Searching the room for contraband. How do you even compensate a passenger for something like that?

Words are important when you’re trying to solve a customer service problem. You have to choose the correct words, say it politely and succinctly and with as little emotion as possible. Otherwise, you’re just asking for your case to be denied — or ignored.

Which words are the worst to use in a complaint

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31 thoughts on “Got a complaint? Never say these 5 words

    1. I agree. Threatening legal action would be cause to file the complaint away and wait for the complaint (legal) to be filed & served.

    2. threatening legal or credit card action (doing those things could be a good idea, tho mentioning them isn’t) would rank way above almost anything other than actual profanity(that is, a George Carlin word). Minor spelling errors or using outdated terms is more likely to draw a chuckle from the customer service rep than it is of getting a negative reaction.

    know they received it — do they reply?

  2. “Maybe that’s what you used to call them, but they have no place in the 21st century unless they’re in a costumer drama. ”

    Sooooo… what do you call them? Sure, ‘flight attendant’ works for one, but you don’t refer to a single person as “wait staff’ (that implies plural), and I seriously have no clue what else you call a bellboy than ‘bellboy’. You must have clear job titles to distinguish the person you’re complaining about, especially if you don’t have that individual’s name.

    1. And what am I “supposed” to call the steward . . . a dining car supervisor?! This is why so many Americans despise “politically correct” speech. I will continue to depend on the policemen to protect me, the firemen to extinguish any flames, the mailman to deliver, the steward(ess) to direct me to a table, and a waiter(ress) to bring my dinner.

  3. Profanities don’t work in any situation, complaint or otherwise. The minute I hear profanities come from a persons’ mouth is usually the moment I turn my hearing off.

  4. I am curious as to how your readers would respond to my situation. After 2 months & 7 emails, & getting nowhere with my polite request ( a quite common one ) I finally (with some frustration) said im my last email that I preferred not to take this matter to a 3rd party (Elliott) or social media, & would prefer to resolve it in a fair & honourable manner. Did I handle this in a way that may get me my desired result ??

      1. Gee, I never would have thought of filing a small claims issue in court………………….with a hotel in the UK. May cost me much more than my problem is ? Nah !!

    1. I think you did. The question is if it reached the right person. Do the forums have an email address chain of command for the company you are having problems with?

      1. Thank you for responding. I believe that I was emailing the owner of the establishment in question & customer service with another business that is involved. I May be able to work up the ladder with the other business. Still waiting for a ‘final’ answer before I proceed further.

      1. Thank you for responding. Yes, I was very specific as to what I thought would be a fair result for all involved, but they were playing hardball.

  5. There are many ordinary complainers that are not good writers of succinct and effective complaints. There should thus be a recommendation to have someone edit a complaint before it is sent.

    For that matter, maybe there should be another part of the forums here where a potential complainer could have a regular for this site edit the complaint before it is filed.


    Put yourself in the shoes of the customer service agent – the complaint should be short, easy to follow, relevant, and offer some desired resolution. When you use profanity, write a novel, complain about every little inconvenience, or threaten, it begins to seem like you are complaining to complain rather than highlight a truly out of the ordinary experience that you want rectified as a good customer.

  7. Also, bait and switch, they lied, don’t you know I’m a diamond/platinum/million miler, adding extraneous info about how rude a particular agent was and mentioning that an agent or call center was based in a foreign country (as if US agents don’t mess up too).
    I kind of like the costumer service one. It makes me think of agents dressed up for halloween. At least it’s not mean-spirited.

  8. You’d think customer relations would understand a bit about frustration. A lot of what is written depends on where you are on the frustration scale. If you’ve worked on something for months, only have to deal with even more inept people, your frustration level is very high. Even more so when the problem and solution appear to be simple. I still remain calm, but a lot of people don’t. I can understand them.

    I had to laugh at costumer. I tend to notice spell check has a mind of its own. You can proofread something five times and see no problems. However, right after sending, you note a glaring mistake.

    1. But you have to remember the person you are writing to did not cause your problem. What’s the point cursing or being nasty to them?

  9. People can be irate when they feel they’ve been wronged. My advice is to draft a letter, then wait a day or so to cool off and edit the letter so it’s more acceptable. The heat of the moment usually does not yield good results.

  10. Your advice is based on a noble attempt to help – but it also validates lack of “professionalism” of those in the customer service who are ticked off instead of making things right.
    Misspellings, “Emotion, superlative, drama — all of them are the enemy of resolution”. If this is the real cause – it tells volumes about the people who work in customer service departments. I guess selected morons are placed there for a reason.
    Sure – profanity has no place in normal human interactions. Only those raised as pajazzo, bullies and arrogant ignorants use them in their everyday speech.
    But customer service people who dismiss complaints based on what you wrote about are the deplorables. When is it that true raw emotions which are part of life have no place in complaint process.

    1. I disagree. If a customer wants help, they should make it as easy as possible for a company to help them. To the extent that a letter lands in front of someone with any flexibility in their workday, it’s not unprofessional to make a business decision to prioritize certain customers over others.

  11. And don’t forget “I’ll never do business with you again”.

    Why should the company help you if you aren’t going to do business with them again? They want to make amends for the issue. If you’ll never use them again, why are you even complaining?

  12. That was tough to answer! I do think profanity is the worst though. If resolution is the end result, there has to be respect from both sides and cuss words pretty much destroy that outcome, dag gone it (does that count?)! 😀

  13. Recently I dealt with Lowe’s corporate about an appliance purchase. Long story short, I mentioned using Social Media and I was immediately connected with a supervisor.

    After speaking with a supervisor (who sounded like she was 12 yrs old), I still did not get the assistance I needed from Lowe’s…but I did get their attention.

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