The biggest complaint mistake you’ll ever make

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By Christopher Elliott

If you have a gripe with a company — and let’s face it, at some point, everyone has a gripe with a company — here’s a cautionary tale about complaining.

It comes to us by way of Tracey Phillips. She had a problem with a hotel’s change policy. Specifically, every time she changed the date of her stay, the hotel insisted on charging her a fee, which is an increasingly common problem.

Instead of the grassroots approach to problem-solving, which I always recommend — in other words, starting with a real-time resolution at the lowest level, and working your way up — Tracey went straight to the top. She wrote an impassioned letter to the CEO, asking for a one-time exception to the hotel’s rules.

And, no surprise, she hasn’t received a response yet.

Executive escalation

Phillips’ instincts are understandable. She may have endured a series of “nos” from call center employees or front-desk workers before she finally gave up and fired off a letter to the company’s top executive. (Related: My bed from Ashley Furniture is missing a few parts. What should I do?)

There are no authoritative surveys on the average response rate for a chief executive, but my experience as a consumer advocate tells me it’s very low, probably less than 1 percent. Sure, a handful of caring CEOs take the time to respond and fix the problem, but they’re few and far between.

Generally, the best you can hope for is that the executive will ask an assistant to forward your emails or letters back to the customer-service department, where they will generate yet another form response. At worst, the complaint will go into the old circular file, and you’ll never hear from the company again. (Say these five things if you want your complaint to fail.)

So who do you complain to?

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Start at the bottom

Problems with any business are best resolved in real-time with an employee. Whether you’re dealing with a hotel or a cable TV company, the person in front of you now is your first stop on the complaint train. Employees are often empowered to fix a problem right away. I just heard from a former car rental company employee who admitted that his company integrates these fixes, which can range from a 10 percent discount to a comped car rental, into employee training.

Work your way up, slowly

A polite, in-person appeal to a manager can work wonders to fix any customer grievance, because these supervisors often have even more ways to fix your problem. They can override a reservations system, match a price and even zero out your bill you’re unhappy. But you don’t get if you don’t ask. Here, of course, politeness is incredibly important. Some of my misguided colleagues also like to say, “You don’t get if you don’t ask” — but what they really mean is: “If I don’t have my way, I’m going to stomp my feet and flash my platinum card until you give up.” That’s not only rude, but it’s also bad for everyone, because it further deteriorates the relationship between companies and their customers. (Related: They canceled my favorite cable networks – do they owe me?)

The pen is mightier

At some point, when you’ve walked out the front door, you’ll have to switch to the written word. After you’ve exhausted the opportunities for a real-time resolution, you’ll want to start a reliable paper trail, which usually begins with an email sent through the company’s website. This may seem like a waste of time, but it isn’t. Remember, an email thread can be forwarded to a supervisor after you receive a form denial to your complaint. A promise by phone? There’s no proof your call was ever made. I list the names and email addresses of most mid-level customer service VPs on my consumer advocacy website.

When all else fails, appeal to the CEO

Ever wonder which appeals to a top executive are successful? Well, other than your good manners and brevity, which count for a lot, it’s the strength of your case. If you can prove that you’ve gone through the process of complaining in person and in writing, and have worked your way up the chain, then you’re far likelier to get a positive resolution. Then — and only then — should you take your grievance all the way to the top. Remember that the “no” you get from the top might be the company’s final answer, so don’t ask until you’ve exhausted all other avenues. (Here’s how to contact the CEO directly.)

After Phillips contacted me, she decided to bump her complaint a few levels down. Good call. She’s still waiting to hear back from the hotel.

I’m hoping for the best.

Have you ever fixed a problem by complaining to the CEO?

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Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is the founder of Elliott Advocacy, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that empowers consumers to solve their problems and helps those who can't. He's the author of numerous books on consumer advocacy and writes three nationally syndicated columns. He also publishes the Elliott Report, a news site for consumers, and Elliott Confidential, a critically acclaimed newsletter about customer service. If you have a consumer problem you can't solve, contact him directly through his advocacy website. You can also follow him on X, Facebook, and LinkedIn, or sign up for his daily newsletter. He is based in São Paulo.

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