Complain!!!!!I generally encourage people to lower their voices and think before they speak – perhaps to not speak at all – it makes for more reasoned communication.  But there is one area that I personally violate that rule – when things go wrong.  And when things go wrong, I encourage you to complain.

Let’s start with a simple question that will reveal the complexity of situations when things go wrong – How do you feel when something goes wrong?  Most people will tell you they feel terrible, but do they?  The truth is that you will likely feel terrible but only if you KNOW you have done something wrong.  Recently, my wife and I were traveling a different route to visit our grandchildren.  We were faithfully following the directions given by the Maps app on my iPhone when we discovered that the road was closed.  Up until that point, we were enjoying the scenery – the world was good.  But what do you do when your directions say to go straight and there’s no straight there?  The only thing to do was retrace our route and try something else – something I have had to do many times in my life.

Because I’ve experienced wrong directions before, the incident didn’t upset me all that much – I had experienced being wrong that way before.  I knew that there would be a delay and we would have to drive a different route on faith until the Maps app gave us a different route.  I felt some frustration and annoyance.

But consider that case of a sailor tasked to perform maintenance on a diesel engine.  Because of limited reading ability, he failed to properly follow the procedure and the result was several $100,000 in damage.  But how did he feel just before the engine was turned on?  He thought he had done everything required successfully.  He felt that he had done a good job.  But he hadn’t.  In this case, it led to the Navy simplifying their maintenance manuals to a lower read level.

But consider the usual response.  I read a column by a wife who realized she was abusing her husband because he bought 70/30 ground beef instead of 80/20.  The husband thought ground beef was ground beef and had fulfilled his wife’s request – but the wife just lit into him for making such a stupid mistake!

That’s a destructive response that creates fear, anger and destroys relationships.  Something that we never want but can’t seem to stop doing.

So, why do I suggest you complain when things go wrong?  Because it helps people and organizations to get things right.  But it only works if done in the right way.

For the person or organization, it’s an opportunity to learn, to improve, and keep or create a relationship.  For the person complaining, it’s an opportunity to get what you were supposed to get.  But the attitude on both sides needs to be focused achieving a positive result.

For the person or organization, you must start with the viewpoint that the complainer is helping you.  Yes, it’s likely not pleasant to be told that you screwed up, but it’s important to know when you do.  And the complainer is performing a service by letting you know.  The complainer is also giving you another chance to do right – the message is “You did me wrong, but I’m giving you a chance to make it right and prove that I was right to come to you in the first place!”  And when you do screw up, who doesn’t want a second chance?  So, you should:

  • Listen without prejudice – the complainer will not be at their best. Don’t judge the emotion.
  • Acknowledge the hurt – They feel they are the victim and they will be emotional. It’s cost them time, effort, money because they couldn’t do what they expected.  Let them know that you understand how they could feel, you could imagine yourself in their situation.  You don’t have to apologize because you don’t know all the facts – it may not be your fault!
  • Get the facts – Play Joe Friday – Just the facts, Madam! What were the expectations and what were they based on?  What actually happened?  What were the results?  Who was involved and what did they do?
  • Come to a common understanding – Perhaps the hardest part is to have everyone understand what happened and why it happened. But the basis for a successful resolution lies in a common understanding.  Without it, there is no way to a win-win situation.
  • Decide on an acceptable resolution – There are limits that can’t be passed in every situation, but usually you can come to an acceptable way of fixing the original problem. And fixing the original problem is the minimum – the customer ought to receive what they should have in the first place.  This may not be easy in many organizations that are not enlighten enough to understand that customer satisfaction and loyalty are worth any temporary loss.
  • Offer an atonement – This is often the hardest for any person or organization to do – because you must go beyond just saying you’re sorry – you must prove that you value the complainer. Give them something of value that brings them back to you so you have that third chance to prove that you were worth the loyalty.
  • Learn and improve – None of this is worth the effort if you don’t use the experience to improve your performance. Because if you screw up again, you usually don’t get a third chance.

For the complainer, you must start with the attitude that the screw up was a mistake – that no intention harm was meant.  People are fallible and we are merciful – we are willing to give a second chance.  So, you should:

  • Be calm – Getting emotional doesn’t help your case – initially. Later, dissolving in tears may be required (Harvey Mackay used this with a client that wouldn’t pay his bills.)  Use your “nice” voice – avenging angels are not needed.
  • Explain the situation – Give the facts including how you feel that you didn’t get the performance that you expected. Also, let them know what the impact was in terms of time, effort and money.  Make it real.  Help them reach a common understanding.
  • Ask what they are going to do – You have suffered loss and didn’t get what you expected – so, what are they going to do? You can think of this as the start of a dance.  You told them what was the impact to you and now they tell you what they can or are willing to do.
  • Know how far you’re willing to go – If the person or organization is unwilling to rectify the situation or offers what you consider to be insignificant resolution, you can always sue – but at what cost? At some point, you should accept what you can get and move on.

The above approach is what I recently used with the company that supplies propane for heating my woodshop.  I use approximately $200-300 of propane a year – I’m not a big customer but I’ve been a loyal customer since 2006.  Recently, because of a colder than normal winter, I needed a refill in February.  Everything was normal -the tank was filled with a 100.4 gallons of propane and no one’s fence was damaged in the process (it’s happened before).  The delivery man left and I went into my shop and turned on the furnace (it’s auto-ignition) and – no heat!  I couldn’t find anything wrong so I called the heating & AC company for a service call – and they discovered that the tank shutoff valve was turned off.  The delivery man forgot to re-open the valve.  I was out $100 for the service call that wasn’t really needed.  I called the propane company and told them the story and that in 12 years this had never happened before – why would I think the tank was shut off?  We reviewed what was expected (yes, the valve should have been re-opened by the delivery man).  There was no anger displayed, just disappointment in the performance.  A half hour later, the manager called me back to say that they were going to review the proper procedure with delivery man and they were providing a $50 credit on my account.  Was it ideal?  No, I was still out $50 on the service call and a few days of working in my shop.  But I preserved a good relationship with the propane company and they’ll likely remember to be sure that my tank is not shut off in the future.

That’s win-win.

A physicist by trade, author by choice, a born teacher, a retired veteran, and an adamant problem solver, Frank has helped the White House, federal agencies, military offices, historical museums, manufacturers, and over 250 technology startups get stuff done, communicate effectively, and find practical solutions that work for them. In his spare time, he makes sawdust and watches Godzilla movies.