There is an art to dishing out a complaint. There is also an art — equally subtle, equally challenging — to receiving one.
Complain well, and you get heard and get results. (Complain artfully, and you’ll even come across as a reasonable human being with a valid point.)
Receive a complaint well, and you will be heard. (Make an art form of receiving a complaint, and you stand a good chance of getting a decent outcome, saving face, and going home a winner.
All of that is cozily symmetrical and just peachy.
But … ugh … let’s be honest.
The vast majority of us don’t treat a complaint encounter as though it were an art form. Far from it. More often than not, the daggers and shields come out and we stand off like sweaty gladiators. Within seconds of a complaint painting the air, we are frantically attacking or defending a position as though our very lives depended on it.
What’s going on here?
Why is the complaint corner of the human communication experience so filled with the potential for gossamer nuance and yet so much like a sriracha-coated brick to the head when it’s in full swing? And while we are asking the curly questions, what does artful subtlety even mean when you’re neck deep in this kind of experience?
We’re about to tackle all these questions.
This blog is Ruby’s take on the spiciest of communicative arts — the complaint. Whether you’re a customer thinking about complaining or a business owner seeking to minimize complaints, this article is for you.
Table of Contents
Why are complaints so difficult?
So, first things first. Complaining and being complained at are hard. Let’s look at some of the main reasons why complaints are so tough to deliver and receive.
Part of the reason for this is unadulterated biology.
Research on anger and the physical impacts of emotional stress paint a clear picture of a body in distress. Within seconds of a confrontational encounter, the stress hormone cortisol spikes, sending blood pressure rocketing and short-term memory plummeting.
Our ancient lizard brains slither into life, overwriting our modern sensibilities with a rusty old toolbox of basic survival impulses. Yep. As much as our air fryers and virtual reality headsets and portable solar-powered sock washers might attest otherwise, we are, at the end of the day, still cave people.
Complaint = threat. Threat = attack. Attack = look for nearest hot sauce-coated brick. (Cave people used sauce metaphors! Who knew?)
Now add to that primordial cocktail the social dimension.
We can hate it until we are blue in the face but modern life comes with a salty societal assumption hard baked right into its glossy outer shell. And that is that confrontation is a binary encounter. The received wisdom is that when two people see the world differently, there should be a winner, ergo there must also be a loser.
A 2023 workplace conflict survey found that close to 80% of employees view their workplace as inherently conflict-driven.
So, let’s take another look at complaining through that lens. Place these variables on the table in front of you like little monopoly pieces, and it’s suddenly much easier to understand how hard it is to think clearly about complaining. In the heat of the moment, there’s just too much going on, too many brain chemicals juicing juicily through our collective hippocampi to think objectively about complaining.
All too easily, a complaint encounter can get sucked into the vortex of this unproductive winner-takes-all mindset.
Someone is stressed out by complaining.
Someone else is being complained at.
Who wins this encounter?
No. There’s no pressure here at all.
The anatomy of a complaint
So how about we step out of the heat of the moment into the cool night air to stare clear into the face of the nefarious complaint beast. Let’s see what there is to see.
Complaints are complex
Make your brain go a bit cross-eyed and blurry for a minute, and just think broadly about the shape of a complaint. Is it mainly an emotion or fact?
It’s a bit hard to answer that, isn’t it?
Sure, absolutely, a complaint is about a thing. There is a grievance. There is a matter that should have gone one way, but it went another. There is an object or a moment in time you could slap a sticky note on with “THIS” scrawled on it in big, black, angry sharpie.
But a complaint would have no spicy wind in its salty sails if there weren’t also some figment of a whiff of emotion in there, too.
THIS happened, and now I am… what?
Consumed with a sudden overwhelming urge to eat raspberry ripple ice cream?
Complaints are complex. Complaints are a blend of the subjective and objective. You can’t understand the entirety of a complaint unless you perceive (and react to) both.
Also? Now I want ice cream.
Complaints have consequences
But there is not time for ice cream yet because complaints also have consequences! Complaining isn’t just some conversation rehashing a thing that happened. Case in point:
“I’m going to complain!” person A says. So what?
“I’m going to listen to your complaint,” person B says. Again, so what?
Don’t get us wrong! Clearly voicing or carefully listening to a complaint is an important start, but these are the tip of the iceberg. If clear expression or attentiveness were all you needed to deal with a complaint, there would be a lot more raspberry ripple ice cream available in this mixed-up world. And rocky road. Possibly even pistachio.
No, there is a resounding clang in the air when someone complains. It is a clang of expected consequences. Something must happen next.
Much of the artfulness of complaining and receiving complaints, then, is how you form thoughts about what happens next … or, put another way, how you fix it.
What should those all-important next steps look like?
How, together, do you make them happen?
Complaints … build connections.
And finally, complaints build connections.
Yep, complaints can be positive.
It’s easy to think “compliment good, complaint bad,” but complaints can offer a valuable opportunity. If a complainer and a complainee are able to find their way to a productive outcome, it shows that both parties care enough to stick it out and find a suitable compromise.
Some recent research findings have even suggested that, if properly handled, “mildly negative” encounters actively pave the way to stronger social bonds and improved potential for future collaboration. Weird, huh?
Ruby’s hot tip is that the key to unlocking a good outcome is attentiveness. If there’s any time to listen as closely and openly as humanly possible, it’s during a complaint. Here’s a great Ruby read about taking the time to listen.
The art of complaining
So we’ve gone over anatomy. Let’s now turn to the art of complaining. An artful complaint, we believe, boils down to time, place, method and intent. Let’s break that down.
When to complain
If you’re the one voicing the grievance, it’s smart to complain after consideration.
We all know emotions are … weird … hard to pin down. To quote Jeff Goldblum:
Because emotions are so weird, it’s vital to take time to assemble your thoughts and make sure that the emotions you feel relate directly to the complaint (and not something else that might be happening in your life.) Empathy can help you here. Consider asking yourself, is this just your opinion or is it reasonable to think that others would feel the same way? Will this complaint help this business see differently and help them improve their offering?
If you’re the one receiving the complaint, the exact opposite is (mostly) true.
You’ll certainly want to respond as quickly as possible. The general rule of thumb is that it’s appropriate to at least acknowledge a complaint was received within 24 hours. That way, you’re not compounding the problem by leaving your customer wondering if they were heard.
But it’s wise to temper that customer service consideration with a moment’s reflection about your own situation.
Are you emotionally in a good place to handle criticism, or do you need to take time to compose yourself?
Do you have the facts at your fingertips?
Make sure you have the relevant information within reach before beginning this conversation.
The bottom line here is like any communication scenario you may encounter out there in the wilds of daily modern life: You can’t look after your customer unless you first look after yourself.
So … do that! Look after yourself.
Where to complain
Where you lodge a complaint says a lot about you and your intent. Likewise, if you’re a business receiving complaints, where you encounter that complaint can tell you a lot about how it might best be resolved.
Let’s pad that out a smidge.
These days, you can typically reach a company in a multitude of ways, and each of these channels exerts a unique shaping influence on the conversation that follows.
- The platform formerly known as Twitter (X) makes highly shareable sound bites. One sentence can go a long way.
- Facebook is highly public, reaches a broad cross-section of society, and conversations are persistent. That’s to say a conversation about one kind of complaint may meander through the experiences of multiple customers over several years.
- Instagram is more personality driven.
- Reddit encourages deep and minute detail.
- Emails are private and can be anything you want.
You get the idea; the list (much like a blogger who had too much coffee) goes on and on.
The critical thing to be mindful of here is that each of these “places” is like a canvas that changes the paint. Where you complain will change how that complaint reads, who reads it, and potentially may even alter the eventual outcome.
Here are some factors to think about in deciding where to complain:
- Complexity: If your complaint is detailed and technical, firing off sixteen interlinked tweets about the incident is probably … well … a bit silly. A long-form forum like FB or email gives your complaint receiver time and space to comprehend properly.
- Privacy: As with all kinds of communication, the privacy of both parties should be sacrosanct. Setting out to publicly embarrass your conversation participant (yes, even to use a public soapbox as leverage, tends to backfire.) More than that though, it instantly precludes any possibility of trust and mutual understanding forming along the way.
- Community: Is this a safety concern? Does your complaint have ramifications for other potential consumers? Will your complaint progress to a broader conversation? If so, complaining in an open forum may be a wise and considerate action.
How to complain
Of course, the master key to any masterful complaint encounter is how you communicate. The when and the where are essential, but pale into insignificance against the way you craft your message.
Starting a complaint with exaggeration or hyperbole might feel emotionally satisfying, but it rarely gets things off on the right foot. Case in point. Imagine someone bursting into the room right now and screaming, “you always squeeze the toothpaste wrong!”
I, for one, would find this quite unsettling and annoying. Also, my mind would instantly leap into action to produce examples of the (many) times I have squeezed toothpaste from the tube with the deft precision of a brain surgeon.
“You always” statements don’t really help anyone.
If you have a real complaint, go specific.
Talk about when it happened, what triggered the problem, and the things you tried to fix it. Likewise, if you’re on the receiving end of a general complaint, see if you can bring it back to specifics. “What do you mean when you say X?” “What model of product were you using?”
“Have you tried this solution?”
A great side benefit of specificity here is that you’re proving that you’re listening and share the same goal of finding your way to a favorable outcome.
Ultimately, an artful complaint is one that’s going somewhere.
At a certain point in a complaint encounter, it’s helpful if both sides can switch gear from active listening to active doing.
An artful complaint is a practical conversation, one that hones in on how to fix this whole shamozzle.
And it’s tricky, but remember that practicality isn’t just a to-do list. It’s a reasonable to-do list calibrated to reality. If your proposed solution is having a team of elite customer support personnel immediately charter a helicopter to your place of residence and abseil into your backyard with a replacement product … well … this probably fails the reasonableness test.
The same concept applies on the flip side of the coin, too.
If you received the complaint, your solution may involve coloring outside of the usual lines. Let’s face it — sometimes doing business requires going that extra mile.
And above all, be kind
It isn’t always easy!
Complaints are just one of those times where the blood can boil, the gizzards can bubble, and a whole pharmacopeia of stress hormones can glug through your brain like NASA-grade emotional rocket fuel.
But doing our best to be kind in the heat of this moment will yield dividends.
A kind word will help you find the elusive win-win. It’ll keep your relationship ticking along. Crucially, it’ll also encourage the other side of the complaint to be kind right back at you. And that’s where good outcomes begin.
If all of that feels incredibly hard … well (sigh) yeah. It is.
To help you along on that track, check out this Ruby article about the radical power of kindness to produce better outcomes.
And don’t forget ice cream. That helps, too.
Complaining. It’s not even remotely a river in Egypt.
We’ll leave the final word to comedian, professional smirker, and occasional philosopher Benny Hill.
“Just because nobody complains doesn’t mean all parachutes are perfect.”
There’s no denying it. Complaints are just part of existence. We’ll all be on the receiving end of a complaint, and we’ll all find ourselves dishing one out too, at some point or another. The key isn’t to avoid them, nor is it to leap blindly in their direction.
All we can really do is aim for grace and artfulness and hope for the best. Ultimately, human intentions are a bit like parachutes. They may not all be perfect, but a good number of them are, at the very least … perfect…ish?
If you’re looking for professional, friendly communicators with an optimistic mindset, contact us at Ruby. We believe in artful kindness and the colossal trust-building power of truly great conversations.