In general, I think of myself as a happy person. Except when a waiter takes a little too long with an order. Or a repair shop goes a few bucks beyond an estimate. Or a doctor fails to return a call. OK, so I’ve got a few complaints. Maybe more than a few. And maybe all my complaining has started to wear on my friends and family through the years. So be it, I say. There’s money in being a malcontent, I recently learned — $1,200 in cash and services, to be exact.
That’s what two companies paid me in total as a result of complaints I registered in the past few months. The two circumstances couldn’t have been more different. In one instance, I posted a negative review on Yelp and another social media site after a car dealer did a sloppy job with a repair. Within hours, the dealer’s general manager was in touch to see if he could make things right and he ultimately refunded the cost of the work, took a new look at the car and even threw in a wash, wax and interior shampoo — in all, a $500 payday (er, complain-day).
In the other — even more bizarre — instance, I was contacted by the funeral home that handled the service for my late mother. In advance of my receiving a survey form it was sending out, it wanted to know if there was anything that would stop me from giving it a top rating. So, I called and mentioned what was truly a minor issue — namely, how the attendees felt slightly rushed by staff while saying their goodbyes at the service’s conclusion. Sure enough, that netted me a $700 refund on a roughly $13,000 bill.
To some extent, the close timing of the two refunds could be chalked up as mere coincidence. But people who study consumers and the marketplace tell me there’s a whole lot of refunding going on these days — for a likely reason.
Because of social media and the broader, evolving concern that no customer is an island, companies are more willing than ever to mollify us grouches — or perhaps to outright buy our favor. (It’s not unusual for businesses to ask refunded complainers to delete a negative review.) Sure, plenty of companies tried to do right by their base in the time before Twitter and TripAdvisor, but now the stakes have become even higher.
In other words, the customer may be king, but the complainer is master of the universe.
All of which left me asking: Is there a right way to complain? When I was refunded, I couldn’t help but feel I got “lucky,” especially given the fact I wasn’t seeking compensation from the companies in the first place. But what if a consumer really feels they’re wronged? Based on my experience and what experts say, here’s the art of complaining for dollars — in five easy lessons.
1) Make sure you’ve got a legitimate beef. It’s one thing if a restaurant serves you a meal that makes you sick. It’s another if your slice of pizza is a little cold. You can still post a Yelp review, if you like. But that doesn’t mean it has to be a one-star review (maybe the salad that accompanied that pizza wasn’t bad). And that doesn’t mean the restaurant owes you a refund. “Sometimes an apology is all that is needed,” says Chris Morran, senior editor of Consumerist.com, a subsidiary of Consumer Reports.
2) Know where to take that beef. In the time before the Internet, complainers wrote actual letters to companies. Now, most experts agree you’re often better off skipping that step and going straight to social media to share your experience. It’s a question of numbers and influence: A letter is likely seen by just one person; a posting on a website is potentially seen by the world. As for which website, experts say there’s nothing wrong with posting in multiple places, especially given that different companies may be minding different ones. Twitter gets the attention of large outfits (think airlines), which often have “an army of people scanning it,” says Dave Sargent, a vice president with J.D. Power, the market research company. Yelp seems to work more with mom-and-pop retailers. Finally, if a company reaches out to you for feedback — my funeral home example — don’t hesitate to give it to them, good or bad.
3) Speaking of beef, don’t be the “mad cow” complainer. It’s easy to go off on a tear when talking about a company that’s wronged you. But if you take that rant too far, you risk not being taken seriously. Jacqueline Whitmore, a nationally renowned etiquette expert, says the key is to keep your complaint brief (that’s indeed why she likes Twitter) and to avoid foul language or threats. “You’re going to get better results if you’re nice about it,” she says. Other experts warn that ranting can sometimes provoke ranting in return — merchants have been known to say a few unkind things about reviewers, too. And in some instances they’ve sued them. If nothing else, complainers should keep in mind that this feedback thing can work both ways.
4) But don’t let yourself be bought, either. There’s no denying that many companies respond to negative online reviews with the hope that complainers will take them down. But here’s the rule, say experts: It’s okay for a company to ask, but it’s not cool to make it a stipulation as part of offering a refund. Ultimately, a refund may make a customer happy, but “it doesn’t fix the problem that there was a problem to begin with,” says Morran of Consumerist.com. At the same time, Whitmore, the etiquette expert, says she’d consider removing a complaint if the company in question asked “kindly.” Which is precisely what the car dealership did after resolving my complaint. I felt they earned the right to have the review deleted.
5) Spread some love, too. It’s one thing to complain. It’s another to see the universe in its totality. While that might sound a little too metaphysical, think about it: Do you really want to be the consumer equivalent of Oscar the Grouch? Oh, and if it’s dollars (or goods) you’re seeking, keep in mind that companies occasionally reward those who write them fan letters. Just saying.
Charles Passy covers personal finance, consumer spending and all things food and drink for MarketWatch in New York. Follow him on Twitter @CharlesPassy. This article originally appeared on MarketWatch.com and is reprinted by permission from Marketwatch.com, ©2014 Dow Jones & Co. Inc. All rights reserved.