Complain Like A Nice Old Man

If you want to have a successful complaint, it helps to complain like Gerald. That’s the father-in-the law of this WSJ writer, and he’s able to perform daring feats of consumer action, like the time he got the hardware store to replace the $800 grill that stopped working a year after he bought it. Here’s how he does it:

  • Be extremely polite
  • Keep receipts and warranties for all major products.
  • Write down the name of salespeople who sold you the product.
  • Decide exactly what you want the resolution to be before calling
  • Start at the bottom, starting with the person who sold you the product.
  • Ask for “help speaking with someone with more authority” instead of asking for a manager, it’s less insulting.
  • If the call doesn’t work out, thank the person for their time. You never know when you’ll have to talk to them again.
  • (Photo: Getty)


    Edit Your Comment

    1. AlteredBeast (blaming the OP one article at a time.) says:

      I work in customer service, and if someone approaches me like this (over the phone), I’ll be more than happy to help them resolve the issue. Of course, I want to help everyone, but when someone is polite like this, it is more something I want to do for an individual than just what I should be doing.

    2. Dead Wrestlers Society says:

      Now this I like. This is generally my approach. I like this much better than the, “You are going to fix my problem, kiss my feet” approach advocated by an eariler post.

    3. valarmorghulis says:

      Having worked in telephone CS, I will happily tell you these are *absolutly* true. If you are angry about the issue, wait 10 minutes and do something else in the interum. I will tell you that angry wouldn’t make me unhelpful (abusive behavior did though), but being calm, specific, and having backup made me “go the extra mile.”

      GERALD FTW!!!!

    4. radio1 says:

      I have done this myself.

      Most CSCs or TSCs are so used to getting belligerent callers that they can be practically chomping at the bit to be a jerk themselves.

      Disarm them with politeness. Ask them for their help. State what you would like. It’s simple.

      Even when I get a rude person on who wants to know what I need, or why they should help me– I just say something, as matter-of-factly as I can. Like, “Well, I would like X to happen, but that’s up to you…”

      I usually get what I want.

    5. christoj879 says:

      Now that I think of it, although I like that “you will fix my problem” mentality, this is really how I am on the phone. Although, I’m much more likely to start filing complaints and chargebacks after the first call, I do try to be as calm and polite as possible, and has found that if you’re a human you’ll usually get a human in return.

    6. B says:

      Do I have to wear a dorky golf shirt too?

    7. Pink Puppet says:

      Back when I worked customer service, I’d absolutely go the extra mile for anyone that was pleasant and nice on the phone. I’d even bend rules I knew I could a little, but wouldn’t for the average person.

    8. cmdr.sass says:

      Being polite only works if you get a decent human being on the other end of the line. Also, this attitude doesn’t translate well if the call center is located in a far off land staffed by people with a very different culture.

    9. Abusiveelusive says:


      Exactly. And I agree with almost everyone else. I work in customer service, and this will get you sooooo much further than the “You will fix this” method posted before. That will get you nowhere.

    10. Tank says:

      I had a boss once who gave me advice similar to this. When it came time to escalate to the next level, he told me to say “I’m sorry, I’m having a hard time communicating with you today. May I please speak to someone with more authority?” It always seemed to get me to the next level, no matter what level I was at.

    11. MissTic says:

      If everyone followed this common sense advice, this site would be so much smaller :-)

      Seriously, he’s right. If more people stayed calm and concise, they would get better results and the letters to Consumerist wouldn’t be as long and painful to read. But perhaps not as much fun though!

    12. Parting says:

      Unfortunately, polite people are rare. Most of the time I deal with ”I deserve this” attitude. If you are nice, I will tell you things you’re not supposed to know (and will never figure out, without extensive research on-line), so you can save more money to resolve whatever problem that plagues you.

    13. Abusiveelusive says:

      I think it is the old ‘Customer is always right’ thing that got to people’s heads. Well, firstly, the customer is not always right. But just assuming they are, it doesn’t mean they have the right to act or say whatever they want.

      If you want help with something, ask me for help – don’t demand it. Thankfully at work we have a policy to hang up on customers who become abusive, simply stating they can call us back when they feel like not being abusive.

    14. MDSasquatch says:

      I need this guy to call COMCAST for me, ever since I told one of their Customer Service Reps that they were “assinine”, I get no slack from those assinine people,

      Bring on the FIOS!!!

    15. “Decide exactly what you want the resolution to be before calling”

      Are there people who do not do this? I handle my wife’s customer service calls for her and I always start with asking her “What do we want to get?” If you don’t know what you want, you will not get it. Then you are haggling, not negotiating.

      The other side of this is, develop your Best Alternative To Negotiated Agreement (BATNA). When you are talking to them, and have a credible BATNA that you are willing to accept (like, I’m going to cancel my comcast cable for verizon FIOS, which will reduce my cost and increase my speed). Always develop your BATNA. With no BATNA, your negotiation pimp hand is weak.

    16. castlecraver says:

      This completely pwns the “You are going to fix my problem today” approach that was posted on Consumerist a while back.

    17. Ayo says:

      I must say, I’ve always started with most of these steps, and have been pretty successful in complaints. But if they fail to provide me with the service that I expect, I bring it to another level. It helps going from really really nice, and thankful for there help, to an “OK, ENOUGH OF THIS” attitude. Then I tell them I understand they weren’t the cause of the problem, but I need someone who CAN fix the problem. The change in attitude usually expedites things.

    18. speedwell (propagandist and secular snarkist) says:

      @Ayo: I spoke to a sales rep this morning who gave me all sorts of excuses why she couldn’t connect me with a manager, even though it was apparent she didn’t have the authority to do the simple price override their website made necessary (there was a price discrepancy between what the item listing said and the price in the “shopping cart”). She kept saying things like, “That’s all we can do” and “The code my manager told me expired so you’ll have to try later” and “The managers are too busy to take the call.” I, for once needing to keep my loud mouth from running off due to a severe case of laryngitis, just asked, “Please, I would like to speak to a supervisor.” Finally, I stopped saying anything but, “Thank you for your help. Please connect me to a supervisor now.” She finally shut up and did it. I wonder if anyone was listening in.

    19. JRock says:

      @PotKettleBlack: There are. I used to work in retail, and it was interesting seeing how upset/irate people would react when you told them “What do you want us to do, what is your resolution?” It seemed like people sometimes just wanted to bitch out somebody and haven’t thought the whole thing through.

    20. yesteryear says:

      this is excellent advice. my nana told me her secret which is to always say “well, you’re the expert” or “i’m hoping your experience can help me with this problem” to the person who is helping you. and it actually works like a charm. at once the person knows A) you appreciate them and B) you are not being antagonistic from the start. grandparents give the best advice.

    21. speedwell (propagandist and secular snarkist) says:

      @JRock: Yeah, that happens at work. I’m a software support analyst, and I field lots of calls from people who are upset (usually because they sat on the problem until it was too late for us to fix it on their schedule). When I calmly ask them exactly what they need their output to do, they appear to think I should be as freaked out as they are.

    22. JMH says:

      @B: Yes, and apparently it helps if you look like James Cromwell.

    23. flyingphotog says:

      I worked in Customer Service at a major US airline for 6 years, and this article is right on the point. Nobody ever got what they wanted by yelling at me. If a customer was rude or verbally abusive, they got one warning. If they continued I would thank them for calling and then drop them.

    24. BrianH says:

      I would *think* language like “can I speak with someone with more authority” would be inflammatory, but apparently not.

      It’s amazing how little wording changes can have big effects. For example, I always say “Can I please speak with a supervisor?” as opposed to *your* supervisor… the latter seems to carry the implication of beratement & failure.

      Also using “we” instead of “you” (“I’m hoping we can get this resolved”) helps a lot.

    25. SaraAB87 says:

      Half of the people complaining on this site do not keep warranty information or receipts (or people who complain in general). Most of the time a CSR’s job is made incredibly easier by keeping these items. If you come in prepared they are also more likely to treat you like a human being vs someone who bought this a month ago, doesn’t have the packaging and lost the receipt and now expects (ie demands) a direct replacement because the item does not work. Half of the battle is proving that you bought the item there, and that you bought the warranty (if you did), for all the CSR people know you could be some guy off the street who just stole the item from your friend.

    26. speedwell (propagandist and secular snarkist) says:

      Wow, I just got amazing results with another call I had to make to an online retailer (to check the status of a pending order). The first-line rep was trying to explain a confusing issue and we just weren’t clicking, so I tried, “I know you’ve been trying very hard to help me understand, but maybe someone else could explain it a different way.” She transferred me to a supervisor immediately, and the supervisor did indeed explain the issue nicely in a way I understood.

      Gee, now I hope all my support users read this article.

    27. FessLove says:

      If more customers were nice like this, I can guarantee I would make alot more exceptions! I work for a telecom, and customers who a polite with this attitude get alot further.

    28. jon-e says:

      It’s interesting that this type of advice is provided by older generations. It’s a good example of the incredulous behavior of younger people that wear their self-entitlement as though it were a badge of honor. At 32, I’m not quite in the older demographic myself, but I think it’s worth having respect for that mentality no matter what your age.

      Too many people parade their gaudy ego around like it’s something to be respected simply because they’re the supposedly god-like Customer. Fact is, people make mistakes, have bad days and are often shoved in the middle of a problem without any real ability to change the machine that caused the difficulty in the first place. I think any customer or client should always start off with the idea that the person on the other end of the phone or on the other side of the counter is there to help you. If they fail at that, cop an attitude or create conflict where there was none, then it’s time to alter your approach. Until that point, why not act like an adult rather than a bratty child throwing a temper tantrum at the slightest flaw?

      There are plenty of people in customer service, though, who nullify this approach. I’ve had repeated problems recently with having my car in for warranty repairs where the dealership lied about their progress and ended up not doing any repairs over the course of multiple weeks. In those situations, being kind is no different than being a door mat. There are situations where things need to be escalated to reach any kind of resolution. For that select group of unhappy workers who seem to take delight in their failure to assist you, being nice is a waste of time. If you give someone the chance to help you and they refuse, Mr. Nice Guy might need to take a short vacation.

    29. FullFlava says:

      This describes my grandfather to a T. He’s always very polite, but firm, and things always wind up working out in his favor. He’s gotten more deals, favors, special treatment, and exemplary customer service than anyone I’ve ever known.

    30. richtaur says:

      This kind of contradicts earlier Consumerist advice about being direct, firm, and TELLING the person on the phone what they’re going to be doing for you. I can’t hear a nice old man saying, “Today you’re going to replace my grill.”

    31. Matthew says:

      Step eight is “be retired and have hours upon hours to spend campaigning to wrest back the money/merchandise/good standing that is rightfully yours in the first place.”

    32. Marce says:

      Someone with “more authority”? Yeah, no. That’s still insulting. I’d much rather the straight-up “May I speak with your supervisor?” without the hysterics, dramatics, and screaming. It is what you say as well as what you say it.

    33. Doctor Cathattan says:

      I agree with the idea that you should be polite & civil but what happens when CSRs don’t return the favor no matter how nice & polite you may be? Good example would be Comcast when you ask to speak to a manager. Any good suggestions for those situations? Besides calling lawyers or grabbing hammers?

    34. SisterHavana says:

      @pinkpuppet: Same here. I used to work at a newspaper in the advertising department. I’d absolutely bend over backwards for customers who were nice and polite when they called in with a problem with their ad. Being nice definitely makes me _want_ to help you much more than if you’re a jerk.

    35. Quintus says:

      I worked CS for billing for a Sattlite company for awhile right out of high school. There is where I got my first lesson in life, people are a lot ruder to strangers than I would have guessed. But if the person was polite I would try to help them out, even if they were in the wrong (which they were the majority of the time.) But if they were wrong and then called in with an attitude and yelled at me and treated me like trash, I’d do all I could to be difficult with them.

      I never ever have treated a stranger rudely whether on the phone or in person, I don’t believe in that. And giving the other human being dignity and respect they deserve as another human being does wonders. For those rude people out there who are self-serving and haughty, I don’t you’d understand this. And you’re out there.

    36. speedwell (propagandist and secular snarkist) says:

      The fact is, everyone wants their ego stroked. It’s natural. I don’t appreciate having to kiss ass to get what I want, no, but it does work. Think of it like social jujitsu… when you collapse in a certain direction, your off-balance opponent has to tumble in that direction because they no longer have the support of your resistance.

    37. anyanka323 says:

      His approach would only work if you had infinite time to kill and a polite and patient CSR to work with. Unfortunately, that is not always the case. I have had some wonderful interactions with CSRs over the phone – Amazon and Zappos are the ones that come to mind and some bad ones, most recently with Vera Bradley over their deceptive advertising. The woman I dealt with must have been on a power trip and refused to transfer me to a manager/supervisor who could have waived or expedited my shipping at no additional costs. I think that there are some CSRs who get genuine pleasure out of being SOBs to customers and that no amount of politeness will help you reach a resolution with.

    38. mdovell says:

      pretty good advice all and all…although supervisor is better than authority.

    39. MissUpsetter says:

      Can we please make this a PSA?

      I work for a credit card company, so almost ALL guests calling are quite upset about SOMETHING. The ones who are polite, nice, and know what they want….I want to reach through the phone and hug them! Late fees waived? Sure! Waive the processing charge? NO PROBLEM! I love these people. Please, make everyone in the world read this, as I’m sick of being called a c*unt, a motherf**cker, stupid bit*h, etc. Those words will get you nothing.

      Our favorite saying goes both ways – you get more bees with honey than vinegar!