How to complain and win

I have received many thousands of pounds in compensation and refunds by complaining effectively to large companies when they have made mistakes, let me down or delivered a poor quality of service. I have become expert in making complaints and I want to pass on my knowledge and experience to help you complain effectively too.

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Customer complaining on the phone

A word of warning

Before I show you the techniques I use to make complaints and to win my arguments with large and important companies, I want to emphasise this warning.

You should only complain when you are completely justified in doing so.

You should not make false claims and complaints against companies in the hope of receiving compensation. That would be fraud and/or extortion and you will be found out eventually.

It is also not playing fairly with these companies, most of which err on the side of fairness and try and maintain goodwill with their customers.

I only ever complain when something has gone badly wrong, but then the company at fault had better look out. I have never lost a complaint yet, but that is because of the professional and determined approach that I follow, which I’ll explain in this article.

Every complaint that I have made, has been completely justified, and that is vital to emphasise.

This is a long, detailed, article which you can read from start to finish or you can skip to particular sections by following these links.

Jump to a section

Why we should complain more
Always be calm,  polite and professional
Know what you want to achieve
Know who you are talking to
Understand the company reporting structure
Find the decision maker
Escalate until you win
Always get the complaint reference number
Be reasonable
Be persistent and determined
Always take notes after every call
The last resort
Is it worth it?
Next Steps

Why we should complain more

We Brits have an inbuilt desire to “not make a fuss” and to accept what is handed to us, even if it is plainly sub standard. Have you ever been disappointed by a meal in a restaurant and politely said “it’s fine” when the waitress makes the routine visit to your table?

Did you leave a tip, even though you were unhappy with the service or food? Do you just pay the discretionary addition for service that often gets added to your bill?

If you can answer yes to these questions, then you are suffering from Brit’s syndrome, the main symptoms of which are a desire to accept and an avoidance of conflict. It’s too much trouble to make a fuss and complain to the manager.

The thing is, often, but not always, the restaurant relies on their customers unwillingness to complain.

What makes me livid is when I experience, or see other people experience, terrible service or products from companies and businesses that rely on their customers not to complain.

Here is an example

I like steak so if I see steak on the menu, particularly if it is chargrilled, it is very likely that I will order it. Several months ago I was in a restaurant in our nearby city and was tempted by the sirloin steak. Unfortunately, the restaurant obviously were running out and gave me two separate pieces, one medium rare and the other well done.

I looked at this and thought “I’m paying a lot for this meal and it is not what I ordered and obviously the restaurant is trying to fob me off with these left overs”.

This is the point that my family, who were with me, delve into their bags and pull out their crash helmets. They know what is going to happen next….

I asked to see the manager and showed him my poor quality meal. I explained, calmly and politely, what the problem is and that obviously he has to get me another meal, and quickly, as everyone else is eating theirs.

The result?

Well, he gives me a free meal and then gives everyone a free desert as compensation and for good customer relations.

As an aside, I have stopped ordering steak in restaurants as I admit to being discerning and I’ve had so many disappointments that its best for me to be adventurous and try other things from the menu.

Wrongly installed central heating systems

Here is another, very large victory against a house builder who had installed the central heating system wrongly in our new house.

About ten years ago we bought a new house, which was in a small estate of about 50 other similar new houses. Six months after we moved in, I noticed that every house on the estate had water dripping out of an overflow pipe.

Moss started to grow on the walls and something was plainly wrong with the central heating system in every one of the new houses.

So I called in a plumber to look at our central system and he discovered that it had been incorrectly installed and as a result, it was continually dripping water out of the over flow pipe. It was highly likely that every house on the estate had exactly the same problem, particularly as I had discovered that the same plumbing contractor had installed every system on that estate.


Did I just accept the situation, like every other house owner had seemed to? Nope.

I began one of my most challenging complaint campaigns against the builder. I won’t detail how I made my complaints here as that will be described below, but I ended up talking to the company directors who finally agreed to completely renew our central heating system.

That alone cost the company thousands of pounds, but at least we ended up with a properly installed system, which is how it should have been when we bought the house.

Those directors did make one stipulation, though. They made me agree to not mention this to any of the other house owners. The bill to renew fifty systems would have run into hundreds of thousands of pounds.

I felt bad about agreeing to that, but I had to be fair to them – if the other houses owners didn’t have the gumption to discover what was wrong with their system and try and get it corrected, then that was their problem.

The message from this was that I was completely justified in making the complaint. There was no question that the builders were in the wrong. They did wriggle and squirm, however, and it took a lot of determination and persistence for me to get them to admit their mistake, and even more persuasion for them to get their cheque books out and fix the problem.

McDonalds parking charges

Here is another example where complaining effectively brought good results, however as you can see from the comments, this is something which has happened to a lot of people.

A tasty looking beef burger

Read this post about the ridiculous McDonalds parking fines that people are still falling prey to, and how I managed to avoid paying them.

These are only few examples where the ability to complain effectively meant that I could tackle the companies concerned in a calm and professional with good outcomes.

Believe you me, I have plenty of other examples and I intend to write articles about how to complain to specific companies.

Anyway, enough of my stories, let’s get into the nitty gritty of how to complain effectively….

Step By Step Guide: How To Complain And Win

1) Always be calm, VERY polite and professional

It may seem obvious that you should be cool, calm and collected in a difficult situation, but I can tell you from experience that this is sometimes difficult to achieve when something has gone badly wrong.

If you are feeling angry then you are probably not thinking clearly and presenting your argument effectively. You need a clear head and need to tell your side of the story in a very factual and clear way.

Banging your fists on the counter or shouting down the phone is not going to do you any good at all.

In fact, it will probably be totally counter-productive for you, as your angry energy is very likely being directed against the wrong person. Let me explain.

Let’s go back to that bad steak in the restaurant. Who was at fault? It was the chef who decided to palm me off with his left overs, but I couldn’t go storming into the kitchen and wave the steak bits in his face. Instead, I had to tackle the problem with someone else – in this case the manager, who didn’t know anything about the issue until I had to explain it to him.

I could only get my point across by being calm and clear. If I demonstrated anger then he would have been on the defensive and would be far less likely to want to help me.

So my point is that often it is people who have not been involved with your problem who you have to tackle first. Think of the customer service people in the call centre – it wasn’t their fault that your parcel was delivered to the wrong address, but it is their job to deal with you and you want them on your side, not feeling sorry that they picked the short straw in answering your call.

2) Decide what you want the result of your complaint to be

A company has let you down. You are very annoyed, so your first reaction is to get on the phone and give them a piece of your mind.

But what is it that you want that company to do? How can they right the wrong that they have inflicted upon you?

It is vital that you know what you are asking for, before embarking on a complaint journey with them. Take a step back and make sure that you are asking for a realistic solution to your problem.

If you are not clear in your own mind about how your issue is going to be rectified, how can you explain it to the call handlers and other staff who will be dealing with you?

So before lifting the phone, sit down and calmly decide what you want the outcome to be. You will then be in a far better frame of mind to tackle the company and to know when you have finally won and achieved the result you wanted.

When you are clear about what you want, and you follow the steps in this article, then you are really well placed to complain and win.

3) Always know who you are talking to

When I am dealing with a large company, and a large energy company instantly springs to mind (I have made so many complaints to them, unfortunately, and always come out on top), I visualise their call centres with umpteen call handlers, each sitting in their cubicles with their headphones on, huddled over their computer screens.

a man in a call centre

The thing to remember is that these are real people just doing their job. They want to be treated civilly and, most importantly, you want them to treat you as a person rather than an irritating voice amongst the many that they will deal with that day.

This attitude is so important because you want them to empathise with your situation. You want to appeal to their better nature and want them to help you. As I said above, these people did not cause the problem, but they are the ones who have to sort it out.

When someone is especially helpful, I tell them how grateful I am and tell them how much they are helping me. It is amazing how people respond to this small amount of genuine gratitude.

I bet these call handlers deal with so many people each day, most of whom are forgettable and some unfortunately surly, but when someone says “thank you” it puts a smile on their face, albeit briefly, I imagine.

So your approach is pleasant, but determined, very polite, but steely, and you say thank you if it is deserved.

And you ask for, and write down, their name, and position in the company.

For their protection call centre handlers will often only give you their first name, which is OK, but ask for the first letter of their surname, or extension number if they have one, just in case there happen to be two Sarahs in that centre.

If their name is a bit obscure, or they say it indistinctly then ask them to spell it out and write it down.

There is another reason why you should take notice of the name of the person on the other end of the phone. By knowing their name, it makes them feel a degree of responsibilty and ownership. You want them on your side!

You can also say “Thanks for all your help, Sarah” at the end of the call, if they deserve that praise, and that’s a nice thing to do. I bet not many customers are so pleasant, and we are making a complaint!

4) Find the reporting structure

If there is one approach that has allowed me to take on huge companies and win, it is this.

Let’s go back to my central heating problem mentioned above. This went through layer upon layer of the company until I eventually addressed my complaint to their board of directors.

No one else in this large firm of house builders could make the decision to rectify my problem. If I hadn’t found my way to the top of the company, my complaint would have come to nothing and I would have lost.

But I won, and this is how.

Go back to your mental image of the call centre. There is a heirarchy of staff. The bigger the company, the more indians and the more chiefs there are and you have to find out who is an indian and who is a chief.

Company hierachy

You also have to find out who each chief reports to.

So pleasantly ask the call handler who their supervisor is and ask for their telephone number or contact details..

The effect is amazing, because you are suddenly exposing this person to the fact that you might be discussing their actions with their immediate boss. Imagine if that was you, would you want a customer to bring your actions to the attention of your manager or supervisor?

This one vital piece of information convinces the handler that they must do their best for you, otherwise they will be explaining themselves to their boss. Are they on your side? You bet.

However there is another major benefit in getting to know the hierarchy of the company that you are dealing with. It allows you to escalate your complaint and it is often only by doing this that you will get a favourable outcome.

This is how I worked my way through layer upon layer of that house builder. As I got higher, the obstacles that the company put in my way became harder to overcome, but I knew I was in the right and I was determined and persistent.

I’ll give you another recent example that shows this tactic in action.

Five months ago, I was hugely inconvenienced when a large energy company messed up badly, resulting in me having to make several 300 mile journeys. I won’t go into details about the problem, but a regional manager promised to compensate me for those long drives.

He gave me his work mobile number and name, so it all looked promising. A week later, I hadn’t heard from him, so I called him and was told that he would process the claim straight away.

A week latest and still nothing, so I called him again and reminded him about our previous discussions (with dates and times). Again he promised to sort it out.

You’ve guessed it. A week later and when I still hadn’t heard anything, I phoned customer services up and relayed the sorry story. I also asked for the name of the senior manager responsible for the area manager who had made the empty promises.

This is when I shocked their customer service department. I made a formal complaint against the area manager, giving his name and company mobile number to show that I knew who I was claiming against. I also named his boss (the senior manager) as I knew he would get visibility of the complaint as part of the complaint procedures.

Customer services were astounded that a customer had the temerity to make a formal complaint against one of their managers, particularly as the complaint was fully supported with verifiable facts.

I wouldn’t be surprised if that had never happened before.

That was on a Friday. Two days later on Sunday morning I received a phone call from the area manager saying that he had now authorised my compensation. I received a big cheque (which was fully justified) a few days later.

I often wonder how many people use these tactics when dealing with huge companies. Very few, I imagine, and yet this is the way to unzip that business.

It’s a key reason why I’ve never lost a complaint and I’ve been up against huge companies. David and Goliath springs to mind!

Exclusive Bonus: Download my free eBook


I have received over £10,000 in compensation and refunds. I show you how in this free eBook
Download this FREE eBook to learn how to complain VERY effectively. You can complain to win too!
Easily save as a PDF or print for daily use
for a step-by-step guide to effective complaining. I have saved £1000’s and so can you!

5) Find the decision maker

You have to realise that large companies control the authority allowed to each level of staff. This is sensible, of course, but it means that you have to present your complaint to the person who has the authority to sign off your compensation or refund.

It depends on the level of your demands as to how deep into an organisation you must go, before finding the decision maker with the right level of decision making and authority.

It required board level authority for the house building company to sign off the thousands of pounds that was required to replace our heating system.

Lady with £20 banknotes

If you are just demanding a refund of a low cost item, then the front end call handler is likely to be able to arrange that for you, probably by quickly referring to their supervisor.

It is when your demands of redress are unusual, or larger than normal, that it becomes challenging for you and the company.

This is when you have to find the decision maker who can solve your issue.

But how do you find this person in the maze of their company heirarchy?

Simple. You ask a direct question.

After explaining your problem and calmly stating how you would like it rectified you ask the person you are talking to if they have the power to solve it for you.

If they say no, then ask for the name and contact details of the person who they think may be the decision maker.

Ask to be connected to that person and take it from there.

It can become an interesting journey into the dark recesses of some of these large companies. I have spoken to a number of people who have been amazed that a customer has found them, but it will take time, determination and perseverence so make absolutely sure that your complaint justifies your time and effort and also the companies time and effort.

6) Escalate until you win

If you follow that vital point about who reports to who, then you can now escalate your complaint to the highest levels, if neccesary.

Trouble ahead

So if a middle manager tries to fob you off with a platitude or works very hard to block you, then you don’t give in. If you do, they win and you lose, but that’s not us. We complain to win.

You use the reporting structure tactic and you escalate your complaint until you get what you want. You will eventually find someone who is amazed that this complaint had landed in their in tray.

It’s highly unusual for them to be dealing with customer issues like this and they sort it out there and then. By giving you what you want and justly deserve.

Let’s put all this into perspective, though.

I have only had to escalate a complaint to board level omce. I often escalate a complaint to middle management, and in fact I have a complaint at this level with a large company as I write this.

As long as your complaint is completely justified and you have adopted the professional and courteous approach that I am outlining here, then the company will unzip to a level where you will get what you deserve.

It often doesn’t take too much escalation. Remember that you are pursuing this in a way, and to a depth, that is unusual for the company concerned.

7) Always ask for the complaint reference number

If you are lodging a complaint with a large company then you should know that they will be following their complaint procedure. That procedure starts with your initial call and the handler will start documenting your complaint in their computer system.

Once the complaint has been entered, the system will create a complaint reference number so that it can be tracked through the various levels of their compaints procedures.

This number is important to them, but it is also hugely important to you as you can give it to everyne you talk to, so that you don’t have to repeat your story endlessly to each new person in your complaint journey.

Having and using your complaint reference number also shows that you are highly organised and know what you are doing. You mean business and are not to be fobbed off. The company has to pay attention to you.

This attention to detail marks you out and sets you up to win!

8) Be reasonable

I have often been offered financial compensation for my justifiable complaints. In cases like this, you have to consider the company. They are being very fair in admitting their mistakes and in wanting to compensate you for the trouble this has caused.

Whilst it is tempting to demand £1000 compensation for having to wait in all morning for a delivery that never turned up, this is plainly an unreasonable and unjustified demand, that sets the wrong tone and will result in failure.

This is where you have to be reasonable and come to a negotiated settlement that suits both sides, although there will be limits to the level of compensation that the company is prepared to pay you.

If you strongly feel you deserve more, then you are really in for a major battle which will involve a lot of escalation and determination. I have never had to fight like this and I wouldn’t want to as you have to consider the position of the company.

I guess we have to return the empathy that we ask of the company, as long as their offer of compensation is reasonable, of course (it is very likely to be).

9) Be persistent and determined

I’ve mentioned these two important words already, but unfortunately they seperate those who win when complaining from those who haven’t got the will to carry on, and give up.

You have to remember that large companies train their staff in complaints handling (or at least I hope they do!). I often think there are built in delays in their procedures which are designed to take the heat out of the situation, although it is probably because they are so busy with complainants.

Large office building

When dealing with large companies it is very probable that you will have to hang on the phone while you are transferred between departments and have to wait in their phone queues.

I hope you like canned music, because you’ll be hearing quite a bit of it!

What I am saying here is that unfortunately it can take a long and frustrating time to make a complaint and follow it up.

It is not an exageration to say that I have occasionally been on the phone for four hours in order to pursue a complaint properly. That is not good, and the complaint has defintely got to be worth that time and effort.

So if you are to lodge and pursue a complaint effectively against a large organisation you will needs bags of persitence and determination. Just make sure that the ends will justify the means first.

10) Always take written notes and retain them

I cannot stress the importance of taking notes at every stage of your complaint. By documenting what has been discussed and with who and when is very likely to be a major factor in your winning your complaint.

Now obviously if you are complaining to a restaurant manager about your meal, it is unlikely that you need to do this. It is when you are dealing with a company with different departments and a large staff, that taking notes becomes so important.

Why is this?

Well, return to your mental image of the call centre with forty front line call handlers. You phone them and speak to person A, but when you call them again, person A is busy on another call and now you are explaining the situation to person B.

It is very likely that person A wrote notes about your call, so to help person B find them, you need to tell them when you first raised the problem and with whom. As you progress with your complaint then having these notes becomes vital.

In fact by documenting everything you show the company that you really mean business. They have layers of call handlers, supervisors and managers to provide barriers to you, the complainant, and you must demonstrate that they are dealing with someone who knows what they’re doing and won’t be dissuaded.

It could take several weeks for your complaint to be dealt with and you will probably talk to quite a few people along the way, so this is why having these notes gives you an important edge.

I bet the vast majority of people who complain to large companies never take notes and don’t know who they have spoken to and when. They become lost in the maze and probably give up.

They’ve lost, the company has won and is allowed to get away with bad service or faulty products. That isn’t us, though, as we complain and win.

These are the things that I document:

  • The complaint reference number
  • The name of the person I have spoken to
  • The role of the person I have spoken to
  • The date and time of the conversation (time is important because many companies record phone conversations that are then archived. They may need to retrieve these audio records if promises have been made, but not delivered).
  • Document any promises ie “Person A will arrange for the wrongly delivered item to be collected on Wednesday”
  • The supervisor and/or manager that the person reports to

I have a hard cover notebook that I use for these notes so that I can refer to them easily and quickly. By the way, I use the notebook for other business uses, I’m not that focussed on complaining all the time!

11) The last resort

Although you may feel that the last resort is to jump off a cliff when you hear that canned music through the phone one more time, this isn’t what I mean.

You might very occasionally be unable to take your complaint any further. There generally is a last resort, however, which may be an industry body, or in the case of UK utility companies, regulatory bodies such as Ofgem.

These are very powerful bodies that exert a lot of influence over the utilty companies. They register customer complaints made to them and then report the complaint statistics to the government and the press.

Those statistics are damaging to the companies concerned and they will do everything they can to try and stop you escalating your complaint to them. You are perfectly within your right to complain to the regulators and in fact the utilty companies have to tell you how to do this!

I have experienced this situation only once.

A senior complaints handler calmly informed me that they couldn’t sort my problem out and that I would have to contact the regulator. “Ok, I’ll do that”, I said. “Please tell me how to go about it”.

When she realised that I really meant it, a surprising turn of events happened. Suddenly there was a way in which they could help. I received a compensation cheque later that week, although I had to promise that I would go no further with my complaint.

Is it worth the trouble?

Although I never, ever, make a complaint unless it is fully justified and is a reasonable use of my time, there have been times when I have wondered why I am pursuing a company in this way.

Then I think of the vulnerable people who get steam rollered by some of these large, faceless companies. People who are too frail, or timid, to follow the tactics that I use. They can fall into the cogs of the large corporates and have to accept their lot, no matter how bad the service or product they have spent their hard earned money on.

So occasionally I am not complaining for my own sake, but for those who I know are not capable of rectifying their own problems with large corporations. Although this may seem unneccesarily worthy, when you complain to these large organisations, the better ones will take notice and change some of their procedures.

I know of one large organisation who took my complaint very seriously and raised it at an internal meeting to see how they could make changes to prevent the issue occurring in future.

It helped me, could help you, and helped them fine tune their services.

As I say, the best companies listen to their customers and if those customers raise justified complaints and follow them through in a polite and professional way, then that is valuable information to the company concerned.

It is a win win situation for both the company and you, if both sides are willing to listen and be receptive.

But is it worth it for you? I guess it depends on the severity of the problem.

When your central heating system has been incorrectly installed and is permenantly dripping water down the side of your house, I believe that the effort required to complain is definitely worth it.

When you have been fined for being a legitimate customer at a fast food restaurant, but have over stayed in their car park by ten minutes, then you bet it is worth complaining until the cows come home, or at least until you get the fine cancelled.

You must chose your battles and decide if the effort to complain is worth it. You must also decide if you have the patience, tenacity, determination and politeness to handle the complaint in a cool and professional manner.

What I can say is the tactics described here are tried and tested. They work every time!

I hope that this long post helps you when you encounter a situation that convinces you that complaining is the best course of action. There is no need to feel intimidated or timid.

You are dealing with people who experience life’s frustrations themselves. They are also customers in their personal lives, so you need them to empathise with your situation and clearly explain how you have been wronged and are now seeking a solution.

The vast majority of large companies handle complaints professionally so when you handle yourself professionally too, you will be definitely complaining to win.

Next Steps

Phew, there is a lot to take on board here, but if you need to make a complaint, I can assure you that you have now got the knowledge to go ahead with confidence and certainty.

I will be publishing more articles about effective complaining in the very near future so please follow us on facebook or Twitter (links are at the top of the page) to learn more about these important life skills.

You can also share this article with the links below.

We want to give our readers an opportunity to discuss their experiences about complaining, seek our help and build a powerful community to share triumphs, strategies and maybe a shoulder to cry on.

So we are building a discussion forum and would love you to participate. We’ll be announcing this on facebook and Twitter very soon, so be the first to know by following us!

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