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How to complain, like the boss you are

Updated: Oct 25, 2020

Everybody complains. Whether its to your work mates about your shitty lunch, to your friends about your boss, to your boss about your pay, to your family about your job or to the restaurant about your food, maybe even to tripAdvisor about your hotel or holiday. The list is endless - and everybody takes part at some point.

This piece is going to concentrate on customer complaints, and by the time I have finished, hopefully you will understand not only how to complain like a pro, but understand a bit more about how to avoid Mr Angry or Little Miss Irate calling you a useless prick, in your own business, ever again.

I just find it wholly irresponsible to sell magazines such as 'Big Soapy Tits' to my son, no matter how old he looks

I have received lots of complaint letters in my career (more recently via email obviously)... but as a starter for 10, this one from a customer at a Borders Books and Music store in Glasgow, in 2002, is still one of my favourites, I hope you can see why 😂

How do you respond to that? Theres no acceptance from the lady, of any responsibilty falling on her son for his interest in the finer points of adult art... in fact she would have probably felt the same had it been her 60 yr old husband with the magazine. No, her issue was only that his purchasing was our fault for supplying. By the way this particular genre was not stocked adjacent to the Beano... and I can't remember actually stocking this particular title.

So, Yes - customer reviews are both expected, anticipated, welcomed, and feared… but here's the thing - so many really cutting complaints are written by hospitality or retail professionals, who clearly think they know your business better than you. Yet, they run their own businesses like a bag of spanners.

There are pages and pages of websites dedicated just to reviews. I have been a member of TripAdvisor since 2008 and have written a few reviews for pubs, hotels, resorts, restaurants and attractions. My belief - Writing reviews is an excellent way to share your experience with your fellow visitors, and to showcase your quality reviewer skills to brands who would [hopefully] want to work with you in the future.

Here are some of my own secrets to help you in your writing of retail, pub, restaurant, hotel and bar reviews - like a professional, by understanding what is that is going to help your own business become fitter.

Mindset – The key to writing a boss review or complaint

The decision on whether or not you start writing a review/complaint about a particular place or experience always starts with being honest with yourself first.

  • What would your message be?

  • Was your visit amazing and unique?

  • Did you find yourself in an absolute nightmare?

  • Has your feedback got any chance of being positive?

  • Are you not planning to write a review, but a pointed complaint letter?

It is a personal choice of every individual of what to put in your review of course.

Forum. To Tweet or not to tweet

Social media is the most powerful development in the shit kicking World, I would say ever. Never has so much instant 'fame' been available to so many. Phrases like Facebook famous, profile envy, Blog, Vlog, Social influencer - these phrases didn't exist 15 years ago, and now, even old farts like me know what they mean. So clearly these platforms mean something.

Lets take Twitter as a specific example. Theres a couple of really good reasons why Twitter is not a good forum for complaining.. First, You get a limited number of characters to make your point, so if you want to say anything worthwhile, embellishing your writing with wasted words won't work. Second, corporate Twitter accounts are managed by a team of marketeers, not service professionals or operators. And third - depending on the noise that day, your point may get lost amongst other more worthy posts.

To use Twitter effectively, its about engaging the public around your cause, being so engaging that people feel the need to click like or even better share, or even better still, comment like share. Depending on numbers this post has a much better chance of reaching the correct person by osmosis.

Example 1 - Joes toilet troubles after a Taco Bell dinner.

Example 2 - A's pink doggy.

The joys of social media - instant access to somebody who can do nothing about your problem.... But so so entertaining for the rest of us.

Therefore if you want to write a formal complaint, email is best - direct to the correct person, traceable and the modern day version of a letter.

Are you absolutely sure?

My thought process, if I decided to trash a business in writing would start with a very simple sense check: 1. If I were a brand considering working with me on a campaign, would I risk inviting me into the business, if I saw harsh reviews posted by me, about others in the market? Probably not… so the next checkpoint is - 2. Do I care enough about that, not to leave this constructive feedback ? This is where the line gets drawn...

SPACE - the key levers every hospitality business should pull

Through many years in the retail and hospitality sector, I have learned that everything performs better, when there is a process to follow, and a logical understanding of what makes business tick. For me, this boils down to the following 5 key levers, that every hospitality business should pull, in order to bulletproof itself. I call this - making SPACE.

Service - We live in a service economy where great customer service is an asset for almost every business. But what differentiates between a service that’s great and excellent service? Service is the extent to which a service meets the customer’s needs and expectations. Whereas excellent service is when these experiences are surpassed and when customers feel that they have received that little unexpected extra in the shape of extra effort. Sometimes that little unexpected extra can come in different shapes and forms such as a smile, a positive remark, random acts of kindness or the additional effort by a service professional going the extra mile. Excellent service can be measured by: Guest Perception minus Guest Expectation.

Price and Quality - Intrinsically linked with each other, because customers view them this way - but so often seen in isolation by corporate marketeers. Its always about the quality of the product, the quality of the delivery and the price you think you should pay. Best practice is to link price increases with service levels measured by mystery shopping - I call this Qualititive Pricing. Guests will always pay the right price, happily - for quality. Then, how many times do you hear of hotels charging too much for drinks ? Lots right ? The worst example I have is a stay at a 4 star hotel in the UK and being charged £15 for a can of Guinness... not even in a glass - absolute piss take.

Atmosphere - To remain competitive, brick-and-mortar retailers, and hospitality businesses need to create unique, engaging customer / guest experiences, such that they evolve from simply competing at a product level and ensure holistic retail experiences that encourage those customers to keep coming back. For this, we should examine how the five sensory components – vision, audition, smell, touch, and taste – can enhance customer engagement in the pre-purchase and purchase stages. Why not have a brainstorm based on this - the pre-purchase- and purchase-stage sensory touch points, and how they impact customer engagement.

Cleanliness and Housekeeping - the most basic of criteria for any hospitality business. There is nothing worse than sticky carpets, wet bar tops and stinking toilets... and lets be right, if you can't clean the toilet properly, what is your kitchen going to be like ?

Environment - Picture the scene, you approach a restaurant, and the guttering outside has broken, so water is leaking on your head, the window is broken and boarded up resembling the left overs of a Friday night fight scene, the banner advertising food offers is hanging off. You go inside and the door handle is loose, the table you sit at is wobbly, and to top it all off, the toilet is closed because of a blockage... how are you feeling ? Pretty uneasy I am sure. Also, probably feeling that there is no care and attention coming your way... Sort out the fabric. Right now, the guest assumption is that your product should be free, as a thank you for them coming through the door.

Now, if you are a 'professional' , and If your SPACE is without question, routinely and consistently awesome, then congratulations. I take my hat off to your brilliance... tell me where you are, I cannot wait to visit. However, if it isn't - then my response is, be a kind person, grow up, wind your neck in, and get your own SPACE in order before having a go at mine.

Interestingly some businesses are now starting to bite back against negative reviews, some even threaten reviewers with legal action. I am not sure how you sue somebody for having a legitimate and subjective opinion, but hey. Even so, does this mean you should not leave a bad review if your experience was bad? Of course not. Just make sure your review is factual and can be supported by photos or witnesses... and try not to get sued! That is the point of structuring your review around the key levers, it will certainly add some clarity, and perhaps a bit of gravitas to your review, and give the recipient chance to formulate a plan to improve.

"its not big, and its not clever"

If you are venting out, using swear words, calling people names, using over exaggerated language, are you to be taken seriously by your readers or would you be perceived as an hysterical nut job? Swearing at somebody is never ok, by the way. However much of an arsehole their business or indeed them personally have been to you, generally speaking, calling somebody an arsehole is deemed offensive. Its happened to me, and I found it offensive - and I can fuck, bollocks and arsehole with the best.

I personally prefer to stay positive. If I am writing a review and posting it, it means in general it all went well, good or excellent… I will provide practical recommendations on things that could be improved, and be honest in relating my personal experience if something did go terribly wrong, I would typically try to sort things out whilst I am there directly. Shit happens to everyone, you know. It is only fair to present the management with facts and give them the opportunity to remedy the situation right then and there. Then in my review, I can put a positive spin on it and write about the heroism and wonderfulness of the staff who went above and beyond in mitigating this horrible situation. If anything, this will add some drama and an ultimate positive outcome. Hopefully then, individual readers, the subject themselves and any potential future clients will appreciate the honesty.

If the resolution is unsuccessful however, and I am still upset, I may write a strongly worded, detailed, fact-based, non-emotional complaint...

Brace 😎.

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