Do you stand up for your rights when you've been treated unfairly? Do you speak up when you don't get what you pay for? Most of us would probably say we do, but the reality is that only a small minority of people complain effectively enough in such situations to get the result they deserve. And how small this minority tends to be is nothing less than shocking.

Studies show that when dissatisfied with certain purchases, a staggering 95% of people will not complain to the company. This means that less than 5% of us complain well enough to get the refunds, replacements, discounts, or credit we actually deserve. As consumers, we are forgoing millions of dollars a year simply because we fail to speak up.  

A Real-Life Example

Frankie Boyer is a radio personality, artist, and host of the syndicated The Frankie Boyer Show. She invited me on her show a couple of years ago to discuss the psychology of complaining and how to do so productively. I planned to talk about how we now face what I consider to be a societal epidemic of ineffective complaining—but Frankie beat me to the punch. A recent incident in her life had provided the perfect illustration of everything that is wrong with our complaining psychology, as well as what we can gain by learning to complain effectively.

You can hear Frankie describe the incident on the episode. In short, here's what happened: She was taking a red-eye flight on the West Coast that was first delayed, and then cancelled. Passengers were given little information and hours later, were herded back into the terminal to spend the night, without food or water. Only after passengers complained did the airline arrange for provisions—bottled water and food that was apparently inedible.

Waiting out the night, the passengers were angry and frustrated so the airline distributed $75 vouchers to make up for their "inconvenience." Understandably, Frankie, felt that $75 was hardly sufficient compensation for the airline's poor communication and planning, not to mention their terrible customer service. So she dashed off a letter to the company while she was sitting with the other passengers. She got a prompt response and a voucher for $300 (in addition to the $75 voucher the airline gave all passengers). Frankie reported that she was aware of no other passengers who took similar action.

Complaining and Learned Helplessness

An unfortunate hallmark of our complaining psychology is our tendency to convince ourselves that complaining is pointless when in fact, it is not. All of the passengers were furious at the airline and extremely uncomfortable because of their situation, and all of them could have and should have gotten far more than $75 for their troubles. Yet the vast majority did not complain to the company directly. Sure, they probably voiced their irritation to representatives on the scene but customer service representatives are extremely limited in their authority, a fact of which most of us should be aware.

What prevented the passengers from writing company executives is the belief that doing so will not yield a result and therefore that any such efforts would be wasted. However, I am willing to bet that those passengers spent a substantial amount of effort relaying their tale of the canceled flight to scores of friends and family members once they got home. If they would have spent a fraction of that time writing a complaint to the company, they too could have received hundreds of dollars in compensation.

Leaving Cash on the Table

Our ineffective complaining habits are costing all of us cold hard cash in refunds we never collect, discounts we don't insist upon, and compensation we don't demand. The only thing stopping us from pursuing these complaints is our defeatist psychology.

However, the wonderful thing about mindsets is that we can change them! We can recognize that our current beliefs about the utility of complaining are faulty and that complaining effectively can and does get us results. We need to reexamine our assumptions when we find ourselves in a complaining situation and realize that although we might feel helpless, we are not. Learning to complain effectively is not just about recouping cash, but about recouping our self-esteem, our sense of agency and self-efficacy.

When next you have a complaint, challenge the inner voice that tells you there's no point in complaining and speak up. You'll be surprised at how effective you can be if you simply voice a civil complain to the right people, those with the authority to resolve it.

For other ways to improve your mental health check out my TED talk.

And for science based techniques for dealing with common emotional wounds, read Emotional First Aid: Healing Rejection, Guilt, Failure, and Other Everyday Hurts (Plume 2014) 

If you feel you lack the skills and techniques to do so, check out other posts on this blog of The Squeaky Wheel book. Frankie Boyer is not the only effective complainer I recently met. Read my personal blog for the story of a young man whose complaint got a huge company to face the music-his music.

Follow me on Twitter @GuyWinch

Copyright 2011 Guy Winch

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