How to complain

Written by Allan Britnell

It’s inevitable that, in the course of doing business, you’ll one day get shoddy treatment from a company you’re dealing with, or some supplier will come up short in the goods or services it promised to deliver. Obviously, having a cow is no way to settle a legitimate beef.

Get organized, get talking

No matter how grievous the error and how angry you are, give yourself time to cool down and organize. Sort out your thoughts while you gather the relevant paperwork, spelling out what you were promised. Before you contact anyone, be sure you’ve clearly determined what the problem is (say, a promised order of widgets failed to arrive) and what you would like done to resolve the problem (have the widgets shipped, express, at no extra cost to you, and get a discount on your next order).

That said, it’s important to voice your complaint as soon as possible. “Without communication, you start to demonize the other side,” says Barbara Benoliel, president of the ADR (Alternative Dispute Resolution) Institute of Ontario, a standards and training organization for mediators and arbitrators. “Instead of thinking, ‘Well, maybe they made a mistake with that shipment€¦’ You’re going to start thinking, ‘It’s not a mistake. They did it on purpose. They’re trying to cheat me.'”

Use an online cheat sheet

If communication isn’t your strongest point, get help. Though it’s geared to consumers, Industry Canada’s “Complaint Courier” website has many helpful tools, including a “dialogue coach” to help you clearly verbalize your complaint and a fill-in-the-blanks template for writing an effective complaint letter.

Climb the food chain

The first person to contact with an issue is your sales rep or primary contact at the business in question. Ask him or her about the company’s structure for dealing with complaints, however formal or informal, and follow it.

Very large corporations have organized chains of command and entire departments devoted to resolving conflicts. At TD Canada Trust, for example, you can voice a complaint to your first point of contact (banker, teller), and, if it’s not resolved to your satisfaction, you can escalate to the branch manager, the district vice president, the regional senior vice-president and, ultimately, to the bank’s ombudsman, explains TD spokesman Jeff Keay.

As you move from person to person, take note of their name, the date and the time at which you spoke to them, and what they promised (or who they said they’d pass you on to). This paper trail can help expedite the process and ensure you don’t get lost in the shuffle.

A higher authority

If your two companies can’t find a happy resolution, you may want to involve a professional mediator or arbitrator. The distinction between the two, says Benoliel, is that a mediator acts as “a facilitator and a guide” to try and get both parties talking, while an arbitrator is a “referee” who listens to both sides and then makes a binding decision based on the facts presented.

If your problem is with a business in a federally regulated industry such as financial institutions, insurance companies or airlines, there are industry-wide government-appointed investigators (the Ombudsman for Banking Services and the General Insurance Ombud Service), and/or government watchdogs (such as the Air Travel Complaints Commissioner) that handle and track unresolved complaints.

Courting disaster

As a last resort, you may be forced to seek legal recourse to resolve the situation: small claims court handles contracts worth less than $3,000 to $10,000, depending on the province, while civil court adjudicates over larger dollar amounts. The problem is that the time, stress, and legal costs can quickly outweigh any judgment, even if it does come out in your favour. Says Valerie MacLean, vice-president of consumer affairs for the Greater Vancouver Area Better Business Bureau: “Anyone that wants to go to court usually hasn’t been there.”

© 2005 Allan Britnell

Originally appeared on PROFITguide.com