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Corporate Class: Complaining well

'There isn't another flight out until when?'

'There isn't another flight out until when?'

By Ann Humphries
With Porter Anderson
CNN Career

(CNN) -- "Not that I ever complain, of course."

ETICON'S Ann Humphries is no slouch. Gets her disclaimers right up there, doesn't she?

The topic we gave her this week was about making complaints at work or about work-related issues. A few people seem to be able to do it and come out with their heads still on their shoulders. Others -- have you noticed this? -- seem to end up demeaned, diminished and demoted.

graphic Short, sweet and contentious: When you complain about a business matter -- whether to your boss, a co-worker, client or vendor -- do you usually get the result you want?

Half and half.
No, and I'd like to complain about that.
View Results

Most employees anywhere you go are simply afraid to complain at all. Intimidation can get management a long way.

CNN: So we asked Humphries about making complaints in the workplace -- not just to a boss but to, say, an airline ticket counter when your business flights are being wrecked by bad scheduling; or to another businessperson from whom your company expected a service that hasn't come through.

Ann Humphries: First, I want to explode the myth that you have to be ugly to make your complaint heard.

Some of the comments we get on the column here led us to this subject. And a Columbia University study documented some effects of complaining. What came through was that you get better results when you're calm and firm.

South Carolina Gov. Jim Hodges has named Ann Humphries,   founder and president of ETICON Inc., one of seven South Carolina Women of Achievement. Humphries, who's based in Columbia, is a Certified Professional Consultant to Management. Her clients have included several Fortune 500 companies. She's been featured in the Wall Street Journal, Fortune and Money, and on CNN, CBS and Lifetime TV.

Going for the throat, personal attacks, temper tantrums don't work. Calm, quiet persistence gets you more.

In fact, in some settings -- including some corporate settings -- you can be arrested if you lose it. Several news stories lately have made it clear that security people in airports may come for you if you get too obstreperous about that plane connection you've missed, whether it means you're missing the stockholders' meeting or not.

Sure, I'll pound on a car if somebody backs up and almost kills me or if my children are threatened.

But the better way to handle almost any complaint you need to make is to be extremely diplomatic and direct.

Here are some points to consider.

- If you introduce yourself to the person you're making a complaint to, it helps. You have a lot better chance at getting good results when you personalize it.

Elizabeth Connor is library director for Ross University School of Medicine. And that means that her Day on the Job   takes place on the Caribbean island of Dominica. Prepare to experience envy.

- Decide in your mind before you complain what you want out of it. Sometimes an apology is all you need. Sometimes you may want a credit to your company card for something that didn't get done right. At other times, you may feel that punitive damages are what's needed. Go in knowing what you want -- this will help you maintain some composure.

- Oldest advice there is, but it's still good: Choose your battles. The goal is not to get your blood pressure up in order to deal with somebody on the bottom of the food chain.

- Remember that personal confrontation isn't the only way to complain. You can go at it by e-mail or letter, phone or voice mail. And there may be a series of people you can talk to, too. At a hotel when something goes wrong on your business trip, for example, you might consider telling the desk, then writing the manager later to follow up.

Just as we get news from the Labor Department that the United States' unemployment level soared in August, we also learn of federally funded research that shows at least 34,900 American jobs shifting to China in a seven-month period.  Eighty companies or more are moving production to the People's Republic, with more to follow.

- On the phone, remember to keep your voice even, calm, measured. Don't use profanity. People aren't required by any law to tolerate what they might consider an abusive tone or language.

- In many cases, I find it can help to tell people what you'd like: "Here is what happened -- here is what I'd like to see happen now to rectify the situation." With airlines, for example, I've sometimes said, "I think the trouble this situation has caused me is worth such-and-such amount."

- You want to talk with people who can solve your problem. Or to the people who talk to the people who can solve your problem. What does this mean? It means ask for a supervisor.

- If oral complaints aren't working, make a written complaint. E-mail may not have as much effect, but a letter is very powerful sometimes.

Yes, you can lodge those gripes here, along with questions, issues, confusions -- things you'd like us to consider addressing in's Corporate Class. Kindly click here for a pop-up submission form. And join the many readers who have prompted some of the columns you read here weekly.

- Stay away from personal attacks. Stay away from the glaring, slamming reaction to something, it's no good. If you need to complain about something, say so and say so early. Don't wait too long and let your frustration build.

Bottom line: Controlling your temper, managing your complaint, risking someone's irritation and so on can be daunting. But remember that if you don't complain when you have valid grounds to, then the problem will continue.

Complaining is the right thing to do -- to co-workers, to your boss, to business contacts, clients and suppliers. Just do it the right way -- as a function of clear thought, not knee-jerk emotion.




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