It began in 1996 and a changed gate, lost seat reservations and a damaged suit over the course of a series of United Airlines flights. Then a University of Toronto Ph.D. student, Cooperstock send a letter of complaint that received only a boilerplate reply many months later. Feeling unheard, he started gripe site Untied.ca.
He has since collected about 30,000 United customer and employee complaints, publishing them for all to see. A 20-year-long legal battle between Cooperstock and United suggests the company is paying more attention to his site than they ever did to his original letter.
Most people won’t have to go to such lengths to be taken seriously. For tips on how to win the battle with customer service reps, The Star spoke with Cooperstock, John Oesch, an associate professor of negotiation and decision-making at the University of Toronto, and Guy Winch, a psychologist and author of The Squeaky Wheel: Complaining the Right Way to Get Results, Improve Your Relationships, and Enhance Self-Esteem (2011). Here’s what they suggest:
1.Cool heads prevail: Think like Mr. Spock from Star Trek, says Cooperstock. “You will seem serious, someone who is complaining from a rational perspective rather than arguing ‘You’re wrong and I want to scream about it!’”
2.Pity the customer service rep: The person who answers the complaints line usually has little or nothing to do with the problem. “If it sounds like they’re following a script, that’s their job,” says Winch. Common courtesy and friendliness go a long way, he said.
3.Give options: The key to successful negotiation is preparation, says Oesch. Most people display prefer middle-of-the-road options; therefore, “if you want to be very persuasive, you have an option that’s easy for them, you have an option that would be difficult for them and almost unfairly advantageous to you, and you have one in the middle.”
4.Make a sandwich: To make a complaint palatable, “sandwich” it between two positive statements, says Winch. In restaurants, he could start by complimenting the food. “However, the waiter was extremely rude,” he’d say next, before finishing with a positive comment like, “It’s a shame, because I really like this place.”
5. The nibble: If a company offers compensation, get a better deal by making small, incremental demands. For example, if an airline offers a travel voucher to make up for a flight delay, say, “You know what? That’s really nice. I appreciate it. But I also need … ” Oesch said. “That’s the nibble.”
6. Avoid empty threats: Saying “See you in court!” doesn’t cut it. Companies will often call your bluff, Cooperstock says. “Legal action is a lot like sex,” he said, paraphrasing a friend, “Those who talk about it are not the ones doing it.” He recommends filing a notice of action after giving the company time to respond to the complaint.