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McClatchy-Tribune  08/24/2014 8:05 AM ET
HONEY OR VINEGAR? [Albuquerque Journal, N.M. :: ]

Aug. 24--Everybody has had their own version of the lousy dinner experience. The waiter took 20 minutes too long with the iced tea refill, forgot the requested side of ranch and then overcharged for the cheesecake.

Or maybe the food itself was the issue. The bread was stale, the sauce too salty.

Similar letdowns aren't limited to restaurants, of course. Nearly every consumer experience comes with the potential for disappointment: the hotel that can't accommodate an existing reservation for double beds, the toaster that fizzles after just a few months, the oblivious store clerk who's too busy texting to offer assistance.

They aren't life-or-death situations. (At least not usually.) But even the little problems can leave customers feeling deflated or, worse, downright disgruntled.

But what then?

Speak up, says Albuquerque etiquette expert Thelma Domenici.

"I think you need to do that not just for yourself, but for improving and continuing good service for others," Domenici said.

And business owners tend to agree that it's best to say something, especially when the alternative is losing a customer forever without knowing why.

"Just be forthcoming," said Mark "Pardo" Gonzales, owner of Albuquerque's Mark Pardo salon and spa chain, who says his company has multiple systems in place to solicit customer feedback. "(How) can we ever be better if we don't know where we have the opportunity to improve?"

Steve Paternoster, who owns two fine-dining restaurants in Albuquerque, said customers are "the lifeblood of what we do" and that he absolutely wants to know when they're somehow unsatisfied -- preferably sooner than later.

"I like to know right away if I can, so I have every opportunity to make it right," said the owner of Scalo and Elaine's.

And yet even if everyone agrees that honesty is the best policy, customers often avoid voicing any displeasure because they would rather avoid potentially awkward interactions.

That's why we've consulted with some experts about how to navigate the sometimes-tricky business of saying "I'm not entirely happy."

Speak to the right person

If it's poor restaurant service, Domenici recommends asking for a supervisor and discussing the matter discretely. If it's a more personal service -- say a massage that is somehow missing the mark -- she recommends broaching the subject with the provider early on so they have a chance to adjust.

But should an initial grievance go nowhere, don't be afraid to move up the ladder, said Anthony Giorgianni, associate finance editor for Consumer Reports' "Money Adviser." If, for instance, the associate at the store's return counter offers no help, try his boss.

"The trick is to go up the line," Giorgianni said, noting that even a letter to the CEO could be appropriate. "The low-level person may not even care and may not have the power to even do anything."

When the complaint involves a product, Giorgianni said most people turn to the manufacturer but also should check in with the business that sold it.

"Don't forget the retailer," he said.

Do unto others ...

Remember to mind your manners. Point out the problem "graciously, thoughtfully and with respect," Domenici said. This helps maintain calm.

But perhaps just as important, a kind and measured approach signals to the business that it still has a chance to appease you.

"The main thing is if you're going to complain to a company, don't go in with guns blazing," Giorgianni said. "Because companies may not help you if they get the sense that they've already lost you as a customer."

If you're a regular customer, let them know. If you've always had good experiences with the company, make note of that, too.

Break it down

When airing a complaint, clearly explain what you felt went wrong, Domenici said. Also consider stating exactly how the company can make it right, "so they know what it is you're asking for," said Connie Quillen, executive assistant at the Better Business Bureau of New Mexico and Southwest Colorado.

But remember to remain reasonable, Giorgianni said. Don't demand a $50 restaurant gift card when a $10 hamburger arrives with fries instead of a side salad and don't expect an appliance company to send you a free replacement when a 23-yearold, expired-warranty microwave poops out.

Consider alternatives

For those too intimidated to complain in person, other options may exist. Many companies have feedback mechanisms on their websites. Some maintain Facebook pages, giving customers a chance to speak up that way.

Social media can be an effective tool for capturing a company's attention, though Giorgianni said customers who have their issues resolved that way should consider using the same channel to later express their satisfaction.

The BBB also can intervene, but Quillen said the organization generally recommends customers first try sorting the problem out with the company before making a BBB complaint.

"However, we don't turn anyone down," she said.

Remember your opinion matters

The bottom line is that businesses need customers to stay in business. Giorgianni said too many consumers underestimate their sway. It's generally much harder for a company to find a new customer than to satisfy an existing one, he said.

Plus, many businesses recognize that fixing a problem could pay big dividends later.

"If you complain to a company and the company satisfies you, chances are you will be a better, more loyal customer than if you didn't complain to start with because the company gets a chance to show you how good they are," Giorgianni said.

 

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