How To Complain Online (& Get Free Stuff)

Illustrated by Abbie Winters.
Complaining today is much easier than it used to be. Lost luggage, bad service, extra charges, broken products — you used to have to put a letter in the mail to voice your dissatisfaction. Before that (way before that) unhappy customers would even inscribe their complaint on a clay tablet. That's dedication.

While it's tempting to immediately fire off an angry tweet or write a bad online review, there’s a right way and a wrong way to effectively complain online. The best outcome is a satisfying resolution — a refund, a replaced product, a complimentary meal — while the worst (thankfully rare) scenario is getting sued.

“As the saying goes: ‘A happy customer tells a friend; an unhappy customer tells the world,’” says Natascha Thomson, a social media and marketing consultant and CEO at MarketingXLerator.

Not all companies are responsive to complaints. In fact, one study showed that responding to Twitter complaints triggered more complaints. Some companies are even outsourcing complaint resolution and charging customers to complain (several U.K. airlines, including British Airways and easyJet, may charge you as much as $33 to file a complaint).

Luckily, most major brands want to address issues quickly and peacefully. Here’s our guide to getting online complaints resolved — and getting the results YOU want.
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Illustrated by Abbie Winters.
Try direct channels such as email first.
Hold off on complaining publicly, like tagging the company in a tweet. Once you’ve already said something negative in a public forum, you’ve lost some leverage, and the company has less incentive to respond. “The right way is to try to resolve issues outside the public eye first,” says Thomson. If a company responds to a tweet, the customer is often directed to follow up via phone or email. “They're usually better off just calling or emailing directly,” says Likeable Media’s director of content placement and engagement, Charlie Balk. “That's usually the end result anyway.”
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Illustrated by Abbie Winters.
Use the correct Twitter handle.
In some cases, however, the official channel can be a Twitter account specifically for customer service. “Some brands, like airlines, have Twitter handles dedicated to customer service to isolate complaints from the positive stream of content a brand likes to share,” says Thomson. “On those channels, it’s probably fair game to voice complaints, as the channels are billed as customer-service channels.”

Make sure you’re using the correct handle. A couple examples for some popular brands include: @NikeSupport, @BestBuySupport, @AmazonHelp, @AskTarget, and @comcastcares. If you're trying to garner some buzz and support from your followers, put a period before the @ sign in your reply, or mention the handle later in your tweet, so that all your followers can view it.
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Illustrated by Abbie Winters.
Stay calm.
“If you act like an out of control person, nobody will have sympathies for you,” says Thomson. “The idea of complaining publicly, as a last resort, is to get other people to take your side so the brand has a greater incentive to do you right and stop the escalation.”

Twitter profiles that seem to be exclusively for complaints aren’t taken seriously. “Using a personal handle that has no followers and no profile picture — an egg, as it's called — definitely doesn't help,” Balk says.
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Illustrated by Abbie Winters.
Be clear about what happened and what you want.
Keep your complaint short and to the point and include relevant information, says Balk. “Often, customers leave out important information, like store number, product number, order number, etc.,” he says. “If the brand has to ask for those details, it can slow the process down.”

Also be clear about how you would like the problem resolved — if you’d like refund or replacement, for example. “Give the brand a chance to make it right,” Thomson says. “Complaining in itself is no fun; the complaint needs to have a goal. Ideally, you can make it clear what this goal is to see if the brand can make up for damage done.”
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Illustrated by Abbie Winters.
Emphasize loyalty.
If you have been a loyal customer, stress how long or how frequently you have been a customer. A company has less incentive to address your complaint if they think you’ve already been lost as a customer. “If you are a great client, they will try harder to make it right,” says Thomson.
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Illustrated by Abbie Winters.
A picture is worth 1,000 words.
“Are there pictures that document a run-down hotel room or dirty beach?” says Thomson. “Pictures go a long way, as posted in public, they become hard-to-deny facts.”

Posting photos on social media, however, should be a last resort. “Give local resources a chance to fix it, only then go to corporate. Going to corporate as step two almost always works.”

For example, after checking into a disappointing hotel room, Thomson first contacted the reception desk to ask for a different room before contacting the manager, who issued a refund. In another instance, “We posted the pictures to Twitter, including the handle of the hotel brand,” she says. “The next day, we got an apology and a coupon for a free night to stay at the hotel chain.”
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Illustrated by Abbie Winters.
Post wisely.
Every now and then, a complaint can backfire. Back in 2009, a Chicago landlord sued a tenant for tweeting about her “moldy apartment” on the grounds of libel, but the case was eventually dismissed. More recently, a Southwest passenger made the news when he said he wasn’t allowed to board a plane until he deleted his tweet about a gate agent. Don’t post anything that could be construed as untrue or as a personal attack against someone.
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Illustrated by Abbie Winters.
Take to forums to solve problems.
If a complaint gains enough traction in online forums, such as Reddit, sometimes the company will take notice and resolve the issue. However, says Balk, unless it’s a forum run by the company, it’s often unlikely to be seen and acted upon by the brand.

Thomson says, “Forums can be good places to resolve problems, but they are not good places to complain, as you are generally speaking to your peers and not a company.” Online forums are helpful in seeing if other consumers have had the same problem, and how other customers got their issues resolved.

Alternatively, you can try posting an Instagram or YouTube video to share your issue. This can be high reward if it gets some viral traction, Balk says, but if the brand isn't doing anything terribly egregious no one may care.
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Illustrated by Abbie Winters.
Multiply your voice.
If you are not getting a timely response, Balk says you can encourage friends to reply or retweet. “This can help get a brand’s attention faster.”

When tweeting or posting online after you’ve already tried contacting the company directly, says Thomson, “I’d also try to highlight that other paths of action have already been taken, to make the complaint sound more serious.”
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