Ottawa Citizen
Thursday 7 December 2000

Rethinking the way to complain effectively

Dave Brown
The Ottawa Citizen

New technology has changed most of the ways we do things, and most of us seem to be having trouble adapting to the fact we have to change the way we complain.

Example: While checking out of a shop recently, the clerk informed me there was a charge for something I felt was unjustified. I said so. He was obviously new at his job and a bit nervous. That he didn't seem to know what to do seemed worthy of another complaint.

Yes, he said, he had been trained. He knew how to operate the computer, which was also a cash register. He could answer questions about the store's stock.

But had anybody showed him how to run the computer program so an unhappy customer could complain to somebody with the authority to do something? The kid looked blank. Complaint? Nobody mentioned that possibility.

The shop was busy and I was holding up the line. I played to those in line behind me. Was it acceptable that we were dealing with a business that didn't have a method of handling complaints?

Shouldn't we all line up and complain about the lack of a complaint process?

The tall woman next in line found things to look at in the distance. Others behind her were showing signs of getting grumpy because somebody was holding up the line.

I informed the clerk if he couldn't process a complaint, I would take my business elsewhere. The reaction would be the same if you told somebody there were 24 hours in a day. The body language -- a slight twitch to the shoulders and one eyebrow -- said so what.

The tall woman followed me out and showed limited agreement with my upset. Then why hadn't she supported me? Why didn't she tell the clerk he needed training in how to handle complaints?

"He's my son," was the answer.

Since that incident, I've been analysing the incident. Am I getting old and cranky? Do I expect too much? Do others complain too little? Is there a need to rethink the way we complain?

That's a definite yes to the last question, particularly if you're trying to get a public airing for a beef.

Hearing complaints is a large part of my job, but the dynamics have changed drastically in the past few years. An update is needed in how to complain to a newspaper.

Do not compile a file, package it and drop it off. All that work is going to be pushed to the back of somebody's desk for a later look, and chances are it is never going to be read.

Write a one-page attention grabber. Here's what the problem is, and here's what would be a fair solution. Here's a phone number if anybody wants more detail. All you can hope to do with the first contact is to stir interest.

If possible, send that one page by e-mail. Like it or not, newspapers have gone digital. A brief note outlining an issue appearing in e-mail can be immediately turned around and shot back with a few questions.

Paper piling up on the desk tends to get buried under new paper arriving every day. There may be good causes in the pile, but chances are they are going to be lost under the pressure of the well-presented issue showing up on the computer screen.

When that happens, the complaint that was to be looked into by me, becomes about me. Months ago, somebody sent a thick file including receipts and court documents. It was added to a pile of similar files. About twice a year, I have to dump paper and often its material that hasn't been read. It's unwise to send original material into a newsroom. Copies only. Now somebody is upset because I can't find a file sent almost a year ago, one that contained important originals.

Summarizing: Don't hesitate to round on a clerk if you think you have a legitimate complaint. First ask him if his mother is in the shop.

When looking for help from the media, keep first contact brief and preferably by e-mail. Do not drop off important documents unless specifically asked for them. When delivering such papers, have the reporter photocopy the file, and take your file back immediately.

Dave Brown is the Citizen's senior editor. Send e-mail to

Read previous columns by Dave Brown at

Copyright 2000 Ottawa Citizen