PODCAST: How to Complain (and Get Results)

In today's customer-service environment, getting through and getting results takes determination — and skill. We'll talk about techniques to help you get help.

Photo of woman complaining on the phone
(Image credit: Getty Images)

Listen now:

Subscribe FREE wherever you listen:

Apple Podcasts | Google Podcasts | Spotify | Overcast | RSS

Links and resources mentioned in this episode:

Subscribe to Kiplinger’s Personal Finance

Be a smarter, better informed investor.

Save up to 74%

Sign up for Kiplinger’s Free E-Newsletters

Profit and prosper with the best of expert advice on investing, taxes, retirement, personal finance and more - straight to your e-mail.

Profit and prosper with the best of expert advice - straight to your e-mail.

Sign up


David Muhlbaum: Anyone can complain, and sometimes it seems like everyone does. But there are ways to do it right when the point is a better outcome, not just venting. We'll talk with staff writer Emma Patch about techniques for navigating customer service menus, chat bots, and more to get what you're due. Also, hurricanes, wildfires, and flooding, we've had help for dealing with disasters that have struck and prepping for the next big one. Welcome to Your Money's Worth. I'm Kiplinger.com senior online editor, David Muhlbaum, joined by my cohost, senior editor, Sandy Block. How are you doing Sandy?

Sandy Block: I'm doing great, David. High and dry. How are you?

David Muhlbaum: I've been better. I spent a good bit of the morning crawling around the attic, trying to figure out where the water was coming in. Yeah, no, this was because of Hurricane Ida, but I do appreciate that many people had it much worse in that storm, much, much worse.

Sandy Block: Oh yeah. That was something else. There were storms, there were big storms. There were big storms that hit big populated areas. The pictures of the New York subway yesterday were just mind boggling.

David Muhlbaum: Yeah, New York. Of course, Louisiana is where it came ashore, but it's sort of like ... it's not like it didn't do damage there, but it's a question of, did people know it was coming? Well, they knew it was coming, but how prepared were they? Anyway, earlier this month, I was in New England as Hurricane Henry neared-

Sandy Block: Henri.

David Muhlbaum: ... and that was ... Henri, oh, pardon me, excusez-moi.

Sandy Block: It's a French hurricane.

David Muhlbaum: Excusez-moi, that was looking like the first hurricane to make landfall in the Northeast in like 30 years. The worry levels were through the roof, but the result was pretty meh. Then a week later, we get Hurricane Ida. She comes ashore thousands of miles away in Louisiana, drops insane amounts of rain all the way up the Appalachians, including on us, and then still has enough power to inundate the Northeast, like subway-stopping, tunnel-flooding, basement-filling water. Nature's power is awesome, and I guess I'm using awesome more in the biblical sense.

Sandy Block: Right, because nobody cheers a storm.

David Muhlbaum: Yeah, particularly not one that includes loss of life. Did you notice a lot of California's on fire? Now, earlier this summer, right at the start of hurricane season, we did an episode on disaster insurance, wind storms, flooding, fire, even earthquakes.

Sandy Block: Yeah, we haven't had any earthquakes so far this year.

David Muhlbaum: Shh., the tectonic plates will hear you. Don't jinx it. No, you're right about the earthquake thing in terms of damage in the United States. But I actually went and checked, and it turns out that we had the biggest earthquake in the US since 1965 back in July. It was 8.2 magnitude, but here's the thing. It happened out in the Aleutian islands off Alaska, where there's almost nobody, like cracked a few roads.

Sandy Block: That's an earthquake we can get behind. We can talk about the weather on the continent for a while, but let's hit the actionable advice.

David Muhlbaum: Yes.

Sandy Block: We did an episode about preparing for disaster. Good for us, but the disasters happen anyway, as they do. So what do we have for people in the wake of these storms and fires? We can't pump out anyone's basement, but we can help them with the claims.

David Muhlbaum: Yes, with the claims, and I'm excited. We have a new personal finance writer on board at Kiplinger.com. Her name is Elaine Silvestrini. She hails from Florida, which she was quick to note is the lightning capital of the US. Did you know that's why it's the Tampa Bay Lightning? I, of course, did not.

Sandy Block: Yeah, but it's cool.

David Muhlbaum: Yeah, so she's seen a few storms and she's hit the ground running here with pieces on what you need to know about hurricane claims, who pays if the tree on one person's property falls on another person's property, and something we're working on right now, like right now is avoiding flood damaged cars. I'll pop links into these items in the show notes.

Sandy Block: Oh, flooding and cars, right, in what's already a tight used car market. That's not going to help.

David Muhlbaum: No. Yes, Elaine and I talked to an analyst at Car Gurus, Kevin Roberts, and that's exactly what he thinks. It will further increase these already high prices. But interestingly, he notes that this will mostly be along Ida's path. The used car market is just that regional. It's like you can track the prices with the hurricane eye path.

Sandy Block: Right, and another thing that we can see coming out of Ida is more people getting flood insurance. We're already hearing reports of people in New York and New Jersey, who never even considered buying flood insurance because they've never seen floods like this before. But as these storms increase in power and intensity, a lot of people are going to be looking into it, because as we've reported many times, basic homeowner's insurance does not cover flooding. If you're flooded and you don't have flood insurance, you're kind of out of luck.

David Muhlbaum: So when they go shopping for that, they're going to be looking at mostly federal flood insurance, right? But there's also some private offerings.

Sandy Block: Right, and this actually is a business that has been growing and provides new competition that for some, in some cases, might actually provide more coverage at a lower cost. So it's definitely worth looking into. You can check with your state insurance department for companies selling flood coverage in your area, ask your insurance agent about it. This is going to be a shifting business because private insurers are constantly assessing risks. So if you are in a very flood prone area, maybe you won't be able to get this, but it's worth checking out. Because one of the things that these policies do provide, if you qualify, is higher coverage limits than you can get from the feds, which is capped.

David Muhlbaum: Right, and they ... also, my understanding is the private ones may have different waiting times for eligibility. Because this is the thing, you can't just look out and go, "Oh, look, here comes Hurricane Larry. I better get some insurance," and the next day it's going. There are waiting periods. On the federal, it's 30 days, right?

Sandy Block: Right, it's 30 days, which means if you're ... Right, you should be thinking about it and not just wait until ... I know even with a private insurer, they may have a shorter waiting period. But I don't think you're going to want to call an insurance company when the news is reporting that a hurricane is coming your way. I mean, you want to be prepared for this.

David Muhlbaum: Yeah. Okay, we hope you're okay. We hope you're drying out. We will have more information for you in the show notes. Time to call the insurer. Thanks very much. Coming up next, we're going to talk about how to complain, with Emma Patch

How to Complain (and Get Results), with Emma Patch

David Muhlbaum: Welcome back to Your Money's Worth. For our main segment today, we're joined by Kiplinger staff writer, Emma Patch, who is the latest to update a Kiplinger perennial story called How to Complain and Get Results. Now, I wouldn't be the first to say that being able to complain is an innate human trait. I mean, what's the first thing a newborn baby does? They let you know they didn't ask for all this light and noise and hey, it's cold out here. But we're not just going to talk about complaining. We're going to talk about outcomes. Because as you get older and interact with, well, people less committed to a response than a new mother, technique matters, and nobody likes a whiner, right, Emma? Thanks for joining us today.

Emma Patch: Hello.

Sandy Block: So thanks for coming back to Your Money's Worth, Emma. We had you on a year ago or so to talk about travel, which is something we'd like to talk about again, because you were writing about grateful getaways earlier this year or this summer, but I don't know. I'm not quite sure where we are with that.

David Muhlbaum: Right. Well, we sure wanted to talk about travel with Emma, but she was writing that piece back in June, which is forever ago in pandemic months. Frankly, it was just like the meme goes, our fall plans, the delta variant. But before we move on to talking about complaining, Emma, maybe we can salvage something. Tell us, give us a ray of hope. What's something we can do during pumpkin spice season that will get us away from the crowds and keep us away?

Emma Patch: Well, you're right. Delta definitely threw a wrench in things. But that said, travel opportunities, especially for people who love the outdoors, are definitely still out there. You can find relatively affordable and COVID-safe vacation options, camping, hiking, or backpacking this fall, for instance. That's one thing that I know I have on my travel agenda.

David Muhlbaum: How about airfares? I mean, this is in part driven by demand. I assume demand is down. Do you know what's happening right now in airfares?

Emma Patch: A lot of airfares are plummeting in price. So you're probably more likely to find some deals, but it is important to bear in mind that you might have to cancel a trip that you want to take. So definitely keep an eye out for flexibility when you're booking your airfares, I'd say.

Sandy Block: Right, and I think, Emma, we've also written before about travel insurance. That might be something that you want to check out, because as you said, there is a lot of uncertainty. Certainly, if you were going to buy an expensive trip, it sounds like you'd want to check and see what the refund policies are and whether you ... what your credit card might cover, and whether you want to tack on some travel insurance as well.

Emma Patch: If you've already booked a trip, definitely double-check cancellation policies on whatever you booked, because you might be able to get your money back or a credit, if you don't feel safe traveling anymore.

Sandy Block: Good deal.

Emma Patch: That's right.

Sandy Block: So obviously, if you can't get refunds-

David Muhlbaum: You're going to complain.

Sandy Block: ... you're going to complain. That's right. People certainly do complain about travel, but they complain about a whole lot of other things. As David mentioned, writing about complain, writing about how to complain is something Kiplinger has done before, maybe not every year, but a lot. Obviously, what with us having been around for a long time, we've seen the nature of complaining evolve.

David Muhlbaum: The need to complain. The need to complain is eternal.

Sandy Block: That doesn't change, that's right. So I guess our question is, how do you do it? I mean, when I was going through some of my parents’ things, I found a letter my mother wrote, which was just a classic letter, because my mom was a good writer, to this outfit that kept sending her updates to her encyclopedia every year. I guess they threatened legal action. Her letter basically said, come at me, or something like that. It was a great letter, but nowadays you have so many other things to do. You can do emails. You can do social media. So Emma, I guess the question for you is what's the latest technique that you're seeing for people who want to complain?

Emma Patch: I think that the most important thing that you can do is try to get through to a human. Because when you need to complain, you're probably going to have a lot more success if you can talk to somebody instead of getting buried in a chat or in an endless phone menu.

David Muhlbaum: Yeah, but how?

Emma Patch: One thing you could check out is gethuman.com. There, you can find a lot of phone numbers and other ways to get in contact with actual people at companies who might be able to help you.

David Muhlbaum: Cool, GetHuman, so G-E-T-H-U-M-A-N.com.

Emma Patch: That's the one.

David Muhlbaum: That's the one, okay. But all right, so I can get through ... Let's say I get through to a human, but sometimes the experience is ... I mean, all men may be created equal, but I don't think all consumer representatives are. I don't mean just their personalities. I mean what they're actually allowed to do, their latitude. Maybe they can give you a $25 credit, but that's not going to cut it if, say, my fridge just went out or whatever. How can you best tell when it's time to escalate? I know you can't possibly address every scenario, but are there certain signs when you want to pull the sort of like, "I'd like to speak to a supervisor?" What's that threshold?

Emma Patch: It definitely varies case by case, I'd say. But generally speaking, if you paid for something that you didn't get, if the product or the service doesn't match what you were basically promised, then you can, and you should speak up about it. If you're getting repeatedly ignored, you're calling again and again and your valid complaints are being dismissed, then that's a pretty good sign that you should escalate.

Sandy Block: Pursuing this issue about going to the top, like, let's just start with the big cheese. Is it effective to actually try and contact the CEO? I guess, in addition to www.gethuman.com there, you might want to look for LinkedIn addresses of C-suite employees or CEOs at their LinkedIn or their websites. I guess there's also something called www.ceoemail.com, which is we know some inventive folks have fished out CEO emails. Actually, our editor Mark Solheim, wrote a column in this issue that Emma's article appeared where he actually did reach out to the CEO for a complaint that he had and got a really good response, got the problem resolved.

Emma Patch: I definitely agree. That's definitely an effective strategy when you're going to a smaller business or a smaller company. The CEOs might even be grateful to hear your feedback.

David Muhlbaum: So we've been talking about the idea of complaining to the company directly. I think most companies would say that's the right thing to do first. That they should have a chance to address your concerns, but you're not always obligated to. What I'm thinking about here is the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, which is a relatively new player in this game. First of all, Emma, you can tell us a little bit more about exactly what kind of complaints they handle. I mean, it says financial right there in the name, but it's actually more specific than that, right?

Emma Patch: It is. It's definitely ... it's financial transactions that you would want to report to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. So anything related to banking or credit or there's a laundry list of consumer financial products that might be relevant to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

David Muhlbaum: Auto loans, mortgages?

Emma Patch: Yes, mortgages for sure.

Sandy Block: Yeah, mortgages, banking and the other ... I think you also mentioned, Emma, and -- I was, have a personal experience with this -- is maybe there might be value in complaining to the Better Business Bureau. I think you also covered that in your story.

Emma Patch: Yeah, the Better Business Bureau is definitely a good place to go, especially if you're trying to figure out what this company has done in the past to handle complaints. Because like the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, a lot of those or all of those are public, and you can view similar cases to yours.

Sandy Block: Right, and then I think there's value there because they know that your complaint ..., other people are going to read your complaint. My own experience with the BBB years ago ... This was before the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau was in existence. I had a credit union that owed me some money. I could not get them to send me a check, and I needed it because we were buying a house . They were on the West Coast. They weren't answering the phone. It was just really, really stressful. So I contacted the Better Business Bureau and I think their procedure, at least back then, was they would then call the company that you complained about to see what they were doing to resolve the issue. Boy, as soon as this credit union got the call from the BBB, I got my check. Because they did not want people going to the Better Business Bureau website and seeing that there was a complaint against them that had not yet been resolved. So I do think that can work if the other things don't work first.

David Muhlbaum: All right, anecdote time. I'm going to tell my anecdote, too, Sandy, because mine involves social media. I think that's a technique we should talk about a bit more when it comes to how to complain. So a few years ago, I rented a car. Technically, I rented an SUV out of Boston Logan Airport. I was headed up to Manchester. No, I was heading up to New Hampshire to do some backcountry skiing. So I decided to pony up a little more for the SUV because I figured that spelled all-wheel drive, and I needed that because the lodge was up a dodgy road with potential snow cover. Well, as it turned out, the road was just fine. We got there, no problem.

David Muhlbaum:The next morning though, while I'm turning the car around in the parking lot, I almost get the darn thing stuck. It's at that point, I realize it does not have all-wheel drive. It just has front-wheel drive, which in plenty of these, you can get in the rental agency cheaped out and just bought something that looked S without actually being S, as in the S in sport. So I took ... I stuck my camera under the car, took a picture of the back where the differential should be and tweeted a ... tweeted to, well, it was Alamo. It was like, "I'm a bit let down here because this was my expectation, and this is what I got, and things could have turned out worse. Good thing they didn't, blah, blah, blah." That was the essence of it.

David Muhlbaum: I, more or less, did it to test the principle. As I said, I didn't actually really get stuck, and I didn't actually really get put out. But perhaps to my surprise, they picked up on my tweet, said that they wanted to make it better. Got in touch, and I ended up with a full day's rental credit for an Alamo car, and in fact, just put that to use the other day, four years later, and got my $67 off and felt quite smug about it.

Sandy Block: Wow. That's a good story. So Emma does ... what does your reporting find about social media? Does it work? Does it help or is it ... I mean, it helped David. Does it help other people?

Emma Patch: In some cases, yes, because what I've found in my reporting is that companies really need to focus on their social media now, because a bad social media presence can really break you and a good one can make you. Some companies even have employees who are paging through their pages, just trying to find complaints. That's their job, is making sure that they are maintaining a good social media presence and might even get back to you more quickly if you do make a complaint. But it does depend on the extent to which you already play in the social media game. You can't just create a Twitter account and go after someone online, or at least it probably won't work.

Sandy Block: Yeah. I mean, you could, but they're not going to care because you have one follower, so.

David Muhlbaum: Right. I think, yeah. In fact, I think that people actually even think that's a thing. Like I'll just set up this account to do X, and it doesn't really work that way. You do have to be trusted yourself in order to invoke the breach of trust, in essence, that the company has done you wrong. I'm a so-and-so and this company has done me wrong. If it's not at all clear who you are, that's not going to help your case. I'm not saying that companies only respond to whatever they call them, blue checks, or people with like, but I do think that context matters. As Emma said, you have to already be in and playing the game. You can't just suddenly decide I'm going to get what I want by creating a social media account and going after it.

Sandy Block: Although if you at someone ... I mean, in my case, mine was a fail. When my Mr. Coffee broke, I tweeted to Mr. Coffee that I was really disappointed that my coffee machine broke. They did tweet back and said, "Well, send us the warranty." Of course, the warranty had ... it was out of warranty, but they did respond. I didn't get any love from them, but they did respond. So I think they do have people, a lot of companies do have people whose job it is to look at mentions of them. In your case, David, it did work, but I think Emma makes ... Yeah.

David Muhlbaum: Yeah, and I think ... I mean, I say, okay, so you're out of warranty, but I think in some cases, people will be satisfied just by knowing that they were heard. I mean, one of the things that Emma and and we at Kiplinger have counseled all along in how to complain is know what you want, right? Know what you want, because then you know what you're asking for. I want this to happen. When you visualize that, you're going to have a better chance of getting it. That said, I think people in a fundamental way just feel validated if someone just listens. It's that getting into ... getting in touch with a human question.

Sandy Block: Right, but I think David makes a good point. You need to be specific, not just I'm really mad at you, make me feel better. I think that's a good point.

David Muhlbaum: Well, Emma, let's wrap up with the special case that is vehicles because they have their own set of laws, the Lemon Laws, as they are known. You open up your piece with an anecdote of your own, about a guy in Florida. Was that someone you knew?

Emma Patch: That was a friend of my brother's who lives and works in Jacksonville, Florida. He purchased a lemon a couple of years ago. Knowing that he had legal protections in the state of Florida to get his money back or get a replacement vehicle, he threatened legal action with the dealership, and instead of actually pursuing that legal action, they paid him to essentially go away and not block him anymore.

Sandy Block: Because the great thing about this story is he actually came out ahead, I think, with a trade-in. Is that right?

Emma Patch: Yeah, he did. He basically got paid to drive the car for a year and a half. Because he sold it about a year later, a year and a half later, and it was ... he sold it at a price higher than what he paid for it, so I think-

David Muhlbaum: So he, in part ... part was going on here is the craziness that is the car market now.

Emma Patch: Right, exactly.

David Muhlbaum: His car appreciated instead of depreciated. Nonetheless, my understanding is so he got paid $5,000 essentially to not pursue a Lemon Law claim. Yeah, and that's Florida too, which of course, these things are all state-based. I think we should note that Lemon Laws are ... they're state-based, and in some states, they even apply to used-car transactions.

Sandy Block: Which I think was the case here, wasn't it, in the case of your friend, your brother's friend? I think it was a used car, wasn't it? Yeah, I think it was a used car. But yeah, as David said, it varies, but it's worth looking up because I think what's so interesting about this story is that this guy didn't have to go to court. He didn't have to invoke the Lemon Law. They basically paid him, like I said, to make him go away. So that shows the real value of complaining in that case. To our earlier point, I think he was specific about what he wanted them to do, which is important also.

David Muhlbaum: All right, Emma, I've got a kind of odd final question. I don't generally like to invoke the whole generational war thing, but the reality is we are of different generations. I'm curious of how different generations complain. We talked at the start about the evolution of this process and frankly, how Kiplinger has been covering it a long time, how to complain and what's new. So I just wonder, so you're Generation Z?

Emma Patch: Yes, I am. I mean, I'd say that you'd be hard pressed to get us all on the phone. We're not calling people up. It's much more likely to be in a chat or not complaining at all. So definitely, more comfortable using chat rooms to get what we need. I mean, I do that to just get a refund for a coffee that showed up an hour later or something like that.

David Muhlbaum: When you're in those chats though, can you ... is it a thing to sense that you're dealing with a bot versus a human? Do you think you can do that and does that matter?

Emma Patch: I think that it just, it can vary for sure. You're probably getting a bot more often than not, but the outcome is what matters, right?

Sandy Block: If you get your coffee, who cares if it was a person or not, right?

David Muhlbaum: Right.

Sandy Block: Yeah. That’s interesting. But it sounds like Emma, from your reporting, that maybe you would be more likely to pick up the phone. Because it does sound like, in some ways, the old ways might still work.

Emma Patch: Yeah. I think that it's definitely a lesson that I've learned personally, is that if you're persistent and you get in touch with a human, it's pretty effective. So us Gen Z-ers and post-millennials definitely have some complaining skills to learn.

Sandy Block: Find that phone, keyboard girls.

David Muhlbaum: Right, and what's the line Sandy? Get off my lawn.

Sandy Block: Get off my lawn. That's a ...

David Muhlbaum: Well, thank you very much for joining us old coots today, Emma. We appreciate your insights and your article about how to complain and get results. Thank you so much.

Emma Patch: Thank you for having me.

David Muhlbaum: That will just about do it for this episode of Your Money's Worth. If you like what you heard, please sign up for more at Apple Podcasts or wherever you get your content. When you do, please give us a rating and review, and if you've already subscribed, thanks. Please go back and add a rating or review if you haven't already. To see the links we've mentioned in our show, along with other great Kiplinger content on the topics we've discussed, go to kiplinger.com/podcast. The episodes, transcripts and links are all in there by date. If you're still here because you want to give us a piece of your mind, you can stay connected with us on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, or by emailing us directly at podcast@kiplinger.com. Thanks for listening.

Sandra Block
Senior Editor, Kiplinger's Personal Finance

Block joined Kiplinger in June 2012 from USA Today, where she was a reporter and personal finance columnist for more than 15 years. Prior to that, she worked for the Akron Beacon-Journal and Dow Jones Newswires. In 1993, she was a Knight-Bagehot fellow in economics and business journalism at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. She has a BA in communications from Bethany College in Bethany, W.Va.