Retirement Weekly: Fed up with customer service? Here’s how to make your complaint count.

It’s easy to assume retirees are demanding customers. If they’re dissatisfied with a purchase, they won’t hesitate to complain—loudly and persistently.

Yet despite having lots of time on their hands, they’re surprisingly passive.

Older consumers are less likely to report an unsatisfactory experience, says Newell Wright, Ph.D., a professor of marketing and international business at North Dakota State University, who has reviewed research on complaining behavior.

Part of the reason relates to generational differences in harnessing technology. Older people are less apt to live their daily life online—and share their opinions in a digital forum.

“In the United States, the best way to seek redress of grievances is to use Twitter and use the company’s handle in your complaint,” Wright said. “Companies monitor these social media streams. My students do this all the time and it works,” but retirees may spend less time online or lack a deep grounding in social media platforms.

Lodging a formal complaint requires time, energy and what Wright calls “psychic discomfort.” Retirees may have free time, but lack the energy to expend on a task that’s not particularly joyful. 

“There’s a cost to complaining,” he said. “A lot of people are conflicted about doing it. Their exit strategy is to just walk away” from it.

Ignoring overcharges, accepting defective products or internalizing your fury with a bureaucracy may save you from the hassle of composing a complaint, fielding the response (or stewing at the lack thereof) and negotiating a fair resolution. You probably didn’t retire just to engage in stress-inducing confrontations with retailers, product manufacturers or professional service providers.

But if you treat it as a process of self-discovery—or a test of your mettle—you can come away with a heightened appreciation for your own assertiveness and the results that come with voicing your concerns in an effective manner.

If you’re going to complain, make it count. Impulsive rants or disjointed accounts of what transpired will get you nowhere.

It’s better to construct a fact-filled, succinct narrative that you deliver in a polite but firm tone. That may take practice and preparation. 

Calling a customer service representative when you are steaming is a recipe for disaster: Your emotions will overtake your reasonableness and the substance of your complaint will get lost amid the acrimony.

Ideally, place your complaint in a historical context. Express disappointment in a trusted brand or surprise at how your physician kept you waiting for so long after years of running a tight ship.

A little empathy goes a long way. Acknowledge the obstacles that the other party faces, from staffing shortages to supply chain disruptions.

“Don’t come in nasty or aggressive, threatening to tell other people,” Wright said. “If you come in like that, they won’t give anything.”

Instead, he advises striking a note of reciprocity: You give a little and they give a little. That signals your eagerness to resolve the situation without pushing them into a corner or bullying them into submission.

If your complaint revolves around a relatively small amount of money, you don’t want to sound petty. But that shouldn’t stop you from speaking up.

When Wright, 60, received a bill from his auto mechanic, he noticed a $3 charge for work that wasn’t done. He sought out the owner of the shop and said in a civil tone, “If you’re doing that on the small stuff, how can I tell you’re not doing that on the big stuff?”

The owner apologized and assured Wright it wouldn’t happen again.

The odds of a satisfactory response soar if you can go directly to the source with your complaint. Speaking to the business owner face-to-face tends to produce results—or at least ensures you’re informing the right person of your concerns.

When buying a product, take note of the manufacturer’s accessibility. Is there a toll-free number to call? Can you file a complaint on the company’s website? Is there a local branch office you can visit?

Otherwise, you might be left with a paltry option: Badmouthing the company to anybody within earshot. Reliving your anger time and again isn’t great for your psyche (and it might bore your listeners).

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