Imagine that you are visiting friends or family in an English-speaking country. You need to have a few pieces of clothing professionally cleaned for a party. So you take them to a dry cleaner.
When you go to get your clothing from the cleaners, the man working there is friendly. He hands you the clothes, smiles and says, “That will be $21.50 please.”
But you see a problem. There is now a hole in your favorite shirt and your pants have changed color. You are very unhappy. But how do you express this effectively?
Most of us do not enjoy complaining. But sometimes we must do it to get a solution.
In this Everyday Grammar program, we will tell you how to make a complaint in English.
An effective complaint often has three steps: explaining the problem; stating your feelings; and asking for action.
- Explain the problem
The first step is to explain the problem.
To do it effectively, you must use polite, respectful language. In English, polite language is usually indirect.
For example, if you are at a restaurant and the server forgets to bring your drink, saying, “You didn’t bring my drink” may be too direct. It may sound critical and cause the server to become defensive.
So here are a few phrases you can use to politely explain your problem.
Let’s start with “I think you may have…”
Oh, hi! I think you may have forgotten to bring my drink.
Here is another opening line: “I’m sorry to have to say this but…”
Hi. How’s it going? I’m sorry to have to say this, but I noticed some damage to my clothing.
Or you can simplify it with the words: “I just noticed…”
Hi. How’s it going? I just noticed some damage to my clothing.
Here’s another useful phrase: “I’m sorry to bother you, but…”
Hi, there. I’m sorry to bother you, but my hotel room is a little cold.
Or you might say: “There seems to be a mistake…”
Hi! How are you? There seems to be a mistake on my billing statement. I think you may have overcharged me.
Note that, in the last example, the speaker used two phrases: “There seems to be a mistake…” and “I think you may have…”
- State your feelings
The second step is to say how you feel about the problem.
This step is often not necessary. It will depend on how bad the problem is. Some problems have easy, quick solutions. For example, politely telling people that they forgot something or overcharged you usually leads to a speedy solution.
But imagine that you are receiving poor service at a hotel or restaurant or that a repair shop has damaged your belongings. Or, maybe there is a continuing issue at your apartment building. In these cases, you may need to express how you feel.
Always begin with step 1 – politely explaining the problem.
Then, you can use phrases like “This is…” or “It is…” followed by one or more descriptive words. Let’s hear an example of someone telling their building manager about a problem:
Hi Vanessa. I’m sorry to have to say this but there is still a mouse problem in my apartment. This has been an issue for three months now. It is unacceptable that the problem hasn’t been resolved.
This was a continuing issue, so the speaker used step 2. But, again, use your best judgment to decide whether this step is needed.
- Ask for action
The third step is to ask for action to be taken on the problem. This is an important step. Some people do steps 1 and 2, but forget step 3.
Depending on who the listener is, you or they may need to ask someone else to take action. In such cases, ask for the store’s manager. Here is how you can do that in person:
Could I please speak with the manager?
And by phone:
Could you please redirect my call to the manager?
Other times, the listener can solve the problem themselves. You can use indirect questions to ask for action. Listen to a few examples:
Would it be possible to reimburse me?
Is there any chance you could turn the heat up?
You can read more about indirect questions in a past Everyday Grammar program.
Connecting the steps
Now, let’s put the steps together. Let’s hear a short exchange about the damaged clothing:
OK. That’ll be $21.50 please.
Oh, gosh... I just noticed some damage to my clothing. The shirt has a hole and the pants have changed color.
Hmm. I cleaned those myself. I don’t remember damaging anything.
But these pieces are new and I’ve only worn them once. Is there any chance you could reimburse me?
Let me get the manager.
Well, we don’t know how this dispute ends. But we know the complainer was polite and used steps 1 and 3. Using step 2 might depend on the manager’s response.
Making complaints is never easy but knowing how to do it right can it a lot easier!
I’m Alice Bryant.
Alice Bryant wrote this story for Learning English. George Grow was the editor.
Now, you try it! Look at the situations below and choose one or two to practice making a complaint. Write your answers in the comments area.
You have been planning a trip for months and are very excited. But it’s 12 hours of travel time, including two flights. Your first flight is delayed three times, which will cause you to miss your connecting flight. That means you will also miss a special event tomorrow at your destination. And you already bought tickets to the event. Talk to the airline worker about the problem.
Your professor puts students into small groups for a big project. The project is 25% of your final grade. You are in a group with two other people. One is a hard worker. But the other texts people a lot and doesn’t do enough work. The hard working student is not bothered by the lazy student. But you are. Talk to the lazy student or the professor about the problem.
Your Internet company recently changed your data plan without your permission. The cost of your monthly bill is now double what is was. You have been trying to reach the billing department for a week but they keep putting you on hold for more than 20 minutes. Your payment is now late. You finally reach a representative by phone. Talk to them about the problem.
Words in This Story
dry cleaner – n. a shop where clothes and other cloth items are cleaned using special chemicals
complain – v. to say or write that you are unhappy, sick, or uncomfortable, or that you do not like something
polite – adj. having or showing good manners or respect for other people
bother – v. to cause someone to feel annoyed
phrase – n. a group of two or more words that express a single idea but do not usually form a complete sentence
mouse – n. a very small animal that has a pointed nose and a long, thin tail
manager – n. someone who runs a business or department
reimburse – v. to pay someone an amount of money equal to an amount that person has spent
data – n. information that is produced or stored by a computer