Consumer Complaints 101

After spending all day in the airport waiting for her flight to take off for Atlanta, Elaine Walker was nettled.

“We passed the departure time and there were no announcements made,” says Walker, though at one point, a flight attendant apologized for the lack of information. Though the flight was scheduled to land in Atlanta by 8:00 p.m., it was midnight before Walker arrived–a delay that could have been tolerable had the airline simply kept the passengers informed.

Consumers often fume when they’re dissatisfied with products or services, but Walker took action. She wrote a formal complaint to the airline’s consumer marketing department after locating their address on the company’s Website. In return, “I got a voucher for a couple of hundred dollars off the next flight,” she says.

“Consumers have a lot more power than they used to,” says James R. Hood, founder of With the Internet and television offering consumers a public platform on which to air their grievances, many companies will make amends for unsatisfactory service if consumers go through the proper channels.

Consumers should first define their goal. “If you just want to complain publicly, then you can go to Internet sites and [post] a complaint, or you can call your local television stations or newspapers,” says Hood.
“The main benefit of complaining on the Internet is that companies care about their brand and they are monitoring what is being said about that brand,” says Matthew Smith, founder of, a Website where consumers post their grievances. Since Web postings are often picked up by search engines, companies may take note of a complaint and be motivated to resolve it.

If you want to get your money back, first contact the company directly. “Specify when you expect to hear from the company, whether it’s two weeks or a month,” says Hood. If there’s no response, contact a consumer advocacy association, such as the Better Business Bureau, which seeks to resolve complaints on behalf of consumers.

“When a consumer files a complaint with the Better Business Bureau, we ask them first to submit it in writing or on our Website,” says Sheila Adkins, director of public affairs for the Council of Better Business Bureaus. “Once we have the complaint, we contact the company to hear their side of the story. The company can either try to work with the consumer and deal with the complaint, or say this complaint is not valid.”

The BBB can’t force a company to settle a dispute, so “if that fails, we suggest that the consumer possibly take it up in small claims court or get an attorney,” Adkins says.

Consumers can pursue many options to file a complaint, but they might not need to go any further than the company itself if they adhere to the following steps:

Go to the source. First, contact the company and find out if it has a formal complaint procedure. If it does, follow it to the letter. Be sure to keep copies of everything.

Head to the post office. “Send the company a