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Photo of Amy Fish
Photo courtesy of Amy Fish

Grousing with Grace

Amy Fish understands the fine art of complaining. Here, she shares some tips to help the rest of us get our way

Amy Fish (MHSc 1993) is the queen of complaining. Not only has she been standing up for herself since the day she insisted on fresh lettuce at a Toronto sub shop, but as a manager and ombudsman at hospitals in her native Montreal, Fish has received – and resolved – thousands of complaints. Fish recently wrote The Art of Complaining Effectively, and she talks to Janet Rowe about getting a gripe on.

What is the best way to get a complaint resolved?
It’s a very personal art. I recommend writing down everything you’re complaining about, and then crossing off what’s least important. Focus on the most important items. Also, be prepared to try different methods to get resolution. If you try in person and that doesn’t work, then try by letter, then email, phone and Facebook.

You say it’s crucial to stay calm when complaining. How do you do that?
First, timing. Sometimes you have to let a little water pass under the bridge until you calm down. And then breathe before you complain.

I recently had a problem with my phone company. I waited on the line for 40 minutes, then they went through all their scripts and I didn’t get anywhere.
Next time, hang up.

So you have to call and go through it again?
Yep. Sorry. Phone and cable companies are extremely difficult to deal with, in my experience. Also, the call centres are very large, so it’s luck of the draw. If you hang up, you might get someone more helpful next time.

Do you take on complaints for other people?
I do get requests for that, but my message is motivating people to stand up for themselves. Complaining is the first step toward social justice: You’re not only complaining for yourself, but for everyone in line behind you.

No one wants to be seen as a complainer. How do you decide when it feels right to complain?
A measure would be: If I don’t complain now, am I going to regret it later? A woman in one of my workshops raised her hand and said a doctor was rude to her… 13 years ago. I don’t want people to carry that around.

Tell me a crazy complaint story.
I was out for dinner and a cockroach – which had clearly seen Mission: Impossible one too many times – fell from the ceiling onto our food. So gross! They offered us a dessert, and I said, “I don’t think that’s going to work, because we really don’t want anything else from your kitchen. So we’re going to have to ask you to pay for our meal.” I was very calm, and all I had to do was ask. And produce the offending roach.

You mean you carried it over…
Yes, I did! And unceremoniously showed it to the manager.

Your pet peeve?
People are often afraid to complain: they don’t want to make waves, they don’t have the energy, they give up. And I find that very sad. My alternate title for the book was Pass Me a Hanky, because the story of not complaining is the saddest story ever.

Read and excerpt from Amy Fish’s The Art of Complaining Effectively

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  1. 2 Responses to “ Grousing with Grace ”

  2. Craig White says:

    There is a balance to be struck here as well. It is great to voice concerns to management, if for no other reason than that if you don't, they may remain unaware of a problem. If you have not received what you paid for, you are, of course, entitled to a refund.

    A problem, however, is that many people see complaints as a way to a windfall - e.g. if the fridge in your hotel room doesn't work, the hotel should fix it - it does not, however, entitle you to a free night's stay. The operators may offer something more as a measure of goodwill and/or public relations, but it is not an entitlement. When you start to act as if it is, you are only likely to antagonize an operator (especially a small business who may operate on very thin margins) and create stress all around.

    If you start complaining and asking for refunds before the operators have a chance to respond to your concerns, they may wind up doing the minimum required. If, on the other hand, you approach them in a friendly and co-operative manner, they will likely be interested in providing something extra in order to retain your business.

  3. Donna Johnson says:

    Edna Park of the home economics department taught us that it was our duty to complain. And the company we complained to should appreciate the input so they could correct the problem and become a better company. I guess I complain more than most people because of her teaching.