“It Never Hurts to Smile” by Mike Rosen

The Complaint Department is Open

There’s a variety of bread I like to get at my local supermarket but, unfortunately, it hasn’t been available for the past three weeks. The bread (nothing fancy, it’s just a seeded rye) is packaged under the store’s label, so I don’t quite understand the problem of not having it in stock. I inquired of one of the people who work that aisle and her answer was simple and honest: “I have no idea.” She then went on explaining the difficulty the store has had getting certain items and that theirs wasn’t the only store with this problem. I replied that I’d just get something else, and then said I wasn’t really complaining but just puzzled about the shelf being empty for such a relatively long time.

“You’d be right to complain,” she responded. “I know you’re a regular customer and you have a right to complain if we’re not meeting your needs.” Frankly, I was impressed with that statement. She reflected a commitment to her store’s mission that I have rarely found in front-line workers in pretty much any business. “Besides,” she added, “At least you made a complaint I could handle with a straight face. Let me tell you a story…”

Before I relate her story, let’s come to an understanding about the word complain. According to our dear friends at the Cambridge English Dictionary, complain means “to say that something is wrong or not satisfactory.” That seems pretty clear, but many people (if not most) will feel their pulse begin to quicken as soon as someone tells them they have a complaint. Admittedly, the person complaining very often has a less than friendly approach which on its own kicks our reptilian brains into gear. As with so much else in our communication lives, attitude is key. What I feel we need is a new word to describe complaints that kind of go off the deep end. Send your suggestions to me.

“Last week,” my bread aisle buddy began, “A woman came up to me and got into my face, shaking a box of donuts at me. She then gave me grief because the last time she bought this brand the donuts were 290 calories each but now were 325. I told her that maybe they changed the recipe for crumb-topped donuts. She then said she didn’t even eat the crumb-topped type, but preferred the chocolate variety. I went with her to the display and checked the label; sure enough, the chocolate donuts were 290 calories each. ’Yes,’ she hissed, ‘But packaged donuts are packaged donuts and these are the same size! Why should this one be 35 calories higher?’ And she stormed off.”

The customer sounds a bit extreme, yes? One might postulate that she was having a bad day and used this ridiculous avenue to vent. Or perhaps her doctor had just told her she needed to lose weight, and used this ridiculous avenue to vent about the calories in donuts. Or perhaps she is just what licensed therapists privately refer to as a “nut job.” I’m certain we’ve all complained about something many times, maybe even made a mountain out of a molehill. But irrational complaining can’t be that common, right?

Well, frankly it’s a bit more common than I wish it were. To the purpose of offering you some amusement, here is a smattering of incredulities I obtained from that bastion of truth—the Internet:

1) We begin with a man who called Domino’s Pizza to harangue the worker who answered the phone that the pie he picked up had no toppings on it. The worker told the man to bring it back and he’d get another one and his money refunded. The man called back a moment later to say the pie was OK; he’d opened the box upside down. (At least he called back.)

2) A major phone carrier received a complaint from a man who said they needed to repair their SMS server (which controls text messaging) because he had sent 29 marriage proposals to the love of his life and she hadn’t replied. The carrier replied they would look into the problem, and suggested the man make the proposal in person.

3) Home Depot had to deal with a do-it-yourselfer who wanted to return a bathroom faucet set he’d purchased. Angrily, he explained that when he hooked it up, hot water came out of the cold side and vice-versa. When the customer service clerk explained how the feeder tubes connected the customer allegedly replied, “Yeah, as if that’s how they work!”

4) This is a legitimate complaint that is cute because it was generated by a nine-year-old in a letter to the Lego Company. The child had received a Lego Hobbit kit, and there was a problem with it: the kit included shoes for the Hobbits, but (as the child pointed out) Hobbits don’t wear shoes. How I wish I could have found out how Lego responded to this letter (if, in fact, they bothered).

5) Pity the Burger King counter server who made the mistake of giving his customer what the man ordered—a plain Whopper. After being given his tray, the man walked away only to return to scream at the worker for screwing up his order. The man yelled he’d ordered a plain Whopper and wanted to know where the lettuce, tomato, onion, and ketchup were. The startled worker pointed out that the man had ordered a plain Whopper, which meant no toppings. Hearing this, the customer released a string of insults because, as anybody knows, “plain” means a sandwich as illustrated on the menu, with lettuce, tomato, etc.

6) A different customer, who was apparently also a true food aficionado, complained about the spaghetti he was served in an upscale Italian restaurant. When the waiter asked what was wrong with it, the customer replied that while the spaghetti was attractively served and delicious, the pasta was “too long.” Apparently, spaghetti strands should be the same length as the noodles in a can of Campbell’s chicken soup. (Gee, I learn something every day!)

7) We save up all year for that special vacation, and when it is ruined, it only makes sense to blame whoever set up the trip, right? As one woman wrote to her travel agent, “They should not allow topless sunbathing on the beach. It was very distracting for my husband who just wanted to relax.” Unfortunately, the husband’s take on the issue was not noted.

8) Speaking about vacations, how many of us have checked into a hotel only to find the room we got wasn’t the one we wanted? This happened to a newly engaged couple who requested, and were promised, a room with twin beds. Unfortunately, when they checked in their room had one king-size bed instead of the requested twin beds. As the furious fiancée wrote to the hotel manager shortly after the vacation, “We now hold you responsible and want to be reimbursed for the fact that I became pregnant. This would not have happened if you had put us in the room we booked.” (Sure…)

9) Finally, a personal story. In the mid-1980’s I was a computer service technician for a third-party company working on IBM mainframe computers and their peripherals. This was an interesting time to be in that end of the business because very few people knew anything about computers (personal computers wouldn’t become widely popular for a couple of years). But because of that, I received a fair number of complaints that almost always had nothing to do with me personally and often were based on the user’s lack of experience with the equipment. These complaints often were rants against the equipment not doing what was promised by a sales representative who, in any case, worked for a different company than mine. However, I did receive a complaint or two about work I had done and one complaint in particular still amuses me.

I had taken a call on a failing workstation and walked into a hostile environment. In the middle of a room with half a dozen or so women working at their desks was the company’s general manager. He began to harangue at me about the piece of garbage (OK, he used a more colorful term) I had come to repair. Apparently, it was only a couple of weeks out of its three-year warranty and was not working at all. The folks I worked for hadn’t sold the equipment; we just had a service contract with this company that for a flat monthly fee covered all the equipment they had. So it wasn’t as if this service call was going to cost anything out of pocket. I told the GM I regretted his inconvenience and would take care of the problem.

He pointed out the location of the offending workstation (imagine a computer monitor that was very large, bulky, and weighed about 20 pounds) and I got to work. It took almost no time to identify a failing power supply board and I replaced it with one I had brought. The workstation came to life and I had one of the workers test it out in front of the GM who grunted an acknowledgment. Before I left, one of the women told me not to take anything the GM said personally, as he was that way with everybody.

The next day my pager went off (remember pagers?), and when I called into the office my manager told me that I needed to get back to the company ASAP. The workstation had failed again and the GM had been screaming on the phone to my manager. It was unusual that the part I replaced would have failed so quickly, and so I stopped at my parts depot to pick up a replacement workstation in case I needed it.

Entering the lion’s den, where I had encountered the GM the day before, I was subjected to a string of complaints about my lack of ability to repair the problem. I finally managed to interrupt him to say I would replace the workstation, but needed to disconnect it first. When I started to walk to where I’d been the day before, the GM barked at me that I was going the wrong way—he’d had the unit moved to a different desk after I’d left—and he pointed to a desk behind me. That’s when the lightbulb went off in my head.

Heading to the desk he’d indicated, I bent down and looked at the power cord which was—you guessed it—not plugged into the outlet. I plugged it in, stood up, turned on the workstation and it immediately came to life. One of the women gasped and the GM turned red, not with embarrassment but with anger. He then turned and stormed into his office, slamming his door behind him.

From that day on, he never exploded at me for any service calls I took there. And as my manager told me, he would still be virulent on the phone any time he placed a service call but would always add, “And tell Mike I checked—the damned thing is plugged in!”

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