Are you a whining customer? 3 ways you can tell

No one likes a whiner.

Crybabies rarely get what they want, and even when they do, they end up looking ridiculous. If you don’t believe me, just spend a few minutes reading the comments on my consumer advocacy site. Or watch this video of a woman who missed her flight.

Enough said.

When it comes to getting the customer service you deserve, you don’t want to be whiner, but a winner.

By the way, as a sidenote, businesses ignore legitimate complainers at their own peril. Surveys show that for every customer complaint, there are 26 other unhappy customers who have remained silent. So odds are, even if some of the grievances sound frivolous, there may be other customers who feel exactly the same way. (Except maybe that woman at the airport. Drama, anyone?)

But how do you know if your attitude is getting in the way of a resolution to your problem? I run into this dilemma almost every day — a perfectly valid case is rendered unsolvable because the customer whined too much. It’s particularly difficult to tell when it’s your problem, because it’s difficult to be objective about your own grievance. (And that includes me, by the way.)

Your correspondence is poetry.
Whiners turn to the thesaurus to describe exactly how they feel about terrible service, and while that may feel good to the complainer, it can actually hurt their chances of getting better service. The reason is simple: Once you’ve described a company’s incompetence in graphic, heart-wrenching detail, you’ve removed most of the motivation for it to help fix the problem. Exhibit A: This letter sent to Richard Branson about the meal service on a Virgin Atlantic flight. It’s funny, yes, but if it hadn’t gone viral, would it have resulted in an apology? I think you know the answer.

You can count the ways you’re unhappy — and there are many.
Laundry lists — even ones containing perfectly legitimate grievances — make you sound like a big baby. It makes you look as if nothing will make you happy, and that makes the customer representative reading your email believe there is no way you’ll ever be satisfied. Here’s an example of a laundry list complaint. You’re better off focusing on just one aspect of a negative experience and asking for a specific resolution. And if one doesn’t rise to the top? Maybe then you have no grounds for filing a complaint.

One way or another, you’ll have your revenge.
Chronic bellyachers often turn hostile, threatening to sue a company or shame it in the court of public opinion. Unfortunately, this type of aggressive behavior can quickly backfire, with the complaint either being routed to the legal department (where the lawyers will quickly determine it’s an idle threat) or simply ignored. My advice? Don’t threaten to sue a company unless the complaint is in its final draft, and you’re ready to go to court. Otherwise, the company will correctly brand you a crybaby who just isn’t getting its way.

So what separates a whiner from a winner? Look for a reasonable, level-headed, concise case made in writing, along with a specific resolution. Omit the hyperbole and threats. Those are the ones noticed and addressed by a company.

In extreme cases, the whining is so severe that even my intervention can’t help. It’s too late. After your vicious email or angry phone call, the company decided it just didn’t want to deal with you, and no amount of politeness will ever make up for it.

Bottom line? Don’t whine. It gets you nowhere fast.

Have you ever been a "whining" customer?

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Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is an author, journalist and consumer advocate. You can read more about him on his personal website or contact him at Got a question or comment? You can post it on the new forum.

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  • Bill___A

    The problem sometimes is the whiners. But people who are very screwed up often do quite a few things wrong. I guess it is just better not to do business with those places.

  • Green Solution Collective

    This is really good. Thank you for sharing this article with us!

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    I have a strict policy not to do business with high maintenance or whiny clients. Its not worth the trouble, aggravation, or grief.

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    Chronic bellyachers often turn hostile, threatening to sue a company

    Sage advice. I tell all of my regular clients that they should never, ever threaten to involve me in a dispute. It immediately renders the dispute unresolvable amicably.

  • Jeff Kolker

    Hate to complain, but I wish I could just answer the questions as “No”. I don’t really resent you for asking ….

  • Christopher Elliott

    Well, I took my own poll this morning and answered “yes.” I’m also a whining columnist sometimes, but that’s another story …

  • AirlineEmployee

    I finally got the courage recently (to respond) after a passenger whined for a full five minutes in front of me how much he hated (my employer) airline….I listened intently, even sincerely apologized for all the faults he felt existed; nevertheless he wouldn’t shut up and kept berating the service, the check-in, the bag fee, the price of the ticket….topped off with his expression that I (personally) didn’t care. My response…
    “You’re right sir, I don’t care, I couldn’t care less if you ever fly this airline again; here’s your boarding pass” (no directions were given how he had to get to the gate).
    Do you all understand that some people deserve that response???

    Honesty if someone hated a restaurant that they felt served bad food would you keep going back ? Did someone put a gun to your head ??

  • Christopher Elliott

    Good point, and I understand your frustration. Whining is counter-productive in a situation like that. The only thing that I would add is that often, passengers don’t feel as if they have a choice in an airline, particularly in some fortress hubs. But that’s another discussion …

  • paz5559

    I need to take issue with your list example. I agree that too many issues can be overkill. But in the instance where no one issue is egregious, I have found that an array of moderate frustrations throughout the flight/stay can add up to one that rises to a level warranting compensation

  • emanon256

    I am sure I have come across as the winy customer at times, but I really try not to complain. I voted yes. In general, I try only to give compliments. But sometimes I believe a complaint is warranted. I even had a Laundry List once. I was at a hotel that had many serious issues, enough that it warranted an actual list. The front desk always said they would look into it, or simply said they can’t do anything. I asked for the manager and was told no. I e-mailed the hotel, and got a nasty reply. So I then used linked in to find the GMs e-mail, e-mailed him, and got a personal call with an apology and an assurance the issue would be addressed. He even refunded my stay and said that this was unacceptable. I do believe complaints are warranted when there are actual problems. However I can give you many examples where my wife wanted to complain and I told her no, its not worth it.

  • Mel65

    I’m a little ashamed to admit it (although I suspect I’m not alone), but sometimes the proportion of my “whinery” (see what I did there? Whinery?) is directly related to my mood. If I’ve had a craptastic day and some low level flunkie puts the cherry on top when I feel I have a legitimate complaint and am being blown off, I’m far more apt to whine and be unpleasant than if I’ve had a good day. Fortunately, I recognize this glaring character fault and I know what my whiney/b*tchy triggers are and I do honestly strive to keep it in check and more fortunately, I don’t have THAT many bad days. But there are days when I say “yeah, I prolly shouldn’t go out and return this item/run this errand/call about this issue because if they give me grief I may blow.”

  • JenniferFinger

    I think that sometimes the line between “valid” and “whiny” as customers go is very fine. The customer in question might have a long list of complaints, for example, but taken individually, those complaints could be very valid and serious, in which case, should the customer leave some of them out of the complaint so as not to seem “whiny” even if they caused serious problems?

  • TonyA_says

    Found this on the net …
    First World Problems, also known as “White Whine,” are frustrations and complaints that are only experienced by privileged individuals in wealthy countries. It is typically used as a tongue-in-cheek comedic device to make light of trivial inconveniences.

  • DavidYoung2

    Yes, sometimes it’s the whiners. But sometimes a company really CAN screw up so bad that there is a laundry list of problems. We experienced such a list of problems with GOL Airlines in Brazil – topped off with an employee telling her colleague that we were just “arrogant Americans” because one boarding pass out of a group of four wouldn’t print at the kiosk and we asked them to try to print it at the country.

  • TonyA_says

    I just ordered the book “White Whine” by Streeter Seidell on Amazon Prime.
    I’m gonna need it for my long flight to SE Asia (hopefully this weekend).

  • Bill___A

    Good idea. I wish the airlines would not deal with annoying clients either, then I wouldn’t have to fly with them.

  • Bill___A

    Wish I would have been there to see that. Did everyone else break out in applause? Good for you.

  • emanon256

    Wow, I have to get that book. Sounds hilarious!!!

    I just had a co-worker tell me this is the third time his Audi needed a fuel injector replaced and he is upset because he bought it new less than a year ago. All I could think was “First World Problems”. And I used to think Audi’s were good, but maybe not. I’ve never needed an engine repair of any kind ever and I buy used cars and keep them until 250,000+ miles.

  • emanon256

    And they never seem to pay on time, or at all, either. Learned that the hard way when I was doing private consulting. Only had to learn that lesson once.

    I had another client who shocked me. It was actually a law firm. This was back in the mid 90s and I setup a file server and computer network for them, all the bells and whistles with state of the art computers (at the time). Users could share files, check files in and out, and print from the network, etc. This was all new technology for small business back then. They told me they needed to have a secure network as part of an agreement with new client and were ecstatic and very happy and were a great reference. I always expected when it was time to upgrade they would call me. All of a sudden, three years later, they send me a nasty letter stating they would never work with me again, or be a reference for me, as the technology and network I installed is extremely outdated and they are shocked I would leave them with such horrible technology and I am lucky they have decided not to sue me.

  • Alan Gore

    White Whine is also available as a site.

  • Justin

    Whining customers are only trumped by unruly children, Trust me, I think Mr. Elliott said he’ll be writing a story about my ordeal. However, there’s no solid excuse for a grown woman to be acting as the lady did in Hong Kong. Mild compared to 8 hours on a flight with a child yelling and kicking chairs, though!

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    Alas. In the 90s, large firm attorneys, and especially associates, thought they walked on water. Too many LA LAW episodes

  • emanon256
  • AirlineEmployee

    Actually it was a “quiet, leaned-into the passenger” sort of comment I made at the ticket counter (check-in), so no one else heard me. Certainly it is not something I would say in earshot of a supervisor but the coworkers I did mention it to were thoroughly entertained…..we all got a good laugh. Again, If you’re sure you’re not liking something, then don’t buy it/ stop going there!. To CE, you’re right that some fortress hubs or smaller stations do not give passengers much choice if the airline is the only game in town but really, is it ?

  • California_Dave

    Good article. I’m a big fan of reality TV shows and have been watching old BBC airline shows on YouTube. I love observing the behaviors of people from all walks of life as they travel and experience the frustrations and joys that all of us have experienced. Sociologists will tell you that there are just some people that are never happy and want to take it out on the rest of us, and others that will smile at bad service, never say a word, and simply take their business elsewhere without management knowing why. Those are the ones that companies should be really concerned about.

  • Bill___A

    Good for you

  • Justin


    I tend to think the stress of flying brings out the worst in people. Optimistically, I hope the behavior seen from most ill mannered travelers doesn’t reflect their ordinary lives. Post 9/11 Air travel has become a lesson in anger management. From the point of stripping down for TSA, Empty Luggage, Searches, Delayed or Cancelled Flights, Cattle Called Boarding, etc it’s hard to be “happy”.

    Pre 9/11, you rarely heard about travelers flying off the hook to the degree seen now. A wager between us says that surveys on customer satisfaction from Pre 2001 and Post 2001 shows a significant decline in satisfaction. Are people REALLY HAPPY flying?

    I’m not excusing outbursts, just making mention of some mitigating factors. Honestly, I think most travelers have complaints ranging from mild to severe. The majority just have become resigned to accepting conditions seeing treatment varies little from airline to airline. Therefore, short of refusing to fly, your recourse is limited.

    The silent type do nothing to change the status quo. The ill behaved create more problems. The minority complaining fall on deaf ears since far fewer complain than accept conditions.

  • Justin

    First world headaches are none the less headaches. I’m sure people starving have bigger fish to fry. However, you forget that without consumerism, quality control suffers. Even the hungry, poor, and starving rely upon a certain standard.

    Do you really want spoiled food or faulty products killing / maiming? First world problems don’t always remain isolated.

  • TonyA_says

    “Where do I start? Really average honeymoon…”

    Our first morning breakfast was disappointing- we went downstairs to try
    the buffet only to be told there was at least a half hour wait would we
    like a pager? Now I know the hotel is very large but it can’t offer
    enough seats for breakfast? Really? We went over to tropics instead to
    be told that a scoop of icecream on top of my husband’s gluten free
    pancakes would cost $9! He then offered french toast instead because it
    comes with ice cream (even through it isn’t gluten free even though we
    just told him this was required.) When hubby switched his order to eggs
    on toast the waiter said they were out of gluten free bread (funny they
    wanted $9 for a scoop of ice cream but when they run out of bread the
    meal costs the same…)


  • emanon256

    I was cracking up. Seriously, they complained about having a fridge? And about not having a mini bar? I think they were just complainers. They complained about the hot tropical climate? WOW!

    I actually stayed at that hotel about a month ago, and it was at 100% occupancy. I was in the same tower as them. Any room in that tower is an upgrade over the rest of the property as ti has a private pool, private check in, and was renovated to be more luxurious. I was able to upgrade to one of the smallest rooms in the tower, and it was resort view instead of ocean view). It was still pretty darn luxurious. I was very impressed and we had a wonderful stay. I would return, and stay there again.

    Also, the breakfast buffet is totally worth the wait, and 30 min is nothing for a hotel with 3,386 rooms.