Should I shame, sue – or take it straight to the top?

Ever want to see how customers screw up? Then spend a few hours looking over the shoulder of a consumer advocate.

Watch the emails come in — and learn.

“Need help getting a refund on a non-refundable airline ticket,” the subject line reads on a message I received a few minutes ago.

I get a lot of travel complaints.

“Yesterday, I went to ER due to heart palpitation and chest pain,” the passenger explained. He phoned his airline to ask for a refund due to his medical condition — an understandable request, coming from someone who’s an infrequent flier.

“They won’t refund my ticket,” he added. “Can you please help me on this?”

Answer: Yes and no. He should have asked his airline for a ticket credit instead of a refund. Airlines can, and do, let you use the value of your ticket toward a future purchase, minus a change fee. He was asking for the wrong thing.

Customers have instincts which often lead them down the wrong path toward resolving a legitimate complaint. But you don’t have to let that happen to you.

Ready, fire, aim
One of the biggest reflex mistakes customers make is taking a relatively small complaint straight to the top. They experience a service lapse and write a lengthy email to the CEO, whose address isn’t hard to find (I list them on my consumer advocacy website). While these minor issues might seem like a big deal to you, the complaint is usually going to the wrong place. A better place to start is the company’s customer service phone number or email address, which is equipped to field minor grievances.

I’ll sue!
In a flash of anger, your first instinct may be to threaten the company. A few moments ago, for example, I received an email from someone who had spent $22 on a magazine subscription. The magazine went out of business, and instead of waiting for the bankruptcy court to sort through the mess or disputing her credit card, she issued an ultimatum: “Refund the money or I’ll sue.” That’s an understandable reaction, but unless you’re prepared to actually go to court, you may end up with nothing. The company will just forward your grievance to its legal department, which will quickly determine that you’re making an idle threat. Case closed.

You’re going down
Another common — and often misguided — reflex is to tell the world, often via social media, about your unhappiness. I refer to this as the social media takedown, and while it can be an effective tool to get a company’s attention, it should never be your first move. I encounter these vengeful Tweets online almost every day, when something goes wrong and suddenly the company is called out in an effort to shame it into doing the right thing. I get tagged, too, so that I know the aggrieved customers mean business. My advice? Try sending a brief, polite email outlining the problem before you take to the airwaves with a social media blitz. After all, wouldn’t you want the opportunity to resolve a problem before the world knew about it?

These three reflexes — to shame, to sue and to take it straight to the top — are completely understandable in the heat of the moment. But at times like this, you have to pull your punches. Take a moment to review the terms and conditions of your purchase, then take a deep breath before complaining to the company.

When something goes wrong, what's your first instinct?

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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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  • polexia_rogue

    i have to agree; if someone asks for a refund instead of a credit the airline’s red flags go up.

    Getting a credit is easy; you can do it yourself online. but if you want a “refund”- you are threatening their bottom line- so you need one HECK of a good reason.

    and i also agree with the other points as well-
    -it is hilariously funny when someone writes to the president of the company for an issue that could have been revolved by a call center. It feels like the customer is trying to “jump the line” by messaging someone with a magic problem fixing wand.

    – i don’t know why people still threaten to sue. much like the above point, it reeks of entitlement.

    -and as for the social media point; it works often enough so people still want to give it a try. But people don’t realize that corporations are ALREADY considered evil. so making them look even more evil might not work 100% of the time.

    over all a very fun article :)

  • CeeJay

    But not everyone – especially infrequent travellers – know the magic word “credit”. Wouldn’t it make sense, if someone asks for a refund, for the call centre agent to say “Sorry sir, this is a non-refundable ticket, but what i can do is issue you a credit which you can use subject to these conditions”?

  • Kevin Mathews

    One thing I’d like to point out is that the average traveler, who doesn’t travel very often, isn’t likely to want “Store Credit”. Most infrequent travelers view buying a plane ticket like buying a pair of pants. If they don’t fit, or it turns out I don’t need them, return them for a full refund. Most travelers don’t realize that Airlines don’t work like that and that their return policy is “No Returns for cash, Store Credit Only”.
    Think about it like this. If a friend of your recommends that you have to have a particular shirt from a store that you never shop at. Trusting your friend, you go out and buy one, but when you get home and try it on, you hate it. So you go and return it. If the store said “No, we only offer Store Credit on returns” how would that make you feel? Even if their policy was clearly display at the register and on the receipt? They are basically saying that “We are keeping your money, but you can have something else of equal value from our store”. Which for the frequent shopper/traveler works out just fine. But if it’s someplace you never go/do, then basically they are saying “We’re keeping your money, tough nuggets…”
    Personally, I think “Non-Refundable” tickets are a scam. All tickets should be refundable up to a certain amount of time prior to the flight/bus/train/hotel room/etc… While I understand that these are “perishable” commodities, companies should be able to tell you with reasonable assuredness that if a customer cancels a ticket X Days prior to the flight, there is Y percent chance we’ll be able to resell the ticket and therefore prorate the refund accordingly.

  • EdB

    How about a “None of the above” option on the poll?

  • Kairho

    Or simply the position Chris advocates: contact customer service.


    I did not vote today as my first instinct is to make a complaint to the first person I think can help me. It might be customer service, it might be an employee working on site, etc. I write or I speak with someone in person if that is more appropriate. On a recent hotel stay I spoke with the front desk about a problem in my room and was ignored. I wrote a brief email to customer service about the rather rank damp smell that was overwhelming. And the response was within 20 minutes. And all was happily resolved. I was pleasantly surprised as this was a budget chain and on a Saturday night.
    I learned early on to do several things in a letter of complaint:
    1)First mention something that they did right. (Not always easy but can be done.)
    2)Briefly describe the problem
    3)Ask for a reasonable solution/settlement
    4)Skip the laundry list of minor issues and simply discuss the problem you encountered.
    I am seldom disappointed in responses to the few letters of complaint that I send out. I do realize that in some instances a business will say, by its lack of action, that I am not an important enough customer for them to resolve a problem in my favor. I then simply take my business elsewhere. But going straight to the top or immediately blasting it out on social media is seldom the immediate solution. And I will not even get started on the law suit question.

  • Christopher Elliott

    Ah, that would be too easy! I’m asking about your instinct, not what the correct play is. Of course, the correct thing is to go through proper channels — I think we can all agree on that.

  • MarkKelling

    None of the above. But that wasn’t an option on the survey.

    A few years ago my favorite airline at the time stranded me in Europe by deleting a segment from my return trip. I noticed a few days before I was scheduled to fly so I spent 3 hours on the phone sorting things out so that I got home without further issues. Several people told me I needed to sue. But on what grounds? Sure, I lost 3 hours of my vacation (missed a museum tour that the group went on), but I ended up with a nicer seat on a better airline that got me home 4 hours earlier by skipping one layover on the original itinerary. I wrote a note thanking the airline for resolving the issue satisfactorily and they gave me 25000 frequent flyer miles, enough for a domestic coach ticket. I feel I came out OK on this one and didn’t have to yell at anyone or threaten the company in any way.

  • Jeanne_in_NE

    Started thinking about this one – I prefer to start with the people who can help me directly. But I’ve got to share a recent less than stellar restaurant experience. It was our son’s birthday, so he picked the restaurant. There we were, 4 generations of family sitting, and sitting, and sitting. Appetizer eaten an hour ago. Couldn’t find the waiter. Couldn’t get the waitress at the next table to stop to talk to me. Couldn’t find a host or hostess. Couldn’t find the manager. No one answered the phone when I called the restaurant. Finally found the waiter, and asked him to bring me over the manager. No can do, he said.

    I took a picture of my son sitting with fork and knife in hand with the chain restaurant’s silly bib around his neck and posted it to that restaurant’s FB page with the caption, “Still waiting for our food after 93 minutes.” The manager was over in less than 5 minutes after I posted the picture and we had our food very soon after that. Wasn’t the right order, but most of the people at the table got to eat something.

  • Len Oxman

    I don’t like any of the choices so I refrained from voting.

  • Guest

    I hope the manager offered something for the inconvenience. Otherwise, they need to be shamed even more.

    I had an incident at The Cheesecake Factory where there was a large group of us, 20+. They brought everyone elses meal except mine. Given the large group size, it was understandable that an order could get missed. When we notified the server of the oversight, he apologize and put the order in to be rushed. After another 20 minutes waiting, I had ordered a simple chef salad, and no meal, we told the server to just cancel the order. A few minutes later, the manager came up to me to apologize and as compensation, offered me a free whole cheesecake and took 10% off the entire ticket for everyone. That was quality customer service.

  • Trudi

    Twenty five years ago, I’d have been more forcefull and militant with business. I’ve learned so much since then. I’ve learned to read the contract. I’ve learned to take steps, and not overstep. I’ve learned that sometimes the mistake is my own, and I have to deal with it. Mostly, I’ve learned to be a better consumer, a smarter consumer, and a more patient consumer. Most people aren’t out to get you, but they will make a buck off your ignorance, and they’ll sleep just fine knowing they did. Many of our country’s problems are a direct result of litigation over something that could have been more fairly resolved through mediation or common sense. So, I would hold off suing unless there was a potential threat to others that was being totally ignored by a business – incorrectly installed hot tub for example. Life comes with problems. Dealing with them is part of growing up.

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    You did the right thing. You asked for your waiter, then another waiter, then you escalated it to the manager then finally social media. Waiting to deal with higher ups in the chain was not practical under the circumstances.

  • Alan Gore

    The poll didn’t list an even better alternative: take your complaint to the company’s own social media presence. Typically, these are staffed by people who have been battling to get management to understand the potential of social media. In many large operations, this presence is de facto the only complaint channel that is actually crewed.

  • Alan Gore

    Credits wouldn’t be so bad if they weren’t so time-limited. Most infrequent travelers operate on a per-year vacation cycle. If they can’t go this year, they have to typically wait a little longer than the standard one-year expiration, which in any case is FROM PURCHASE, not from the date of the trip. JUst making the expiration period five years would cost them nothing, and vastly increase goodwill. But so many travel companies wouldn’t know what goodwill was if it bit the CEO in the butt.

  • emanon256

    I agree with the anonymous user, they should have done something more or be shamed even more, that is just unacceptable.

    The Wife and I wised to frequent a restaurant. The service was always pretty slow and mediocre, but the food was good. On a recent visit the waitress gave us attitude and brought us the wrong drinks. She never came back to check on the drinks or to bring the food. When my wife got upset, I made the joke that she probably got fired. After 20 minutes I told another waiter we had the wrong drinks and he said he would find our waitress, he never came back. After 45 minutes still with the wrong drinks and no food, I got up and asked the hostess, she said she would send over the manager. The manager finally came over after we had been sitting an hour, and asked what the problem was. I said we ordered drinks and food, got the wrong drinks and no food. She told us they had fired the waitress soon after she took our order and couldn’t find anyone to cover the table. She then said she would get our food, she brought out my wife’s order which was right, and my order which was wrong. I told her and we ended up waiting 25 more minutes for my meal to come out and had to ask for a to go box because my son was getting very fussy by this time and my wife had already eaten. I asked for the manager again and she apologized and said she would take care of our meals if we paid for our drinks (Still the wrong drinks, this was still never fixed). I said fine just to get out of there. The manager had some other waiter run our bill, and he charged full price for everything. I asked for the manager again and she said there was nothing she could do at this point as it was already charged. Our son was crying by now so we left. I wrote the corporate office that night and the next day got an e-mail that my complaint was being forwarded to the manager of that location. I later received a call from some guy claiming to be the manager, I explained the manager I spoke to was female. He said they do not have a female manager and is not sure who I spoke to. He said he was out for 2 hours dealing with a waitress that got fired that caused issues and the police were involved and that he told his staff to tell them the manager was out and to try to deal with any issues. He apologized for how his staff handled things, and said he would refund 100% of our meal in full and find out who we worked with and deal with them. He also invited us back for free meals. We returned and there was all new staff, and the service was impeccable.

  • Lindabator

    But we don’t know what was said by reading above – he may not have liked the answer, and still wanted a refund. Hmm….

  • MarkKelling

    Yes, extending the credit expiration to 5 years would cost them — a lot.

    While I have no knowledge of what percentage of income any travel company gains from forfeited paid credits, it is probably significant especially in the airline world. All the credits that expire before they can be used are pure profit for the companies (provided of course they didn’t miss the oportunity to fill the empty seat, bed, car, or whatever from the original cancellation). This percentage of unused credits is also factored into the pricing of their current products. Making it easier to use those credits by extending the expiration would mean the percentage going unused would fall and this would have to be factored into the pricing of future products.
    Some airlines do allow you to extend the expiration for a fee. Southwest is one I know well. For around $50 you can add an additional year to the credit expiration giving you more time to use it. Of course Southwest is changing daily now and this option may not be there for much longer.

    Would I like to see the credit expiration date extended? Of course. I guess I am one of the “lucky” ones who flys more than enough so that the current expiration time frame doesn’t bother me as I always get to use any credits with plenty of time left before they expire. I agree with you that this would add more to goodwill than most naything else an airline does.


    You have way more patience then most, no way I would have waited that long! Glad it wall worked out in the end.

  • Mel65

    My first instinct is to assign blame…and I don’t mean that in a negative way. I look thru email traffic, receipts, contracts, whatever to see if I missed something in the fine print and to see if this was my boo boo or a corporate/manufacturing/whatever issue. Once I know *I* didn’t screw up, then I either visit the business or email customer service with any supporting information (Here’s a receipt from 2 weeks ago. These shoes should’t have lost their soles in that length of time, etc..) and ask for what I want (replacement, refund, first born child, whatever). If that does nothing, I’ll make a call or send a follow up. Threats for credit card disputes, lawsuits etc.. are a LAST resort for me. I used to work CS through college and I learned pretty quickly that threats and shouting didn’t work on me but reason and civility–even if barely held in check–worked much more effectively, so I try to be that person. Having said that, I did blow up at AT&T once to the point that the dog started howling at the decible/frequency combo I had achieved, but I’ll claim temporary insanity on that one :)

  • jennj99738

    I would consider that part of the “shaming the company” answer because the public at large can see the complaint. For instance, check out Sears’ Facebook page. 99.9% of the posts on that page are customer service complaints and little to no resolution of any of them. A casebook example of not how to run a social media presence.

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    Of course, its deliberate. As you stated, infrequent travelers often have a single annual trip making a credit which expires a year from date of purchase worthless.

  • Charles B

    Add to this… if I determine that I did in fact screw up, then own up to it and move on. Don’t try to pass the buck.

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    I have trouble with the perspective that anything that any consumer friendly activity means an increase in prices. Sometimes a company makes excess profit by shenanigans and tough luck if that profit isn’t as large as it might be.

  • Mel65

    …. or “hang my head in shame and mumble something about it not being worth pursuing” as I walk away :)

  • Alan Gore

    So you’re flat-out admitting that a significant percentage of airline profits consist of screwing passengers out of the credits they are due – and which they have paid for, richly, with those sky-high change fees? Never pass up another double-dip opportunity if you can.

  • MarkKelling

    Admitting? No. I don’t work for an airline, I don’t know anyone who works for an airline and I have no access to any internal financial records of any airline. It is just my opinion.

    But the question comes down to: how much more are you willing to pay for a ticket to have all credits be available for the customer to use at any point in the future? Probably not as much as the airlines would want to charge.

  • MarkKelling

    But that’s not the American way! It is always everybody’s fault but mine!! :-)

  • Bill___A

    After things escalate to a certain point and don’t get resolved, there isn’t an awful lot you can do. That’s where a level headed and rational advocate like Chris is an asset.

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    That’s of course all conjecture. I’d like tickets to be good for at least 18 months.

  • Raven_Altosk

    I had to deal with a terrible, horrible, scammer of a dentist a few years ago. The place was called Monarch Dental, also known as Castle Dental. My GF should’ve known it was a terrible place just by the fact that it was in a rundown strip mall, but we had just moved, she had lost the old nightguard and they said they took her insurance.

    My GF went in to get a nightguard. Her insurance should’ve covered this, but the workers at the desk convinced her that she had to pay $300 of the cost up front for a “molding and fitting fee.”

    GF paid it, and then three weeks later, we learned the scamming dentist was reimbursed. She called them, asking for a refund since now they’d been paid twice. This went nowhere. We first got the “Oh, we’re so sorry. We’ll look into it.” Then that turned into the office staff telling us that the ONLY PERSON who could cut a check was out on maternity leave. So, I went down there. I asked for the refund. The girl working the desk told me that the person who handles the business hadn’t been out on maternity leave but that her father had died. So? I said, “That’s not my problem.”

    The dentist of this terrible place came out and apologized and promised it would be handled by her office manager who was, of course, at lunch. That was just more lies, of course.

    After four months of back and forth, excuses, fake dead relatives…I dug around the internet for the corporate office. I sent a nasty letter stating if we did not receive a check in seven business days, I would file a small claims case for the original amount, pre-judgment statutory interest, and double cost for fraud.

    I got the check in two days.

    But never, ever, do business with Ghetto Dental, I mean Monarch/Castle Dental.

  • Taylor Michie

    Well said, and well done. You catch more flies with honey.

  • Robbie Robinson

    I completely disagree. When I have a complaint, yes- I call customer service first. I give them that chance. Unfortunately, that rarely resolves anything to my satisfaction. So I then go straight to contacting the CEO and/or addressing the problem on their Facebook page, usually in all caps. I always get exactly what I should have gotten to begin with when I do things this way. I’m not a jerk- I only expect fair treatment from a company. Unfortunately, customer service sucks these days so unless you take drastic action, you’ll be left with nothing. For instance, today I had a problem with an online retailer charging me twice for an item. They took the money off a prepaid card and then casually told me it would be five days before I got my money back. I refused to accept that answer and ended up getting the item I had ordered free. These days it seems to me like the big corporations nearly always win and the little guy loses. I’m just trying to even the score a little.