How to complain so the recipient will thank you

Learning how to complain effectively is an art. When you must provide uncomfortable feedback, give it as the gift of love and opportunity it is. The smart recipient will thank you for it.

Here’s a recent email exchange I had with the manager of our apartment complex. Since we moved in, the new ownership group has slowly removed the amenities that were reasons we signed on. the on site police officer is gone, and most recently, the complex decided to stop offering recycling. A few knuckleheads are using the recycle bins for trash and the vendor is fining the company.

I’ve had several conversation with this individual, in person and by email. Those of you who know me know that I try to help people become more successful and seek purpose and happiness in their work. I’ve always prefaced my interactions in this way.

We received an email last week announcing the termination of the recycling service and I wrote to the manager expressing my concerns. Here is his response:

Good morning (notice no personal salutation)
Thank you for all your valuable feedback. I want to explain the reasoning behind the cancellation of recycling at Lake Lofts. Residents at Lake Lofts were disposing items that are not recyclable in the recycle bins. After numerous letters, emails and one on one counseling with our residents this got worse. The ramifications of this is that Lake Lofts incurred in fines that are not accounted for in our budget. In other words these bins were contaminated for recycling purposes. This is totally out of our control. With that said, it’s not about “the company wants to “dump down” nor “ diminishing value”. It’s about our own residents not taking care of the amenities and much less following rules.
My responses to your emails have been respectful and acknowledging the issues you have brought to my attention. If well you mentioned I’m a “foot soldier”, then I’m doing my job as I do follow instructions by my superiors.
I’m deeply sorry that you feel the way you feel about myself and the company I represent. As much as we value you as a resident we understand that you are not happy living at Lake Lofts. Let us know how else we can make your stay pleasant through the end of your lease.
Thank you,
Here’s what I wrote back:
I’ll change the name to protect the guilty

Thanks for the note, Oliver,

So we’re clear, this isn’t about being respectful or acknowledging. Those are the minimum requirements for a customer service job. You passed that test.
Let me help you think through your decision process. I’m sure you’ve done some of these steps. Maybe there are others that will be helpful in the future. If I were your supervisor, I would be asking these questions.
  • Do you have a log of the violators, that documents the time and number of conversation you’ve had with them?
  • How often are you reviewing your video recordings? Are you showing these to the violators?
  • Is this issue something that can be grounds for lease termination? If so, have you terminated any leases?
  • Are these violators people that your team has recruited as tenants? If so, how can you change your leasing procedures to better pre-qualify residents?
  • Same question goes for the folks who routinely violate noise rules. Are you asking the cops for a list of police reports associated with the property? What are the trends?
Now let’s talk more specifically about recycling:
What alternatives are there out there for recycling? Could we purchase a valet service? Have you considered talking with The Arc about bidding out this service and or the trash valet service? They provide careers for persons with disabilities who could effectively do what you need done. Although I don’t think they offer this service now, I’m sure they would welcome your creative suggestion and appreciate any willingness you might have to help them beta test the idea. It’s a way you can get your name positively circulated in the community and you might find the experience personally rewarding.
Now let me try to read your mind a bit.
I don’t have time to do all of this stuff, let alone what I’m currently being asked to do.
My bosses are pressuring me to cut costs.
If we drop an amenity, most of our tenants will complain but probably will continue to live here.
If I just keep being nice to this guy, maybe he will give up and leave me alone.
Feel familiar?
In my many years of studying high performance people and companies, there are some commonalities that may be useful to ponder.
We are all overworked. The daily decision is how to change the changeable, accept what you can’t change, and most importantly, remove yourself from the unacceptable.
You are definitely hired to protect the business and follow orders. But you are also hired to give necessary feedback to your bosses and to advocate for what you feel can add value and help grow revenue. This sometimes involves uncomfortable conversations that bosses don’t like to hear. But it ultimately gives them the information they need to make informed decisions. If your company is hiring only yes-men, you may want to consider a different corporate culture if you want to grow and enjoy your job at the same time.
People who become increasingly successful seek ways to delight the people they serve, employees, supervisors and most importantly, customers. They make it their business to know what the competition is doing, to actively seek feedback and to look at parallel worlds, companies that are in similar businesses to find ways to innovate and improve the experience.
Believe me, I understand the complexity of your role, the incredible pressure you must be under to help the ownership group pay the mortgage and generate a return for investors, while providing careers for your team and a safe and comfortable living experience for your tenants. That’s why I’m not simply emailing you a perfunctory “thank you for hearing me out” note. I want you to be successful.
If you are a reader, here are some books that have been helpful to me as I’ve walked your path:
Good to Great – Jim Collins: The best book ever written about what is involved in creating and sustaining business success. The chapter on leadership alone is worth the price. Here is a link to the essence of that chapter.
Never Eat Alone – Keith Ferrazzi: The “How To Win Friends And Influence People” of the 21st century and one of the best relationship books I’ve ever read.
Linchpin – Seth Goden: Seth distills exactly what makes your best employees so good and the behaviors that can help you become indispensable in whatever role you choose. Here’s an essay I recently wrote on that topic
Enough. You clearly understand my concerns and I’ve offered you some tools that I hope will help you continue to grow and be successful.
I’ll leave you alone with this one last lesson I learned the hard way: For every one person who takes the time to speak up, there are 10 more who won’t say anything but will take action.
Wishing you well,
Scott W.

My unhappy mentee sent me a very brief response. Understood. Sorry for the inconvenience. Have a nice day.

Not everyone is willing to do the work to grow. And some may judge my little coaching lesson to be over the top and perhaps even a bit sanctimonious. So be it.

As human beings, we owe allegiance to those we choose to serve so long as it’s a mutually beneficial relationship. Part of that allegiance is being willing to share the feedback they need to hear, even if it’s uncomfortable, making sure they understand that it’s coming from a place of love and support. And always brainstorm a solution.

Feedback is the breakfast of champions. Sometimes it can taste bitter, but sharing ideas on how to move forward can help the recipient quickly digest it and grow.