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How To Complain

I’ve had to ask for refunds from AirBNB hosts on two separate occasions.

I’ve had to call customer service on countless occasions for all manner of different issues with companies not holding up their end of the deal in a transaction.

It sucks to have to complain but as you probably know, sometimes it has to happen.

So, how can we do this in the most effective way?

Well, today I’ll share with you my method, and it works remarkably well.

What would you do if you were me?

The core of any good complaint must rest on a two important pillars.

  1. There must have been some harm done or loss suffered.
  2. You must remain calm, logical, and polite.

If you can start with these two pillars, you have a very good head start for submitting a complaint that can lead to a suitable remedy.

The goal once you have those two things is to present an airtight case and gently back the other party into a position where they are likely to place themselves in your shoes as they consider the remedy. I call that last part an empathy invitation.

I will now share with you an example of the sort of email or message I would write. I’ll then break down some of the key elements.

brown wooden chair near white wooden door


Hi {insert person’s name},

Thank you for your quick replies this weekend. Though we couldn’t get everything resolved, we do sincerely appreciate your responsiveness.

We are grateful that we had the opportunity to enjoy time with our friends. Unfortunately, a few things did take away from the enjoyment of our weekend.

We would like to request a reasonable refund because of the following issues:

1: The house was extremely cold

When we arrived at 4:45, the heat had not yet been turned on. Because the temperatures that day hovered in the range of 40°, the house was extremely cold and it took more than 3 hours before we were all comfortable removing our winter coats inside.

Even more concerning is that we had our newborn with us and we were worried about him being too cold. I’m sure you can understand that concern.

In the future, you may want to consider remote activating the Nest thermostat several hours before guests arrive.

2: The oven did not work

We had planned to use the oven but quickly learned that we could not get it to turn on. Upon further inspection, we saw that the two knobs used to turn on the oven were both cracked on the inside and could not be used to start the oven.

Because of this we had to alter parts of our dinner plans and make several additional trips back home to bake parts of dinner. This cost us precious time with friends as well as some additional money.

3: The television did not match the listing

Because several members of our party were planning to watch the World Cup, we were disappointed to find that neither the off-air antenna nor the Amazon Fire Stick/SmartTV worked properly as was shown in the listing. This again forced to drive home once more to bring back a device to be able to watch television with our friends.

What we’re asking for

I want to reiterate that we appreciate your responsiveness throughout all of this and know that you tried to do whatever you could to resolve the issues we were having.

That said, we did incur additional hard costs because of the problems listed above as well as the soft costs of losing time with friends we don’t often have the chance to see. We aren’t trying to give you a hard time. We just want a fair refund for the problems that came up this weekend.

Please, as you consider the refund amount, put yourself in our shoes and think about the discomfort and inconvenience of losing time with friends, needing to make multiple trips across the city, and, if you’re parents, worrying about the health and safety of your newborn.

Thanks for your consideration.





I want to point out a few important points throughout this example email.

  1. Always be friendly, polite, and reasonable.
  2. Do not accuse the other party or make them wrong. It’s not me vs you, it’s me and you vs the problem.
  3. Stick to the facts. List no more than 5 — the most important facts.
  4. Facts should include the following structure:
    • Headline: What happened
    • The context or story of the problem
    • The harm or loss the problem resulted in
    • If appropriate, a potential simple solution that could’ve avoided the problem altogether
  5. Be clear in what you are asking for.
  6. Add empathy invitations.

Arguments are not going to get you as far as moving the other party to your side of the table. People do not want to be wrong, so instead of accusing, give them the opportunity to set things right by being reasonable. In most cases, especially if you can get them to think about things from your perspective instead of their own, you can move them closer to your side.

Does it work?

In almost all cases where I have to write an email to resolve a situation, I get most of what I want. This is because the document that is produced from our interactions presents compelling evidence should the situation need to be escalated. I remain polite and reasonable, I offer opportunities to set things right, and I lay out the facts in clearly and with detail.

I have also used similar approaches to get tables at restaurants, get discounts from companies, and resolve a variety of other types of customer service issues.

If you have been legitimately harmed or suffered loss, and you can keep yourself calm, polite and detail-oriented, you set yourself up for a low friction resolution to your problem.

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