by Nicky Watkinson.
Having a bad experience sucks. Whether it’s poor customer service, an interpersonal interaction gone awry, or straight-up discrimination, there are lots of scenarios when a complaint is called for.
There are a number of barriers that prevent people from making a complaint – such as believing it will be ineffective; not being sure whether what happened is complaint-worthy; low self-esteem; social conditioning to silently accept uncomfortable situations – and even once these are overcome, the complaints process itself can often be overwhelming and confusing. This blogpost is a basic guide to complaints: why you should complain, and where to begin. It will be regularly updated, and will be accompanied by some template letters that you can adapt to your own needs.
If you want to complain, complain
As autistic people, we’re often trained to be apologetic and not “make a fuss”, but legitimate complaints are important. Most organisations take complaints seriously and will try to rectify the problem once they’ve been alerted to it. Even if your complaint doesn’t result in immediate change, it helps build a body of evidence for the future.
It is vital that we combat the myths around complaining. It’s natural to worry that you might be overreacting or misreading (especially if you’ve always been taught that the fault for any negative social interaction is with you, as an autistic person). However, if you had a bad experience, then you had a bad experience. Whether or not it seems like it’s “worth” complaining about is irrelevant; if you feel upset, angry, or even just confused, that is worth attention.
If you find yourself dwelling on an interaction more than a day or two after it happened, or complaining about it to people in your day-to-day life, or if the thought of it makes you anxious about future re-occurrences, then those are all signs you should complain. It might be worth thinking of complaints as a process of notification or providing feedback, rather than complaining – the word “complaint” has a lot of negative associations, and it can sound quite strong, which can be off-putting if you feel like it’s just a small thing. But if you frame it as a comment rather than a complaint, it can be easier to go through with – if you were the person in question, or the head of the organisation, wouldn’t you appreciate feedback?
The best case scenario is that you get an apology, your money back or some other appropriate compensation, and the bad thing never happens again. Even if it turns out that the complaint is unfounded – we’ve all misread things, whether neurotypical or not – you’ll hopefully get some clarification of the situation, and some closure.
The key to complaints is going about them in the right way. Most of the time, a complaint is made after the fact, to someone who was not directly involved in the incident (I am assuming that if you’re reading this piece, you’re probably not one to immediately kick up a fuss with the person in question). The process will vary depending on the nature of the complaint and the organisation, but here are some pointers for figuring out where to start, and some resources to help you along the way.
- Determining what kind of complaint or comment you want to make
Did you experience something completely awful and obviously discriminatory? You’re probably going to want to frame that differently to a comment about something small, e.g. how signage in a venue could be improved. Think about what grounds you have for the complaint or comment – is what happened illegal, or borderline illegal? Are you advising the organisation of a change they can make so that their customers have a more positive experience? Be clear on this so you know what tone to take, and what kinds of templates to model your response on.
- Determining the recipient of the complaint
This will vary quite a lot depending on the situation and the organisation. The first thing to do is check the organisation’s procedures for complaints – some venues will have dedicated customer comments email addresses or phone lines, others will direct you to the department in question. Exactly what you say in your complaint will have to be adapted based on the recipient – if your words are going to be seen by the person in question, that requires a different approach to if you’re complaining to a third party such as their line manager or a dedicated complaints department. If you can’t find any information on the organisation’s website or printed materials, contact their general enquiries team or reach out on social media – the best way to approach this is to ask “hey, where should I direct complaints / comments / feedback?”, rather than to launch in with the complaint.
- Drafting the complaint
There are lots of resources online for making complaints, some of which are linked below. Some things to think about are:
- Tone: there’s a fine line between assertive and aggressive, and it’s important to stay on the right side of it. Don’t attack the person reading your complaint, especially if they aren’t directly to blame! Keep the tone as calm as possible – it’s fine to talk about how you feel (“I felt like I wasn’t being listened to”, for example), but it’s important to state this as plainly as possible and without aggression (“all your staff are terrible and should be fired” probably won’t get you anywhere!). Equally, don’t be too soft: make it clear that this is a complaint (or comment) that you expect them to act on – if you are writing an email, using “Complaint” in the subject line is a good way to both grab attention in a crowded inbox, and to be explicit about the fact that you expect them to take it seriously.
- The facts: state, clearly and concisely, what happened. Give as many pertinent details as you can (where, when, who, etc), but try to keep it short as well. They don’t need a blow-by-blow account of the interaction or problem – they can contact you if they require more information – but it is good to give an overview (e.g. “In the lobby, at roughly 2pm on Tuesday 8th April, I was told I couldn’t breastfeed by a male staff member with a shaved head and glasses.”).
- Outcome: what do you want to happen? What do you think is likely to happen? Company policies, if these are available online, are useful here, because they give you an idea of how the organisation plans to deal with incidents like this. It’s tempting, especially when we’re upset, to leap to extremes, but it’s important to be realistic – unless an employee did something extremely bad, constituting gross misconduct or illegal behaviour, they are unlikely to be removed from their post. Likely outcomes are things like giving the employee a warning, placing them on a probationary period, and retraining (either the employee or the whole team / organisation). Specify whether you are just raising the point for their information, or whether you expect a particular outcome: do you want some form of compensation, or an apology, or assurance that the organisation is reviewing its practices? This is useful information for the person reading the complaint, as it gives them something to act on.
- Next steps: Do you want to be notified of the outcome of your complaint? If you don’t see evidence of them responding to your comment, will you escalate it to an external body or go public? It’s good to explicitly say that you expect a response within a certain (reasonable) time frame, as again this gives the person reading your complaint something to work with: e.g. “Please do keep me informed about the steps you’re taking to resolve this issue. I would appreciate a response within five working days.” (If you then don’t hear back within this time frame, I would suggest one follow-up email or call before escalating the complaint.)
- Escalating the situation: if you don’t hear back from them within the time frame you set out, or they don’t respond appropriately, what will you do next? Options here include making a public complaint (e.g. on social media), or reporting the person / organisation to a third party.
Put all this together, and you have a complaint!
For further resources and template complaints via letter and telephone, visit our follow-up article inThe Vault (Citizens only).