Six Tips for Complaining Well: Guidelines for Parents

Complaining Well“Are you the person I file a complaint with?”

Those were the man’s first words to me as I stepped out of the van I had just driven for five hours, following the bus carrying kids home after their stay at camp.

“Umm, yes, sure,” I said. I was a bit taken aback. After 30 years of being a camp director, I am accustomed to receiving criticism graciously. However, normally there’s a greeting of “hello” and an introduction that precedes the complaint. My initial thought after his question was that he might be joking, but he wasn’t. He proceeded to tell me that he hadn’t received text updates about the bus’s arrival time. I apologized and said I’d look into it. That was the end of our conversation.

All of this occurred before he greeted his child, who was arriving home after two weeks at camp. And it also occurred without him mentioning anything about his child’s or his overall experience with our camp. This got me thinking about how there’s a WRONG way and a RIGHT way to complain to your camp or school or other program.

At our camp, we encourage a lot of feedback – both positive and constructive – from our campers, staff, and parents. We do mid-session and end-of-session evaluations with the campers, and we ask parents to complete an evaluation after their child returns home. Our counselors give their input through mid- and end-of-summer evaluations as well.

complaints-key-shows-complaining-or-moaning-online-100206761_0We use what we learn from this feedback to determine improvements and changes to make to our program. Because we are always looking at ways to be better, we actually like complaints. And some of our favorite customers are those who have given us honest feedback to help us improve.

But I really didn’t like the complaint I got last weekend from the dad at the bus stop, so I’ve decided to provide some guidelines on how to complain well. If you complain well, your complaint will be heard and you won’t look like a jerk.

  1. Before you call/email/approach the person to whom you’re complaining, figure out what your main issue or concern is. What did the camp (or school) do or not do that you’d like them to do differently? Is this a big problem or a minor issue? Big problems would be anything that involved your child being harmed or hurt emotionally or physically. Minor issues are inconveniences or things that just didn’t go as smoothly as you would have liked. If you’re not sure if it’s big or minor, talk to your spouse or a trusted friend first and let them filter your issue. Sometimes, an issue that seems big to you in the moment (like not getting a text) isn’t quite as earth-shattering once you’ve talked it through with someone.
  2. Figure out who is the best person to address your concern. Most likely, it’s not the person driving a van. Sometimes it’s the person in charge of the program – the camp director or school principal – but often it may be the office manager or someone who handles travel, communication, or some other aspect of the program.
  3. Have your approach and tone reflect the size of your issue. And, even with a bigger issue, an aggressive, angry approach will not produce the best conversation and resolution. So, calm down and take a few deep breaths before you call. You’ll have a much more productive conversation.
  4. If you have anything positive to say about the program, include that as a preamble to your complaint. For example, many times parents have said things to me like, “My son had a fantastic time at your camp this summer, but I do wish the counselors had made him change into clean clothes more frequently.” When I hear a complaint like this, I know that it comes from a well-meaning parent who has a valid point. And, I’m not holding my breath worrying that the child had an awful experience. I know up-front that, overall, everything was fine. There’s just something small we can address.
  5. Consider using mild words for a minor issue. For example, “This is not a big concern, but I didn’t see as many pictures of my child this year, and I was wondering what was different.”
  6. Know what outcome you’re looking for and be specific. Is there something that can be fixed? A lost item that can be looked for? A counselor with whom a topic can be addressed? Something to be changed for next summer?

Complaints vs. GratitudeBecause he never talked to me again at the bus stop, I was not able to circle back with the parent who complained to let him know that two texts with updates on the bus arrival time had, in fact, been sent. For whatever reason, his text updates had not been activated; maybe he thought since he got them last year he was automatically enrolled? I’ll never know, because he didn’t come back and talk to me again – about anything. Perhaps he’ll complete his parent evaluation and let us know how much we inconvenienced his day by making him wait for 45 minutes at the bus stop for his child who was arriving home from camp. I hope so, because then we will have a chance to respond.

I also want to thank him for giving me something to write about this week!

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Complaining, For Your Health (The Atlantic)
Constant Complaining, Does it Serve us Well (Psychology Today)
How to Complain (to actually get what you want) The Muse