We've all encountered situations that aren't right in some way. A sales clerk is especially rude, or there's an inherent unfairness in a given situation with an insurance company. Sometimes the right thing to do is to walk away and let it go; sometimes you need to speak up. But there is a right way and a wrong way to complain.
Being a good complainer can - but not always - get you results. Complaining can be cathartic and it can bring about positive change for you as well as others - and sometimes it can be a complete waste of energy. Deciding what to complain about and when is tricky, but can be well worth the effort - and can be a good example of conflict resolution for the kids.
Take a breath
First you need to make a judgment call about whether something is worth complaining about! Each of us has a different threshold for this sort of thing. Mine is fairly low, I admit, and it's especially low if my kids or money is involved. Take a deep breath and ask yourself what you hope to gain from this situation; if it's purely a revenge situation, take a second and third breath.
The old adage that you can catch more bees with honey than with vinegar is especially true when complaining. Staying calm and respectful will get you farther than blowing your top - most of the time anyway. Blowing your top does have it's place, but it's a last resort.
Gather as much information as possible to make your case. The initial situation, the expected result, the actual result, the name of the person or persons you have talked to, dates, times, the works. Decide what you want to achieve and be ready to declare it. Know how far you will go in a compromise situation. Get names of higher-ups and persons who might have more power to help you.
Gathering information may also involve looking into alternative strategies. If the customer service line at a mail-order company is getting you nowhere, look up corporate information for the company try getting results from the top-down.
Be clear and articulate
Whether writing or calling or speaking to someone in person, stay on message. If you are writing a letter read and revise and read and revise and edit and have someone else look at it before sending it off. If you are making a phone call or are speaking to someone in person, have all your notes in front of you.
Be persistent and consistent
Sometimes complaining is a process. It takes more than one letter or phone call to resolve an issue. When complaining takes time, be careful about the consistency of your message, and the timeliness of following through.
Know when to stop
Knowing when to stop, if you aren't getting results, is hard. I have pushed too far at times, and not far enough at others. When I have pushed too far, it feels a little embarrassing and can be hard to let go. The point at which it's right for you to stop is completely personal, but if people around you are saying it, you might want to consider it.
It goes both ways
The other side of complaining is praising, and I try for balance in that sense. If a company or a clerk gives me superior service - even while I am making a complaint! - I say so. And just as I tell everyone I know when I receive particularly bad service, I make the effort to tell everyone I know about service. It's just good karma, I think.