How to Complain: in a Restaurant, on the Phone, by Letter, in a Shop, in a Relationship, in the Workplace



The situations we are about to examine are:

  1. Vocabulary for complaining
  2. Complaining in a restaurant
  3. Complaining on the phone
  4. Complaining in a shop
  5. Complaining by letter
  6. Complaining in the workplace
  7. Complaining in a relationship

In English complaining can be problematic, particularly in British English where we are very concerned with being polite and not offending anybody. I know it sounds silly, but it’s true, even when complaining we want to be as polite as possible and not make people angry!

Complaining is an art!

So, here we are going to examine a few different situations when complaints would be necessary and also the vocabulary that would be needed to complain correctly.

Before we start…

Vocabulary for complaining

Getting Attention

  • Excuse me…
  • Pardon me…
  • I have a complaint…
  • Sorry to bother you but…
  • I’m sorry to say…

Expressing opinion

  • I’m afraid there’s a problem…
  • I’m angry about…
  • I’m really not happy…
  • There’s a slight problem with…

Making the complaint

I would like/I want…     

  • to lodge a complaint                             
  • to make a complaint                              
  • to report an issue                             
  • to give you some feedback                                 
  • to inform you

Let’s start!!


Complaining in a Restaurant

In a restaurant there can be a lot of things to complain about.

Possible reasons to complain in a restaurant

  • Dirty cutlery: when your knife and fork or eating utensils are not clean or healthy to use.
  • Cold food: When your food has not been cooked for the correct amount of time and is cold.
  • Uncooked and dangerous food: When your food could damage your health and maybe even kill you!
  • A long waiting time: When you have to wait hours for your food.
  • Bad service: If the people that work in the restaurant are rude or unfriendly to you.

So how do you complain about these issues without drawing too much attention from other customers in the restaurant?

Let’s look at a practice dialogue:

Customer: Excuse me!

It’s important to be polite and say excuse me rather than saying Come here! or clicking your fingers. The last two are extremely impolite.

Even saying Excuse me, waiter Is seen as impolite because you are implying that because he/she is a waiter/waitress, they are not as important as you. It’s better to just say excuse me when the waiter/waitress is near the table.

Waiter: Yes sir, how can I help you?
Customer: I don’t want to make a scene but there’s a fly in my soup.

When you say I don’t want to make a scene it means that you don’t want to attract the attention of people around you and make them look at the table. We do this because the fly in the soup is probably not the fault of the waiter, but if you start shouting at him then he will be embarrassed in front of all the other customers.

You can also say I hate to make a fuss as it means the same thing.

Waiter: I am terribly sorry! I will take the soup back to the kitchen and get you another one.
Customer: Thank you very much.

Now usually it is as simple as this, but if the waiter/waitress is rude and doesn’t respond to your polite complaint, don’t worry! Stay calm!

Here are some phrases for more extreme situations:

I’d like to speak to a manager, please.

This means that the waiter/waitress will have to go and get their manager to speak to you and deal with your complaint more professionally. It is the manager’s job to make sure that everything goes smoothly, so he/she may well be more receptive to your complaint.

I’m sorry, but this is unacceptable!

A bit more extreme, this is something you can say if nobody is listening to your complaint or if they don’t believe your complaint! This is extremely rare but possible!

This food is not fit for a dog!

CAUTION: This is very extreme, but if you are angry with the food that you have been offered but the manager disagrees with you, you can say this to show just how disappointed you are.

The phrase means that it would be bad to give the food to dogs, let alone humans!

Another variation is: I wouldn’t feed this to my dog.

More for you:
Cooking / At the Restaurant Vocabulary and Dialogs
Other Ways To Say SORRY!


Complaining on the Phone

Everyone’s favourite job, complaining over the phone.

Possible reasons to complain over the phone

  • A faulty product
  • Poor customer service
  • You need an extended explanation about an issue.

It can be a good idea to complain over the phone as you get to speak to a real human (normally) and they can talk to you about an issue with more details than a leaflet or a computer programme, for example.

However, this can also be very difficult as you are usually talking to staff that are trained to deal with complaints.
Sometimes they don’t want to help you!

The good thing about complaining over the phone is that the staff member usually has a vague script that they follow, so you can predict what they are going to say and prepare your responses appropriately.

When you complain in English over the phone, it might be a good idea to take some notes before you call. That way you will be ready for anything and you will be able to achieve the best outcome!

It’s important to speak clearly and with purpose on the phone, take a look at this practice dialogue:

Staff: Hello! and how may I help you today?
Customer: Hello, I would like to place a complaint please.

Stay calm! Remember that the staff could cut you off (put the phone down to stop the phone call) at any moment if you are impolite.
Saying I would like to place a complaint means that you say what you need to say without being aggressive or angry with the member of staff

Staff: Okay, and can I ask what is the nature of the complaint (what is the complaint about)?
Customer: I want to report a faulty product, my computer won’t turn on and I have no idea as to why.

Staff: Okay, I’m sorry to hear that! I will do my best to help you with that.
Customer: Thank you.

Again, normally you will be able to achieve what you need by being polite and following the instructions from the staff member but for all those frustrating times that you need to be more forceful.

Here are some helpful phrases:

I am not happy at all with this service.

This is pretty self-explanatory but it is a strong way of saying that you’re unhappy without being rude and causing the member of staff to cut you off (end the phone call) or put the phone down (end the phone call) on you.

Please don’t put me on hold!

This is the most annoying part of the phone complaints process!

To be put on hold is when the member of staff says something like one moment please and then you have to wait for them to come back whilst listening to music that is probably not very good!

This is one of the worst things ever! It’s even worse if you don’t have much time or if the phone call is costing a lot of money!

Please, you’re not listening to me at all!

If the staff member doesn’t understand either you or your complaint, it can be very frustrating. This is quite direct, so be careful not to use it too much!

You sound like a broken record!

This is the most aggressive one and it’s something you can say to people in everyday speech as well. Now, picture a broken record or more specifically think about the sound that it makes.

When a record is broken, the needle will get stuck and the sound will keep playing over and over and over again. This is where the saying comes from! In this case, it means that someone keeps saying the same thing.

Over the phone, maybe the dialogue would sound something like this:

Staff: I’m sorry sir, but my records show you are not the owner of this computer. I can’t help you.
Customer: I am the owner! I bought it yesterday and it’s brand new!

Staff: Well I’m sorry sir, but my computer says you are not the owner of this computer. There’s nothing I can do!
Customer: You sound like a broken record! You’re not helping me at all!

Again, be careful with this one!

More for you:
Phone Conversation: Most Commonly Used English Phrases
Formal and Informal Email Phrases Starting with Greetings


Complaining in shops

Here we will use the example of a clothes shop, because it is a place that lots of people visit! This is similar to complaining in restaurants.

Because it is a public place you don’t want to make too much noise and cause a scene (the same as make a fuss) so it is important to be polite and hopefully you will get what you want at the end of it all.

Also, remember that a lot of staff members want to help you so there is no point in shouting at them and making them feel angry towards you!

Possible reasons to complain in a shop

  • Faulty product
  • Poor service
  • A pricing error (something costs more than it should do)

Here is an example dialogue:

Customer: Excuse me, I would like to lodge a complaint.
Shop Assistant: Okay, what is it regarding? (what is it about?)

Customer: I have been waiting at the fitting rooms for about 15 minutes and I haven’t been served (nobody has helped me).
Shop Assistant:  Well I am really sorry to hear that. We are committed to giving better service than that. I will report your incident.
Customer: Thank you.

Hopefully that will be it! If you need more phrases then we’ve got you covered:

I’d like to speak to a manager, please.

The same as above in the restaurant, if you need to speak to someone in a more senior position, just ask!

I don’t feel like a valued customer here.

This is a good thing to say as businesses should want to make all of their customers feel like valued customers and treat them well.

I want a refund/I would like a refund

You say this if you want the business to give you your money back for what you have purchased or paid for.

Normally, after complaining you will be offered a refund by the business, but if they don’t offer it to you then you can use this phrase. This one can also be used in restaurants amongst others.

More for you:
Customer Complaints at a Computer Shop
Travel, Holiday, Vacation Vocabulary and Dialogs in English
SHOPPING Phrases, Dialogs and Phrasal Verbs!


Complaining in a letter

This is an important method. It’s also something that can be highly effective if you write it correctly.

With a letter, we have the chance to prepare (a bit like complaining over the phone) but in this case we can check the grammar and read the text a few times just to be sure.

There are a few key phrases to be remembered here:

I am writing to inform you

This is a good way to be polite but direct about an issue or problem. More simply it would be, I’m writing to tell you about… But in this case it is better to use more developed language.

I am/was extremely upset/disappointed/offended because…

This expresses how you feel about the problem. Using strong words like offended or extremely as opposed to I am not happy will get a better response and make more of an impact.

There seems to be an issue/problem with

Using seems to be is a good idea because you might be wrong about the problem, or you may not understand the situation as well as you think. If you say seems to be it means that you are open to the possibility of being wrong. You just want an honest explanation.

Here is a really good template for an English complaint letter:

Dear Sir/Madam

My name is _______ and I am writing to inform you that there seems to be a problem/issue with ________ .

I am/was extremely disappointed/very upset/offended because _____________ .

I would really appreciate it if you could explain to me why this issue occurred and what you might do to rectify the situation.

I hate to make a fuss, but I feel it’s necessary to draw this to your attention.

I await your considered response.

Yours Sincerely,


Make your letter as detailed as possible!
You want to make sure that the other person fully understands the problem and the way it has changed your life.

More for you:
19 Email Templates for Business Communication
6 Ways to Immediately Improve Your English Communication Skills


Complaining in a relationship

Probably the most difficult complaint of all! This is how to complain to your partner about a problem!
Now, of course things will be very delicate here, one wrong word can be catastrophic.

Be careful…

Perhaps you are having an argument, perhaps something is unfair but whatever it is it probably isn’t worth losing your partner for it!

Useful Phrases for this include:

  • I feel like you’re not listening to me
  • Please, just hear me out (listen to me)
  • Let’s compromise (find a solution we both like)
  • Let’s just take a minute and think
  • Let’s work this out (find a solution)
  • We need to talk about something

Check out the dialogue:

A: Love, we need to talk about something.
B: What is it?

A: I’m really unhappy that you didn’t come to my grandma’s birthday party.
B: Really? But you told me it was fine!

A: Please, just hear me out.
B: Okay.

A: I would have loved it if you had come with me and in future I would like you to come to all my family occasions.
B: Let’s just take a minute to think, what is the point in me doing that?

A: I feel like you’re not listening to me! I always want you to be with me! Come on, let’s work this out. It doesn’t have to be a big problem.
B: Okay, let’s compromise, I will try harder to make time for your family events.

Using the words we’ve mentioned, you can keep your relationship healthy and that will make you happy! Stay calm and use the vocabulary to make sure that you both get what you want.

More for you:
Family Relationships in English And Phrases About Family
112 Phrases for Saying Thank You in Any Situation


Complaining in the workplace

This is another situation where you have to be calm. This is your job we’re talking about!

  • Let’s try to communicate better
  • Take a deep breath
  • We are a team
  • We have to be professional

Here’s a dialogue to explain!

A: I want to lodge a complaint against my manager.
B: Okay, what’s the problem?
A: I am not happy with the way he talks to me, he is such an idiot!

B: Okay, Take a deep breath, we have to be professional.
A: I’m sorry but I feel badly treated.

B: It’s alright, but let’s try to communicate better to solve the problem.
A: Yes, I know we are a team and we have to be professional.

It’s important to put the focus onto solving problems rather than creating new ones. Especially in a place where you are being measured on performance! Be open to other people’s ideas and make sure you’re being reasonable.

More for you:
List of Sentence Connectors in English with Examples!
A BIG List of Prefixes and Suffixes and Their Meanings

So in summary…

With complaints in English it’s important to:

  • Keep your cool and stay calm
  • Use a lot of vocabulary, particularly adjectives to fully describe your situation.
  • Be polite! People will be more willing to help you if you use manners and treat them with respect. Remember it’s probably not their fault!

So what do you think? Any complaints? Any issues?

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