How to Assert Yourself: A Guide to Dealing with Unfulfilled Promises

The knob fell off my hotel room door. The room had the wrong number of beds, the mattress sagged, the shower would have made an Eskimo’s teeth chatter, and the restaurant included pieces of glass and wire in the food. A nearby hospital demanded payment for an expensive test they improperly submitted to my insurance company.

OK, not all events were on the same day or in the same place, but these unpleasantries happened over a period of years at a variety of locations.

They were opportunities to become assertive and I became pretty good at taking on poor service and unfulfilled promises.

I had not always been adept, however.

I did not deal with such matters from strength as a young man, but I learned by doing. We don’t become confident waiting for the emergence of the ability to assert ourselves, we become confident by asserting ourselves. We get better gradually. That said, this particular kind of “training” isn’t fun.

In all the cases described – and more – I received compensation, usually enough to satisfy me.

I’ll share some thoughts on the potential trepidation of this type of challenge, as well as what I learned about the best way to succeed in dealing with these difficulties.

ATTITUDE (YOURS):

  • You are paying for a service. You are entitled to the service for which you are paying. The company is not doing you a favor by providing it. Indeed, you have been inconvenienced by needing to prompt the vendor to fulfill his obligation to you.
  • Think of your relationship with the provider (the merchant or hotel or restaurant) as if it were a written contract: they do something for you and you pay them for what they do.
  • You are providing the owner or CEO with valuable information: what is wrong with his business. Consultants earn high fees telling ailing companies about their mistakes. Some of the organizations to whom you complain will, indeed, be grateful for the information provided. Example: a restaurant that is over salting the food needs to know its patrons don’t like it or will soon have empty tables .
  • Self-assertion doesn’t make you a bad person. Requiring things be put right shows self-respect. You can be a good man or woman and also stand up for yourself.
  • Be direct, but civil. Don’t lose your temper, but speak unequivocally. Your tone should convey seriousness. Phrases like “I think” and “I’m pretty sure” undercut your complaint.
  • The person who you are talking to is not always the one who failed to provide adequate service. Be direct and strong in dealing with him, nonetheless. Consider saying, “I realize this is not your doing, but I am unhappy with your company’s failure to _____.”
  • If you admit error when the failure is not yours, your argument will not succeed.

BE PREPARED:

  • Read any signed contract with care. Even if the document suggests the service was not unconditionally guaranteed, websites and sales staff often convey the sense that the service will be provided, thereby implying an assurance or promise. Read the website and come prepared to quote from it, if necessary.
  • Try to manage the issue face-to-face, if possible. It is easier to be told “no” if you use email or phone.
  • Write down what you want to say. You can even read from your notes or script, though it is best to look at the representative most of the time.
  • Your written material should include the dates and times when events went wrong, the names of those with whom you spoke, whatever they said, etc. These details convey veracity (truthfulness) even if one cannot prove what happened.

MEETING WITH A CUSTOMER SERVICE REPRESENTATIVE OR MANAGER:

  • Make and keep eye contact. My adult children call this, “the Stein Stare.” You needn’t display the controlled ferocity and x-ray vision my kids seem to imply in this “tribute” (a sort of family joke, both exaggerated and true), but people do take me seriously when I want them to.
  • Introduce yourself by name and, if possible, shake the agent’s hand firmly. You are attempting to establish a relationship, convey civility, and demonstrate the importance of the matter. Looking down most of the time will not help your case.
  • Since you may be speaking to a person with little authority, ask him to follow through on reaching a “decider” and request follow-up concerning the company’s intentions with regard to your complaint. Ask when you should expect to hear back and whether notice will come in writing or by phone.
  • If you don’t get satisfaction, request the attention of someone still-higher in the chain of command. A Vice President of Customer Satisfaction or similar individual stands on the top rung. You can find his name on the company website.
  • At some point you may need to ask for what you want. For example, a poorly cooked dish should be sent back to the kitchen and prepared to your liking or removed from the bill. A hotel problem might require you to request a room change, a reduced rate, or both. In hotels I’ve received a free day, a free meal, free parking, etc. Sometimes you will be offered a form of compensation without asking, but be prepared whether to accept the proposition or ask for more. Don’t say, “that’s OK,” unless you mean it.
  • Be persistent. Multiple contacts are often required. It took me six-months to get a hospital to submit a corrected insurance claim. I spoke with a nurse, a doctor, obtained the proper procedure code for the test that had been performed, wrote emails, and made regular telephone follow-ups with the hospital’s billing department.

A FEW OTHER CONSIDERATIONS:

  • You needn’t always make an issue of things. Pick your fights. The world is imperfect and you can drive yourself batty demanding justice at every turn. Some problems are best allowed to pass unchallenged.
  • Be aware of what your “default” tendency is when it comes to the kind of assertion described here. Some of us demand perfection as customers and enjoy fighting. Some are meek, prone to cowering in the face of anyone in authority. Others are easy-going and accept life’s occasional disappointments with a good-nature and plenty of tolerance.
  • If you are prone to fighting you might need to ask why. If you are avoidant of anything portending conflict, confrontation, or disappointment, you risk transforming yourself into the world’s doormat. Think about who you wish to be and how much emotion you are willing to spend in obtaining the service you expected or compensation for a failure or delay.
  • Most service providers hope to satisfy you, want your return business, and look forward to word-of-mouth advertising from you.
  • The vendor dislikes negative publicity. It is sometimes necessary to let the company know of your intention to tweet or blog your story to others if you aren’t satisfied.
  • If you do make such a threat, recognize this is the only “arrow” in your quiver. Once you have used it and tweeted your unhappiness to the world, your leverage with the vendor is gone. If at all possible, keep any such actions in reserve unless negotiations reach a dead-end

FINAL THOUGHTS: 

  • Consider all that I’ve said as free advice, with the usual warning: no guarantees and you get what you paid for it.
  • You will feel better about yourself if you challenge some of the personal injustices life offers and stand up to those who might take advantage of you, whether intentionally or due to incompetence or negligence.
  • What you prove to yourself is more important than proving anything to others. Knowing you can face difficult situations is worth the unpleasantness required to obtain such knowledge. You won’t always get what you want, but you will build an internal psychic muscle. Like the proverbial 99-pound weakling who enlarges his body by lifting weights, your newly found internal strength will be worth the hours spent in the gym of life.

The top image is A Snowball Fight in China by 大雄鹰. The second photo is a Giant Snowball, Oxford by Kamyar Adl. The final painting is Three Lawyers in Conference by Honoré Daumier. All are sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

14 thoughts on “How to Assert Yourself: A Guide to Dealing with Unfulfilled Promises

  1. Wow! What you say in this post is, in my opinion, spot on. Having been around the block a few times, I have reached the place where I have few qualms about attempting to resolve an unfortunate situation . I don’t object to asking for what I what I want or what I believe I paid for. I think the one thing that I always try to do is come at the situation from a calm place. I assume positive intent. I speak with the customer service rep first and foremost with kindness. I go into the encounter with the idea that this is all going to work out just fine. Of course, sometimes it does and sometimes it doesn’t. But knowing what it is that I want done to fix the situation and clearly, calmly, and kindly asserting that helps. In the end, I tend to push for what I want until I either get it (or something suitably comparable) or until I decide that the irritation/anger isn’t worth it. Then I am diligent about letting other people know (in whatever forum exists) about my experience. That’ll show them , right?

    Thanks for a well written, nicely organized, practical piece. Happy Fourth! Although I suspect you are almost to the 5th in Chicago…fireworks have yet to start in CA.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. drgeraldstein

    Thanks, JT. I think we both agree that the tightrope is walk involves respect and firmness, neither at the expense of the other. As you say, speaking out publicly is a final resort – one that the vendors don’t want. Hope your holiday was a good one and, as always, thanks for your good wishes.

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  3. Thanks for that sound advice, Dr. Stein. As a single mother in a man’s world, I had to learn to assert myself. I received lots of backlash: part of the learning curve.

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  4. Thanks for this post Gerald.
    Standing up for myself is a huge trigger that often comes with lots of panic attacks and some level of decompensation, even reading the post makes me feel a bit panicky. Having said that, it has been a huge step in my recovery to continue to stand up and say I exist and I am important despite how others have treated me in the past. Even if I fall apart to begin with I can recover and be strong.

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    • drgeraldstein

      Terrific attitude, Claire. You willpower in taking the blows and returning to assert yourself inspite of your anxiety is inspiring.

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  5. This is such a valuable and important post for me. I’ll be bookmarking it and refer to it again when necessary. Thanks for sharing this. 🙂

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  6. drgeraldstein

    You are welcome, Rayne. I suspect there is much potential quietly waiting inside of you, yet to be unleashed.

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  7. Great advice! I can relate to all of it. I hate confrontations, but I also dislike injustice (and losing money). I have had good luck using consideration, negotiating tactics, and persistence. Last year, I took on Paypal and my fight may have contributed to its recent “change of policies”. Having worked on the other side–customer service for a family business–I operated on the “customer is right” philosophy. I handled a lot of complaints and alway made sure the customer walked away feeling compensated. This small concession contributed to customer loyalty. By the way, I hope your post was not inspired my a recent vacation fiasco. Happy your summer is going well so far, Gerry.

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  8. drgeraldstein

    Congratulations on your own success with customer service, Evelyn. I am fiasco-less, so no worries there. Thanks for your good wishes and I hope you are also having a lovely summer.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Fortunately, I am able to stand up to companies but my difficulty comes with standing up to family or friends. Working on this with my therapist and I made some strides. Come prepared and have a plan….When in doubt and unprepared, take a pause, get back to them and have a script. I do all my homework and do try to heed his suggestions.

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  10. I know some people who can defend their children, but not themselves. The personal relationships and the value we place on the opinions of those others complicates the assertive project, for sure. Thanks for your comment, Nancy.

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