What kind of complainer are you?

I used to train hotel employees on how to handle difficult situations and irate customers. I believe the best way to please someone is to understand his needs and motivations, so I wanted these employees to learn to pay attention to why people complain.

No, not the reasons — like, because the toilet wouldn’t flush or the rate was wrong. What was the psychology behind the complaints?

Why would one person overlook a hair in the sink, while the next would suffer a stroke over it?

In my effort to better understand the psychology behind complaining, I began studying disgruntled customers, and I noticed certain “types” of complainers.

See yourself in this list anywhere?

1. People with ruined dreams. This is the person who has been dreaming of the most breathtaking African safari, or the most magical Disney vacation, or the most relaxing trip to the Caribbean for years. He’s got this perfect vision is his head of exactly how his entire trip, including his hotel experience, should be.

But we all know that fantasy and reality rarely meet. This person may complain because he has major problems. But he often complains about minor things that may not really matter, simply because he’s facing the reality that there is no such thing as a perfect vacation. If your dreams are ruined, stop and think: Is this problem really the hotel’s fault, or does the blame lie with Mother Nature/the airline/my husband? And even if it is the hotel’s fault, do you really want to spend valuable vacation time arguing with a front desk agent over a 25-cent local phone call?

2. Face-savers. A face-saver complains because he thinks acting irate will camouflage his shortcomings. This is the person who knows he only made his reservation for two nights but insists it was three, or who knows he left the “do not disturb” sign on his door but insists that the housekeepers have it in for him. A face-saver can often be identified by his low self-esteem and his belief that belittling other people makes him look good. He’s the one complaining really loudly so that everyone around him knows how clever he his and how stupid the hotel employee is.

If you’re a face-saver, shame on you. You need to cut it out right now. I’m not telling you not to complain when something is wrong. I’m just imploring you to be nice about it. Ruining a poorly-paid employee’s day does not make you a big man. It just ensures that said employee will talk about you in the break room using language that would make a sailor blush. And you’ll probably get a notation on your reservation about what a jerk you are, and that comment will follow you from hotel to hotel within a chain. That means no free upgrades for you!

3. Freebie-lovers. We all love a bargain. But complaining even when you know nothing’s wrong just so you can get a lower rate or a refund means you’re a cheat. Freebie-lovers have one motivation: saving money.

There was once a woman who found nasty trash in her room every time she came to my hotel — condoms, syringes, old food and other gross stuff. She always got an upgrade and some compensation for her trouble. After her fifth time checking into a dirty room, we asked her to never come back. At that point, we knew she was planting these items so that she could get freebies. If you’re a freebie-lover, you may get caught. And even if you don’t, just think of the bad karma you’re collecting.

4. Wounded warriors. The wounded warrior once had everything going for him. But then his boss nixed his bonus, his wife stopped making his favorite meals, the economy tanked, he got a flat tire…you get the picture. The wounded warrior often complains because it’s the only way to regain control of his life. He becomes master of the situation, if only for a brief shining moment.

Wounded warriors may also complain because they feel forced to do so by someone else — they’re just
too downtrodden to stand up and say “No, honey, I’m not going to call room service because you think that’s 2%, not fat-free, milk for your coffee.” If you think you’re a wounded warrior, then get fierce. Stand up for yourself. Take control of your life. That may mean complaining more often, but it may mean complaining less often.

5. Martyrs/passive-aggressives Martyrs and passive-aggressives are the worst complainers because they don’t complain at all – – at least not to the hotel. These are the people who have the worst stay ever, and yet never breathe a word about their numerous issues to hotel staff. Instead, they wait until they return home to tell everyone they know and the local news station about how horribly they were treated.

In fact, martyrs love to be mistreated, because it gives them something new to complain about. Life for them would be meaningless without drama. If you fall into this category, you’ll probably never admit it. But if you do, think about this: Do you want things to be made right, or do you just want to complain? If you want things right, you must complain to someone who can help you, i.e. a hotel employee. If you just like complaining, then you should really find a better hobby.

6. The loyal customers The loyal customers complain because…well, they don’t really complain at all. Instead, they provide constructive criticism. They let managers know when things are wrong simply because they love a hotel or chain and they want to make sure it’s a nice place to stay for a long, long time. It’s like teaching your child good manners because you love him and want him to grow up to be a gentleman. This type of complainer is the one who becomes good friends with the staff members at various hotels and gets all kinds of perks when he comes to stay.

7. The truly injured The truly injured guest complains for a valid, important reason. He does so calmly, rationally and politely. He understands that no one is perfect, and that mistakes happen. He does not place blame or pass judgement. He asks for appropriate compensation for his problems, and is never demanding. He is a rare breed.

Categorizing complainers seemed to help the employees better please these customers, because they better understood what each guest wanted. But I also think that recognizing your main complaint type will help you become a better complainer. You’ll know what you want, why you want it, and you’ll hopefully be able to ask for what you want in the most effective way possible.

So the next time you start to complain about anything, think about my highly-unscientific, never-tested-in-a-lab-setting categories here. Before you open your mouth, take a moment to ponder your motivations.

Are you about to make everyone around you cranky while solving nothing? Or are you about to turn an issue into a learning opportunity for everyone involved?

Got any other categories to add to my list? Want to ‘fess up to a time when you were a bad complainer? Share your thoughts in the comment section below or in our Talking Travelers forums.