Copyright John T. Reed 2014

One of the skills you need to be an adult is complaining or knowing how to straighten out screw-ups by vendors and others with whom you deal. It is mildly important, sometimes more important than that. And it generally is not taught in schools or colleges. You learn it, if you learn it, from life experience.

I just had two successful complaints where I used a particular approach that I recommend in most cases. I had also used this approach successfully several years ago in a third situation.

Lexus service

I took my Lexus to the dealership for a routine service. That evening after I got it back, I noticed that the antenna would not go all the way down into the car body when you turned the radio off. That never happened before. I bought the car new and have had it for 8 years.

All evening, I mentally rehearsed my arguments and evidence that it was their fault, not mine or not just from the car’s age and coincidentally happening the same day as the service. But the next day when I went to the dealership, I decided to apply my normal approach: just report the facts and expect them to do the right thing without saying anything about how they need to respond.

They immediately said they would fix it no charge. The service rep said it was probably done by their car wash as a result of the mechanics not turning the radio off before they sent it through. I’m guessing his volunteering that means it had happened before. They replaced the entire antenna—no charge—in an hour. Not a word fired in anger from me necessary. And if I had blown my stack, human nature being what it is, they might have looked for an excuse to charge me for the repair or replacement.

A corollary to this is you need to deal only with reputable vendors.

State income taxes

I paid my 2013 state income taxes on April 14 and sent the return and check in a return-receipt-requested envelope. I got the receipt back indicating they had received the envelope.

But when I reconciled my bank account the following month, the checks I wrote for IRS 2013 taxes and first quarter estimated taxes cleared, as did the check I wrote for the state first quarter estimated taxes. But the check for our 2013 state income taxes did not clear.

The following month when I reconciled the account, it still had not cleared. Another bank statement arrived and I reconciled it and again, the state income tax check had not cleared. I called the state tax board on 6/2/14. They acknowledged receiving the return and said it took them 45 days to have it show up in my tax account. I asked if they took 45 days to deposit the checks of state taxpayers. No. Just to have it show up in my online account with the state. She was not concerned and told me to wait a while longer before stopping payment and sending another check.


Then, on June 23rd, I got a form from the state tax board demanding that I pay my 2013 state taxes plus a late penalty of $209.84 and interest of $16.03. On June 25th I called the 800-number listed after the sentence, “If you think you do not owe this balance, call…” A recording promised to call me back within 33 minutes. Precisely 33 minutes later, they did.

I had steeled myself to them alleging the envelope had no check in it and how I was going to argue and prove there was a check yadda yadda.

As with Lexus, when the moment arrived, I just stated the facts and acted like I assumed they would do the right thing.

It was a perfectly nice conversation. The woman said to stop payment on the check (which cost me $8 that I should not have to pay) then to fax her the stop payment order, citing her first name, station number, and unit number.

She also suggested that I pay electronically. “Don’t you charge $25 for that?” I asked. “No, it’s free.”

I have long paid my quarterly sales tax for selling my books to California buyers electronically. You get an instant receipt on line when you do. If I followed her instructions, she said she would eliminate the late penalty and interest. In other words, the electronic payment I made today, 6/26/14, was the same as the check I had written on April 14th.

So, once again it is best to at least initially assume the person you are talking to is a nice person who will do the right thing.

Dealing only with reputable dealers does not apply to government tax entities. Where you live decides which state and local tax authorities you have to deal with.


Several years ago, we replaced a 25-year-old, heavy, wood shake roof with slate. The roofer initially screwed it all up by having a couple of ad hoc immigrant workers do it—improperly.

But we had taken care to hire a reputable, long-established roofer. I am not a roofing expert, but I am a real estate investment expert and roofs are an important item that periodically cause a huge expense to landlords. We had a copy of the Slate Roof Bible, which is what inspired my wife to insist on slate, which is very expensive, especially here in CA where it is rare.

Using guidelines I extracted from the book, I inspected the almost complete roof. I found about 30 apparent discrepancies from proper roofing practices. For example, there is supposed to be at least a 3.5 inch (or something like that) side-lap, that is, the vertical seams between shingles should never be closer that 3.5 inches sideways to the one above or below. In other words, wind-driven rain that gets into a vertical seam needs to go 3.5 inches sideways under the upper shingle to get to the vertical seam between the underneath shingles, and thereby to the underlying roof. In some cases, they had slice a shingle to a smaller size so it was the width of a strip of beef jerky and only had one nail in it. You could rotate the shingle to that it was pointed sideways not down the roof like it’s supposed to be.

As in the above incidents, I was very angry, mentally rehearsing my arguments and evidence. But I did not start with that approach.

I called and got one of the owners of the company and a supervisor to come out and look at it. They not only agreed with me, they found many additional “holidays” and violations of best practices. Without any argument whatsoever, they fired the two immigrants, removed the roof and reinstalled it—twice. Apparently, the second set of roofers screwed it up as well. Eventually, they got it right and it has never leaked. The only charge was the original agreed-upon bid.

I later got a new furnace installed, again using a respected contractor. I warned him firmly not to screw up my slate roof when installing the flue. He had a friend who owned a respected roofing company come and do the flue installation personally. I expressed concern to him that the roof had not been done right, telling him of our problems with the installation. He went up on the roof himself and installed the flue. When he was done, he volunteered that the roof had ultimately been very properly installed.

So the roof was another example where hiring only reputable contractors is key to the success of this, or any approach to complaining. But that’s not enough. If you get in the face of a reputable contractor and accuse him of being incompetent or dishonest, you can expect an expensive fight over correcting the problem and who pays for it.

What do you do if the “initial assume the best” apporach does not work? Take a tougher line up to and including suing. To see an example of where I did that, look at my web article at

John T. Reed