Whether it fills you with dread or gets your adrenaline pumping, confronting a business about a problem with a product or service is a task that takes time and patience. Some companies have customer-service reps who are trained to ensure that you get satisfaction—up to a point. Others put you through phone-menu pinball, bouncing you around until you throw up your hands in frustration. Fortunately, even if you encounter the kind of business that hopes you give up and go away, with the right preparation, tools and mind-set, you have a good chance of getting what you want.
Take a deep breath
Before you pick up the phone or turn to Twitter, prepare your case. Gather information, such as account numbers, warranties, proof of purchase, and model or serial numbers. (Some items don’t have the model number printed on them, so it’s a good idea to save that information from a product’s box or instruction manual.)
Review your contract or any related policies, and be prepared to use language directly from those documents. “The representative will realize that you know what you’re talking about,” says Amy J. Schmitz, professor of law at the University of Colorado. If photos would bolster your case, take pictures with your cell phone.
Next, decide what you want—say, a $10 monthly discount on your cable bill, or a replacement (rather than repair) of your malfunctioning laptop. Think of a few options that you could suggest in case your first preference isn’t possible, says customer-service consultant Barbara Khozam. For instance, when Khozam contacted an airline after her flight to San Francisco had been canceled, the representative told her that the next available flight departed too late for her to make it to a meeting. So Khozam asked about flights landing at nearby airports and found one that arrived in Oakland in time for her meeting. She didn’t have to pay any fees to switch flights, but she did have to change her car-rental reservation.
When you’re ready to lodge your complaint, check the company’s Web site to see whether it lists a procedure for complaints. How best to get in touch may depend on the nature of the complaint. For a quick fix, calling may be the answer—as long as you can slash through any phone trees you encounter (go to www.gethuman.com for phone numbers and shortcuts on how to reach a person at many companies). If you find a phone number with a local area code, dial that one first, suggests Talia Sampson, a former customer-relations representative for a major U.S. airline. It may place you with a higher-level customer-relations team than you’d reach through a toll-free number.
If you don’t need immediate help, try writing an e-mail. One advantage of e-mail is that it ensures an automatic, written record of your correspondence. Keep your message succinct (agents may not have time to read an essay) and double-check for correct spelling and grammar to boost your chances of being taken seriously. Attach PDF copies of receipts, records and any other relevant materials. The same applies if you send a letter via snail mail. Note that mailed correspondence is a strategy that may better serve you later in the process if your initial efforts fall flat.
In the age of social media, you can place your gripe on a virtual stage for your friends and followers to see. If a company has a strong social media presence, it may quickly take notice and bend over backward to help you—if only to prevent further public airings of your issue. A business may, for example, ask you to send your phone number after you post a complaint so that an agent from executive-level customer service (who likely has more leeway than reps at the basic call center) can contact you. Or it may offer you a sweetener to make up for something that it’s too late to fix.
During a sleepless night at the Miami Hilton, Laura Clawson, of New York City, tweeted that the pillows in her hotel room were terrible—and got a quick result. “I was frazzled and miserable, so I just lay there and complained on Twitter at about 4:30 a.m.,” says Clawson. By mid morning, Hilton had responded with several replies on Twitter, an e-mail and a phone call. It was too late to replace the pillows, but she was offered a free night at the hotel for a future date.
Social media may also achieve the fastest results if the business is dealing with a deluge of unhappy customers—say, your electric utility’s phone lines are jammed because of a power outage. Find the business’s Twitter page and direct your tweets to that account (check whether it has a page designated for customer service). You could also look up the company’s Facebook page and tag it in your post.
Keep it civil
If a customer-service issue has you steamed, cool down enough so you can have a civil conversation. Remember that a human is at the other end—you’re likely to get better results if you don’t lose sight of that. “If you’re genuine, that goes a very long way,” says Sampson. Be firm, but keep your interaction free of insults, shouting (or its online equivalent, using all capital letters) and cursing. Reps who feel verbally abused may refuse to assist you or flag you in their files—meaning that you’ll go into future conversations with a strike against you.
Do you have anything nice to say? Launch the conversation with that, says Khozam. For example, tell a bank that you’ve been a satisfied customer for 25 years, or a restaurant that you usually love the meals it serves. Then explain your issue specifically and clearly, and ask the representative if she’s the right person to help you with it. Keep records of your correspondence: Get the names of people you speak to, take note of the date and time of your interaction, and save online conversations of all types—you may, for instance, want to take a screen shot of any Twitter dialogue you have with a company in case it removes tweets later. If the problem isn’t resolved immediately, tell the business that you plan to follow up by a certain date if you don’t hear back.
If the agent asks a lot of questions about the circumstances surrounding the issue, it may benefit you to go along with the request, even if what she’s asking for seems irrelevant. “Sometimes representatives can make exceptions if you phrase a problem a certain way,” Sampson says.
Still, even well-meaning agents may have limits on what they can do for you. They may be required to read from a script or permitted to credit, say, only up to $25 to your account, says Guy Winch, author of The Squeaky Wheel: Complaining the Right Way to Get Results, Improve Your Relationships, and Enhance Self-Esteem. If your conversation with a lower-level representative is fruitless or you feel that his best offer doesn’t do your issue justice, ask for a supervisor. You could also try asking to connect to the customer-retention or customer-loyalty department.
Unhappy enough to stop using the business’s product or service? Say so. That’s what Meryn Rathert of Columbus, Ind., did after a vehicle from National Car Rental broke down as she drove to the airport. The agency sent a cab, but it took 45 minutes to arrive—especially stressful given that Rathert had to catch an international flight—and she had to use much of the cash she had planned to take on her vacation to cover the fare. When she got to the airport, agents at the National desk said they didn’t have any cash to pay her back and could reimburse only the $60 car-rental fee. So when she returned from the trip, she called the agency and spoke to a manager, who reassured her that she’d receive full compensation for the cab fare. Nevertheless, Rathert told him that the headache was severe enough to steer her away from National in the future. In an effort to win her back, National sent her a check for more than $200—the cash equivalent of a three-day car rental plus the cost of the cab ride.
Try offering a creative solution. When Amy Schmitz couldn’t locate the proof of purchase for a malfunctioning blender, the manufacturer told her that she’d have to send it back on her dime so that the company could verify that the blender didn’t work before sending her a replacement. Schmitz says the shipping fees probably would have cost more than the blender was worth. To prove that she wasn’t faking the complaint in an attempt to nab a free blender, she offered to snip the blender’s electrical cord and e-mail the company a photograph of it to show that it would no longer be useful. The company agreed.
If a representative does a bang-up job on your case, let him know—and his manager too, if possible. And if you took your complaint to social media, create some goodwill by telling your followers that your saga had a happy ending.
If you’ve spoken to a manager and are still dissatisfied, or if you haven’t received a timely follow-up reply, taking the problem to the corporate level is the next step. “Fight your inertia,” says Schmitz. It may not be as daunting or time-consuming as you think—and persistence usually does pay off.
Look up the name of the president or owner of the company and track down his or her contact information, such as the phone number and mailing address for the corporate headquarters. If you find a CEO’s e-mail address, try sending a letter there, and copy other corporate officers if you find their e-mail addresses, too. Mention that you’ll notify a consumer agency if you don’t hear back within a couple of weeks.
Once you have exhausted all the channels within a company, contacting a consumer agency or government bureau can be helpful. But make sure you understand its role; some organizations mediate between the consumer and business, whereas others simply collect complaints to detect patterns. In many cases, the Better Business Bureau will forward your complaint to a company and work with both parties to resolve the problem. For a list of groups that may help you out—as well as sample letters and more tips on effective complaining—go to www.consumer-action.org.
Suing a business in small-claims court is usually a last resort. Increasingly, companies are including arbitration clauses in their contracts, which may require that a dispute be taken to a third party for private review rather than to court—including small-claims court. Many big banks, for example, include arbitration clauses in agreements for credit cards and checking accounts.
Secrets of a super complainer
Kiplinger’s office manager, Glen Mayers, has a track record few can match for complaining and getting results. At work, he recently spent about six months dealing with Pitney Bowes when the company failed to refund a $1,400 deposit on a rented postage meter that he had returned (the company has finally promised to return the $1,400). One of Glen’s latest water-cooler stories is his struggle to cut his family’s cable bill:
“After a promotional deal from Comcast for cable TV and Internet ended, my monthly bill jumped from $89 to $150. I called Comcast’s general customer-service line to reduce the bill to $110. The representative told me that even if I cut out high-definition channels and DVR service, I’d still pay $124 a month.
“So I called again the next day in hopes of reaching a different agent who might be more helpful. But I hit another roadblock: The rep tried to sell me a ‘triple play’ deal including cable, Internet and landline phone service. But my family relies on cell phones, and though signing up for the package would have brought the price down, it didn’t meet my target.
“Finally, I turned to Twitter and corresponded with one of Comcast’s Twitter reps. He soon sent me a phone number to call, and the person I dialed said she couldn’t believe the other reps had given me the runaround. I’m now paying $98 a month—and I didn’t lose the HD channels or the DVR.
“The bottom line for any complaint: Be persistent. I refuse to lose.”