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Making Your Money Last

How to Complain and Get Results

Impersonal customer service makes it hard to get help. Here's the script for success.

Taking a complaint to customer service can be maddening. No one wants to deal with endless phone trees, outsourced representatives working from inflexible scripts, automated responses or chatbots. “Despite saying they provide more ways than ever to contact them, companies are building fortresses around themselves so that no one has to interact with you,” says Christopher Elliott, of Elliott Advocacy, a nonprofit consumer group.

To breach the walls and successfully resolve your complaint, says Elliott, you must use the three p’s: patience, persistence and politeness. Don’t expect an instant fix, and give the company’s complaint process time to work. Be prepared to tell your tale repeatedly, taking your complaint up the chain of command if necessary. And even if you’re frustrated and furious, make nice. Being polite will help your complaint go to the top of the pile and get you a better response every time.

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Here are steps you can take to get the results you want.

Document everything. It’s still called a paper trail, even though much of the information may be digital. For any product or service for which you pay a sizable sum, keep copies of your order confirmations, receipts, contracts, work orders, warranties, service agreements and billing statements. If you opt to get a receipt by e-mail or text, make sure you receive it and file it. Before you dispose of product packaging, remove enclosed paperwork that may include a warranty and customer-service phone number. Also remove the bar code, which you may need to obtain a replacement item, says Amy Schmitz, a law professor at the University of Missouri.

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Keep copies of e-mails and take screenshots of online chats. In your first exchange with customer service, write down the reference number if one is assigned to your case. Recording the call would be ideal. But if you can’t, take notes, including the date, time, name of the person with whom you spoke, the substance of your conversation and any promises made.

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Make your point. It pays to complain as soon as you know you have a problem. The more recent your experience, the greater the weight your complaint will carry. Plus, memories fade, records get buried, and staff changes, says Nelson Santiago, of Consumer Action, a nonprofit consumer advocacy group.

A face-to-face visit with a local seller may quickly fix your problem. But if you’re dealing with an online retailer or a corporate office, you usually must follow its complaint process.

Go to the next level. If you’re not getting results, take your complaint up the corporate ladder. Ask a customer-service rep, “If you can’t help me, who can I call or write who has the authority to help?” Visit company websites to search for contacts. If the obvious choice (such as “contact us” or “customer service”) isn’t helpful, try clicking on “about us,” “terms and conditions” or “privacy statement.” On the website of the Better Business Bureau or BBB, search by the company name and look for contact information for owners and executives under “Business Details.” To bypass corporate phone trees, go to www.gethuman.com and search by company for phone numbers and shortcuts to reach a real person.

Elliott Advocacy posts the names and contact information of executives responsible for customer service at major companies. (If you can’t find a company contact, you can ask Elliott Advocacy to do the research.) The organization recommends writing to the senior customer-service contact first and saving the CEO for later. It also goes to bat for consumers who can’t resolve their problem with a business; the service is free as long as you are willing to share the details of your case on the website.

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Keep all communication brief, professional and unemotional, says Santiago. Avoid including too much detail or shouting, which includes writing in all caps. Limit a letter to 250 words or four short paragraphs. Clearly state what you want, and keep your request reasonable. Ask yourself: What solution would be acceptable, even if it isn’t ideal? Don’t inflate your demands. For example, if you stayed five nights at a hotel and didn’t have air conditioning for one night, you can’t expect a refund for five nights.

Give the recipient a deadline to respond. Ten business days is a reasonable length of time, says Santiago. Let the business know that you’ll pursue other available remedies if you don’t hear back by then. Mark the date on your calendar as a reminder when to follow up if you haven’t heard back. Attach only copies or scans of relevant documents, not the originals. Send your letter by certified mail. (Go to www.consumer-action.org for a sample letter and e-mail and a free guide titled How to Complain.)

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Try social media. Should you apply leverage by complaining on social media, also known as Twitter shaming or Yelp (or Facebook) blackmail? It’s worth a shot, especially if the company has recently experienced bad publicity and is worried about its reputation, says law professor Schmitz. At a minimum, you may feel better by airing your complaint or commiserating with other aggrieved consumers. To avoid exposing yourself to accusations of defamation and a potential lawsuit, be completely honest, don’t exaggerate and back up your assertions with documentation.

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If your efforts don’t get results, file your complaint with an intermediary that can assist or advise you, such as the BBB, Consumer Action or Elliott Advocacy.

As a last resort, you could sue a business in small-claims court. States set different rules and dollar limits (see Nolo.com's 50-State Chart of Small Claims Court Dollar Limits). However, many companies insert arbitration clauses in their contracts, which may require you to take a dispute to a third party for resolution rather than going to court.

Who You Gonna Call?

If you’ve hit a wall with customer service, contact an intermediary. Some groups will intervene on your behalf; others collect complaints to spot trends and combat fraud for all consumers.

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State and local help. Contact your state’s consumer protection office or regulatory agency (search by state at www.usa.gov/state-consumer).

If you’re dealing with a licensed professional or tradesperson, you can complain to the state or local licensing board with jurisdiction over the person.

If you think you’ve been the victim of fraud or deceptive practices, complain to your state’s attorney general, your district attorney, or the fraud division of a local law enforcement agency.

Help from the feds. Look for complaint strategies for specific categories of products and services with third-party contact information at www.usa.gov/complaints-by-product.

At the federal level, you can complain to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau about a financial product or service; the Federal Communications Commission about a telecom billing or service issue; the Federal Trade Commission about fraud or an unfair business practice; Medicare about your Medicare health plan or prescription-drug plan; and the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission about problems with brokers, brokerage firms, investment advisers and other market participants.

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