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How to Make a Complaint and Get Results

Keep your cool, create a paper trail and take it all the way to the top if you need to.

Christopher Elliott is the founder of elliott.org, which helps consumers resolve disputes with businesses, free of charge.

What's the most effective strategy to get a satisfying resolution? Follow what I call the three Ps. First is politeness. Take a deep breath, maybe wait 24 hours, and then contact the company. Avoid using emotionally charged language. If you say, "I'm a loyal customer, and it would make me really happy if you could address this one issue," it'll be much more effective than saying, "You destroyed my life, and my lawyer is preparing to file a lawsuit."

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Second is patience. You'll usually get a response that will ideally solve the problem within about a week. But if it's an issue that requires a lot of research—say, involving an insurance claim—it could take six to eight weeks or longer.

Third is persistence. Sometimes call centers are designed to make you go away. If you hit a brick wall, try to talk to someone higher up the food chain.

What's the best way to contact a company? Create a paper trail, which provides written evidence that you've tried to fix the problem. If you can submit a complaint on a form through the company's website, start there. Put your message into one paragraph, if possible. Include a short timeline of events, such as the date you bought the product or service and when the problem occurred. You'll more likely succeed with an issue that the company can fix right away, such as a hotel offering a voucher for a spa treatment during your stay because of construction noise near your room. Go over the rules surrounding the purchase. Some hotel rooms and airline tickets are nonrefundable no matter what your personal circumstances are.

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And if the initial appeal doesn't work? Write to someone a little higher up. The typical hierarchy might include a customer service manager, then a vice president of customer service, then an executive vice president and then the CEO. Names and e-mail addresses of executives at many major companies are on my website.

If all else fails, you have two nuclear options: disputing the purchase on your credit card, if you used one, or going to court. Judges often side with consumers, but even if you win a judgment, companies sometimes make it difficult for you to collect the money.

How can a customer avoid encountering a problem in the first place? If you know about the product you're buying, there's less of a chance that you'll be disappointed later. Read the terms of your purchase, such as the license agreement for a software product or the warranty on electronics or appliances. Check out product reviews.

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