Companies make mistakes, and sometimes those mistakes are costly. From erroneous health insurance claim rejections to double charges on credit cards, consumers who aren't paying attention can end up forking over more money than they should.
That's why consumer vigilance is so important. Many people never see their cash again because they don't notice the problem, they don't have time to call or, worst of all, they don't feel they have the right to complain.
Bob Sullivan, author of "Gotcha Capitalism: How Hidden Fees Rip You Off Every Day - and What You Can Do About It," estimates that most people don't call companies about errors, often because they blame themselves for the problem. He sees this most commonly in older generations. In addition, people with limited English skills or hearing problems are less likely to contact companies, which puts them at a financial disadvantage.
Women are also more likely to overpay because they tend to be less comfortable with the idea of lodging complaints, says Linda Babcock, co-author of "Ask for It: How Women Can Use the Power of Negotiation to Get What They Really Want." She says negotiating for a fair price or complaining about a charge doesn't have to mean conflict, which is what scares some people off. Instead, think: "We have an issue ... and we can work to fix the problem together," she says. If a company has made an error, it will also want to find a solution and ensure the customer is satisfied, she adds.
According to a survey Sullivan conducted for his book, those of us who make our voices heard have a decent chance of getting the desired results: Complaints to credit card companies and airlines had a success rate of more than 60 percent. (If you're calling to complain to your cable provider, however, you may want to first hone your debating skills: Only 20 percent of consumers got the response they were looking for.)
Here are seven expert tips for how best to lodge complaints and get your money back:
Just do it. The most important lesson is to actually take the time to a lodge a complaint in the first place. Many customers don't, and that's why they end up being overcharged or unsatisfied.
[See: 10 Signs You Shop Too Much.]
Don't exaggerate the problem. Greg Brummer of PlanetFeedback.com, which collects and posts customer complains, says companies don't respond well to threats or embellished stories about the harm they have caused. One consumer, for example, said his son's Christmas was ruined after a company canceled his order.
Always contact the company first. Brummer says consumers have a good chance of resolving their problems with just a quick call to the company. So before involving others, like his website, make the call.
Check your bills. Many people don't notice they are being charged for a monthly service until they've been paying it for months, and companies often resist refunding months' worth of services, Brummer says. He recommends taking responsibility for the accuracy of your billing statements.
Review receipts before you leave the store. Max Spankie of My3Cents.com, another site that collects customer complaints, adds that mistakes caught at the point of sale are much easier to resolve on the spot than after you leave the store. One consumer contacted him after a typo by a sales associate at Home Depot led him to pay for 1,058 pieces of molding instead of 1.58. He signed for the transaction before noticing the mistake.
Count your money - it's not rude. Spankie says there's no need to be self-conscious about making sure you were given the correct amount of change, whether it's at a bank or a store. It's better to check than to go home and realize there was an error.
[See: 50 Smart Money Moves.]
Go public. If you've had a terrible experience and aren't getting the desired response from the company, consider complaining publicly, through blogs or the media. Emily Yellin, author of "Your Call Is (not that) Important to Us: Customer Service and What It Reveals About Our World and Our Lives," says companies vary in how much attention they pay to what's said about them on the Internet. She points to Getsatisfaction.com as a useful resource. "Their whole thing is creating a social network to bring companies and customers together in a community that's civil," Yellin says. "You have to use your full name, and there's a real conversation [between customers and companies]."
Despite their sometimes impenetrable automated phone lines, companies are not the omniscient, technologically advanced entities they often present themselves to be - and it's up to customers to hold them accountable.
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