No matter how careful a consumer you are, sooner or later you will get stung with a product that doesn't work, a fee you shouldn't have to pay or a policy that simply doesn't make sense.
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The good news is that you can complain effectively, and get results. You just have to know how. You must:
Know Your Rights
Sometimes companies get away with egregious behavior simply because their victims don't know the law. It's illegal, for example, for a company to knowingly report false credit information or for collection agencies to keep calling you after you've told them in writing to stop. Knowing the law, and letting the companies know you know, is sometimes effective in getting bad behavior to stop.
If your complaint involves a contract, warranty or guarantee, read all the fine print that came with it. You don't necessarily have to limit yourself to the remedies prescribed in these documents, but you should at least know what the company promised.
Know What You Want
Be clear in your mind and in all your communications with the company about what you want to happen. That way you won't get sidetracked. After all, the customer service rep's job, typically, is not to make you happy. It's to get you off the phone.
If the rep suggests ways to fix your problem at all, it will usually be ways that don't cost her or the company much. When my new laptop's hard drive failed for the second time, Dell wanted to send me yet another replacement part. But I knew from the start of my call that I wasn't getting off the phone until a replacement computer was on its way.
I'm assuming, by the way, that what you want is both reasonable and doable. Your definition of those two terms may vary from the company's, but you can't be ridiculous about it. The dry cleaner that ruined your jacket, for example, should be expected to buy you a new one. You shouldn't expect free dry cleaning for life.
Boil your story down to its essential elements; you might even practice first with a friend before you pick up the phone. Nattering on about irrelevant details will just make it easier for the rep to tune out or miss the point. Besides, you're going to have to repeat your story over and over and over to get results. Might as well save yourself some time by editing in advance.
Don't Be a Jerk
My husband, the most effective complainer I know, puts it this way: You don't have to be nice, necessarily. You do have to be polite. Hubby has used this not-nice-but-polite approach to get us a 50 percent discount on a garage door that was incorrectly installed, a free upgrade on our TiVo service (again, botched installation) and a number of other concessions from companies that initially insisted there was no way to accommodate us.
I've found being nice sometimes greases the wheels. My favorite ploy is to chat them up, then ask them how they would handle my problem if it were theirs, instead of mine. Many times, they'll respond to this treatment by connecting me with someone who can actually solve my dilemma.
Remember: The Company's Problems Are Not Yours
Customer service reps love to tell you exactly why the company's procedures don't allow them to do what you need them to do. Guess what: You don't have to care. How the company chooses to conduct its business is not your concern. What is your concern is getting your problem fixed, however the company ultimately decides to do it.
Carve Out Some Time
I'm convinced some companies try to wear you out with excessively long hold times. You can't force them to pick up the phone, but you can fight back by outwaiting them. Get yourself a portable phone or, better yet, a portable with a headset. That way you can do other things to keep your sanity while waiting for the company to see reason.
It took me three hours on a Saturday morning to persuade Dell to see things my way. I survived innumerable transfers, two disconnects and endless stretches on hold largely because I wasn't tethered to a desk the whole time. Thanks to my portable headset, I was able to play with my daughter, sort mail and even do a little light housekeeping while I talked to Sandy, Matt, Phyllis, Jason, Raina and the rest of the Dell crew about how they were going to get me a replacement computer.
Get Names and Call-Back Numbers
Sometimes you don't have three hours in a row to spend on the phone. Rather than start over from the beginning each time you dial, make sure you know how to get back in touch with the people who handled your last call. Having a name and number also comes in handy when you get transferred into voice-mail hell or the phone simply goes dead -- not that a customer service rep would ever, ever deliberately hang up on you. (Ahem, Sandy.)
I don't know why, but reps are inordinately impressed when you can tell them exactly when you were told what by whom. These details can also help when you're enlisting others to come to your aid.
When in Doubt, Get It in Writing
Consumer advocates usually recommend putting disputes in writing. The reality is that most problems get handled over the phone, and you don't necessarily have to conduct business by snail mail. If the issue involves a lot of money, taxes, legal issues or your credit report, however, put everything in writing and send the letters by certified mail, return receipt requested. Keep a log of all your communications with the company and copies of every relevant piece of paper.
Keep Moving Up the Ladder
You probably know that if you can't get what you want from a phone rep, you should ask to speak to a supervisor. But the folks with the real power may be several rungs up the ladder. If you strike out, try the company's marketing or public relations division. A letter sent to the company's president or CEO can often break through a logjam like nothing else. If a quick Google search doesn't turn up the name and address, check the web site. Don't fall for the customer service address that's prominently listed; you want the address where the CEO actually does business. If it's a publicly traded company, you'll find that in its SEC filings in the "Investor Relations" tab.
Social media may help you, or it may not. Social media expert Peter Shankman tells of the time he tried to get Delta's attention about a travel problem with repeated tweets to @Delta, only to get a response (and an offer to help) from @SouthwestAir. At least somebody was monitoring Delta-related tweets on Twitter, he says -- too bad it wasn't Delta.
If the company is violating the law, you may need to contact the appropriate regulator. You'll need to do some research to find the right office (a Google search such as "Who regulates banks?" can get you started), but you can't necessarily count on results.
If you're having a problem with the government itself, the ultimate resource may be your local, state or federal representative. Many lawmakers pride themselves on taking care of their constituents on this grassroots level.
Then there's always the option of alerting the media. If the company's behavior has been particularly terrible or you think you might be part of a trend, you can seek out a sympathetic blogger or try contacting your local newspaper or television station to see if you can interest them in your plight.
If nothing else works, you can always hire a lawyer. It's not the easiest or most cost-effective way to get what you want, but sometimes it pays off. When a company is particularly entrenched in ignoring its consumers, sometimes that law firm letterhead is the only thing that will get their attention. For lawyers versed in consumer issues, visit the National Association of Consumer Attorneys at www.naca.net.
Meanwhile, here are some other ways you can be a savvier consumer:
• Diversify your credit accounts so you have cards from different issuers. Get cards from at least two different lenders.
• Don't be afraid to close an occasional credit account if you have good scores and plenty of other open accounts and you won't be looking for a major loan in the next few months. Shuttering an account is sometimes the best way to get your message across.
• If you're not happy with your bank, consider switching to a credit union.
• Make sure your phone service still fits your needs. Drop unnecessary services and let Validas analyze your cell phone bill for possible savings.
• Check back two weeks before your trip to see if hotel or rental car costs have dropped, and rebook if so.
This was excerpted from "The 10 Commandments of Money" courtesy of Hudson Street Press, an imprint of Penguin.