5 Ways to Complain and Win Great Customer Service

By Stacy Johnson, dealnews contributor

We all have something to complain about — it's not a perfect world. Whether it's a defective product, unexpected service charges, or a bill that's just plain wrong, we get upset and want it fixed.

Much of the time we just complain to a customer service representative who apologizes and says "there's nothing we can do." Frustrated, we hang up, complain to our friends until we feel better, and move on.

It can be hard to navigate the complicated structure of any company's sales and customer service departments, but it's not impossible — and actually getting what you deserve for a change can be its own reward.

Here's my video guide to getting the job done, and below, five specific tips for successful complaining to customer service

  1. Know what you want.
    Before you call anyone, go over the documentation, including receipts and the warranty. This will give you an idea of what options the company will offer. Then figure out what the goal of your complaint is: do you want a refund or store credit? Do you want fees canceled? Are you looking to replace a product, or exchange it for something else? Different people may manage different complaint processes at the company, so saying exactly what you want straight away may help fast-track your request. Plus, if you aren't specific, the company is likely to offer the solution that's cheapest and most convenient to them.
  2. Be firm, but ask nicely.
    It's OK to stick to your guns, but it's not productive to curse or yell at representatives. Try to avoid passive aggression and sarcasm, too. Remember: the problem isn't that individual's fault, and they might not be authorized to do anything to fix it, either. Customer service reps deal with angry customers all day, so cut them a break and you'll both have a smoother ride toward resolving the problem — besides, the longer you spend ranting, the longer you'll have to wait for an explanation of what can be done next. If they can't help you, thank them and ask what the next step is or who you should talk to next.
  3. Make lots of notes.
    Document everything, and whenever you're on the phone, have the following handy: receipts, warranties, product names and numbers, any case number you've been assigned, and any past notes you've taken. Get the name, title, and phone number of everyone you talk to and make notes about what you told them and what they promised you, along with dates and times. All this info is handy when the company starts telling you conflicting things, or if you decide to take the problem to a government agency. Plus, if the company is slow to act or respond to your request, you can pull out your notes weeks later and remember what's going on and who you already talked to.
  4. Work your way up the ladder.
    The first person you talk to probably can't solve your problem. Sometimes you have to go through several layers of management in different departments to get what you need. Always ask for a supervisor when it's clear the current help can't fix your problem. If they try to direct you back down the ladder or "sideways" to another department, refer to your notes and politely remind them who you've spoken to already. If things still aren't working out, do a little research online: try to find contact information for company officers and even the president. Sometimes the best place to get this info is from a media relations page, if they have one. Let everyone you talk to know you're willing to go to the top.
  5. Ask for outside help.
    If you've tried everything you know how to within the company, it's time to take the issue to the next level, and your careful documentation will really pay off at this stage. The first place to start is the Better Business Bureau, and don't hold back the details. (Remember what we said about being polite, though: they "reserve the right not to process complaints containing abusive or foul language.") While the BBB isn't a regulating agency, their word carries weight with a lot of businesses — a lot of highly visible complaints at the BBB about a company can hurt its reputation.

    They claim to resolve over 70 percent of consumer complaints, and may offer to mediate between you and the company. You can also head over to ConsumerAction.gov where you can find sample complaint letters and contact information for a variety of industry-dependent regulators, trade associations, and national consumer rights groups. If the problem is especially serious and you believe it may happen to others, you can submit a complaint to the Federal Trade Commission or your state attorney general's office — they may not help you individually, but if enough people have the same problem, they'll launch an investigation into the company which can lead to serious reform. If all else fails, you can kick up a fuss online — on a blog, or social media sites like Facebook, YouTube and Twitter.

    This can draw public attention and possibly local media to your problem, and put pressure on the company to resolve it quickly in your favor. However, be aware that posting slanderous comments about any company or individual can get you sued: see my story When Free Speech Gets Expensive.

The three keys to getting results are preparation, politeness, and persistence. Resolution can be a lengthy process lasting months, but if you keep your cool and your notes, you'll win in the end.

Stacy Johnson is a CPA and has also earned licenses in stocks, commodities, options, mutual funds, life insurance and real estate. He spent 10 years working for three Wall Street firms and for the last 20 years has produced Money Talks News, a consumer/personal finance TV news series that airs in about 80 cities nationwide as well as around the web. Follow him on Twitter — @MoneyTalksNews or on Facebook at Facebook.com/MoneyTalksNews.

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