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How to Complain (Random Tips)

Consumerist has some fun thoughts about getting complaints resolved.

One commenter suggests: bringing a lawnchair, a six pack, a novel and potato chips and camp out in front of the company’s  building.

More seriously, an brilliant commenter recommends depersonalizing the problem and going out of your way not to blame the person you are complaining to.  Suggested phrasing:

THE BIG ONE: “Listen, I know this isn’t your fault, so I don’t mean to take it out on you. I’m sure you can appreciate my frustration.”

“You seem like a really nice person, so I want you to know that I’m not trying to be rude to you. I hope I don’t come off that way.”

Also: Making a Youtube video can help

I’m kind of an expert of getting resolutions  (since I sued a multibillion dollar corporation and once prevailed). Here are my tips for dealing with customer service representatives (CSR) and getting a speedy resolution.

  1. Initially you should assume good faith on both the company and the people who worked for it. So much of these problems are the result of bad communication or  a misinformed worker. You have a problem only when you are hearing the same thing from more than one person.
  2. Initially when you complain, you  should leave open the possibility that you are wrong. Until you have seen the problem from all ends, you can never really know for sure why the company isn’t handling the matter the way  you think they  are supposed to.  In one case, I complained to Aetna about their denial of coverage about something. They sent a reply explaining why they denied it. Turns out they were right, but it revealed 1)their benefits packet was very misleading and 2)I assumed that information which was valid one year would still be valid for the next year. That turned out not to be the case. I still think Aetna treated me badly (and definitely keep it in mind at year’s end when I decide whether to renew my policy). The point here is that Aetna was acting legally and correctly by their rules – even though their customer service and their communication was still lacking.
  3. Especially for the first or second CSR, you should ask for help in a way that sounds like you are asking for their advice. “In your opinion, what is the best way to resolve this situation?” If you ask them for an opinion, they might recommend a strategy for getting around the usual roadblocks. Getting around roadblocks is your primary goal here!
  4. Never complain about things that you are not trying to get a resolution for. If the customer service  rep who refused to honor your coupon also called you an “asshole,” that may be interesting and actionable, but chances are, any action taken in response to that won’t improve your situation.  Your goal is getting money back, not getting someone disciplined.
  5. If you are talking to an employee or manager in person and they are treating you badly, you should say, “Is your refusal to honor a discount an example of  good customer service?” Basically, you should phrase it “Is Action X an example of your company’s Goal Y?” Many employees in this situation will feel forced to say yes in response. That does not mean that they don’t see your point of view!
  6. Be careful not to raise your voice or start ranting. CSRs learn to tune that all out (and even mock you after you leave).  I once griped at a Walmart cashier about  a really egregious example of bad customer service by one of her coworkers. This woman – who couldn’t be more than 21 – started laughing and said, “Do you think I really care?” This woman was being honest about something other employees were thinking but were too afraid to say.
  7. Keep a time line of your complaint with ample notes on Google Docs. Google docs will datestamp additions and keep your notes in a central place.
  8. If you do telephone them, ask the CSR this question: “do you have the authority to override a fee/reverse a charge/? If the answer is yes, describe your complaint. If the answer is no, say, “can I speak to someone who does have this authority?” You shouldn’t waste your time explaining the problem to someone who is powerless to solve it. Of course, they may not know the answer until they have first heard your complaint, but  it is good to give them an opportunity as early as possible to kick the whole matter upstairs.  Never underestimate the laziness of the frontline CSR; it generally works in your favor.
  9. After the first attempt to address the matter telephonically, do not telephone them again. Instead, conduct the matter entirely by written correspondence. If the matter concerns a substantial amount of money, I recommend certified mail. (But you will need to pay for 2, and the cost in time and money is not trivial).  Scan copies of your correspondence and keep online on Google docs.
  10. The key is in keeping your correspondence as short as possible.
  11. Rudeness in  emails to customer service almost always backfires. The first email should state the facts. The second email should merely point out, “This is the second request – I am getting frustrated”. Only for  the third email are you allowed  to become mildly vicious.

The reason why certified mail/snail mail works is that most companies don’t take the time to keep records.  It all boils down to who has more diligent record-keeping.

Another problem is that the company usually sends you lots of boilerplate information, and you may not have access to all the information. Probably the first step to resolving the complaint is getting access to the necessary information. That is not always easy.

One cause of problems is that you rely on the spoken assurance of an employee/CSR/manager. If it’s not in writing, you really don’t have a basis for complaint, so you need to transfer any oral statement in writing ASAP.

It helps when CSR resolve the problem over the phone.  (That means the employee is using the preapproved discretionary power to help you – no skin off their backs). But you shouldn’t rely on anything they say – especially if they promise to put a note on your account. Ideally you should send them an email confirming what has been told to you. At the very least, you should keep the statement on your notes in Google Docs with a name and ID.

My mother (who has worked in upper management) has one solution to all customer service problems: be polite and ask to speak to the supervisor. This strategy has paid off at times, but over the last few years it is becoming less effective.  Here are my problems with my Mom’s  continuous escalation strategy:

  1. When you’re on hold and talking to various people, you are not really creating a paper trail.  You’re also wasting your time.
  2. It’s sometimes unclear whether the company wants a personal business relationship with you or whether its front line staff has been trained to value that relationship. You may be 100% in the right, but if the staff is not trained properly to resolve these things, your barking may be futile.
  3. Many low-level workers have no authority for helping you.
  4. Their boss will be available, but that doesn’t mean they need to address your matter promptly. It’s in their best interest to give you a bit of a runaround first.  Basically you are swapping your waiting time for the ability to speak to someone who can help you. How much is your time worth?
  5. If you are complaining to a smaller company, the boss has fewer rules to work from.  That can be both a blessing and a curse.
  6. The main advantage of talking to a boss is that this person may be more knowledgeable about procedures and policies and know of why an exception would apply. But I have found that they are not really flexible about basic policies or alleged promises made by underlings to a customer.

Customer service has been deteriorating over the last decade. There’s not much  you can do about it. (Companies generally have stricter policies, less competent employees and much more efficient customer tracking).  I think you need to write off a certain percentage of these incidents to experience (because they were too time-consuming to pursue).  The main “revenge” you can take is to abandon the company without telling them.  Here is a letter I read from a Zig Ziglar book, called I am the Nice Customer who Never Comes Back.

I Am the Nice Customer

You may have met me; I’ve been in your store before. I never complain, no matter how poor the service.

I wait patiently while the employees stand idly by, never bothering to see if there is anything they can do for me. If the produce is bad or the store is dirty, I never mention it.

I’m respectful to other customers and never complain if other people are served out of turn.  I remain silent. I don’t believe in arguing over such things.

I seldom take anything back to the store because I have found that employees are usually disagreeable when I do. Life is too short to get into these unpleasant little scrimmages for the sake of a dollar or two.

I don’t say much…I never complain…I don’t make a scene, as I’ve watched others do…I’m just not built that way. Yes, you may know me. I’m a nice customer, but I’ll tell you what else I am: I am the customer who never comes back!

That is my revenge for getting pushed around. That is why poor service or rude treatment never upsets me; because I know I ‘m not coming back. It’s true that my method of getting even does not relieve my anger and frustration as quickly as would telling people what I think, but in the long run, it is a far more deadly revenge.

A nice customer like myself, multiplied by others of my kind, can ruin a business. We can force a store to close its doors while the owner’s wonder why the customers stopped coming in. There are a lot of nice people in the world, a lot of nice customers. When we get pushed too far, we just go down the street to another store. We buy in places where management is smart enough to hire people who appreciate nice customers. We increase the business of these stores by thousands of dollars each year…dollars you didn’t appreciate when I brought them to your store…dollars you lose every time you lose a nice customer.

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