Consumers today are more empowered than ever after they've been wronged by a company. That's because squeaky wheels have more and better ways to squeak. Effective complaining is a learned skill, whether it involves a retailer, service provider, restaurant, airline or any other business.
"The whole game is 'effective' complaining, getting what you want," said Consumer Action's Linda Sherry, author of the advocacy group's free guide How to Complain. "I see companies caring less and less about individual customers. They are arrogant because they can be. We need to keep the heat on as consumers."
To get results and win your David-vs.-Goliath consumer battle, here are some of the best complaint tactics.
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Use social media: Many companies are active with Facebook and Twitter and will respond quickly to complaints lodged using those free online social media platforms. "They want to get this solved before it gets out of hand, knowing that things can go viral," Sherry said.
Submit online reviews: Online reviews of products, services and companies are among the most helpful consumer tools, but they are also complaint venues. Examples are reviews on Yelp.com, which rates services, and product pages, such as those on Amazon.com. For travel-related reviews, visit TripAdvisor.com. Angieslist.com and Consumers' Checkbook (checkbook.org) are subscription sites that post service-company reviews. Some companies monitor review sites and will attempt to reach disgruntled reviewers.
Post to complaint sites: Other Web sites focus on complaints. Some recommended by consumer- advocacy groups include Complaints.com, My3Cents.com, ComplaintsBoard.com, ConsumerAffairs.com, RipoffReport.com and MeasuredUp.com.
Complaint sites can be valuable to shoppers before they do business with a company but might be of limited use to people who have complaints, according to a 2010 study by the Consumer Federation of America.
Run it up the line: If you're stonewalled by a customer service department, supervisor or store manager, try contacting a bigwig, even the CEO. It's surprisingly effective, consumer advocates say.
Finding names and contact information is much easier than it used to be. Use online search engines or such sources as Yahoo Finance, Hoovers or Jigsaw.com.
If you call and get stuck in a phone tree — "Press 2 for customer service," — try GetHuman.com, which guides you through tricks of quickly navigating company phone trees.
Tried and true tactics
Be fair: First, cool down and evaluate whether you have a legitimate complaint and whether you want to invest time and effort into complaining. If you do, it's usually better for everyone if you quickly take your complaint to the company first and give a representative a chance to make things right.
If it's a relatively minor issue — the snack cakes you bought were stale — call the customer service number on the packaging. The company is likely to send you coupons for a replacement item. If it's outright fraud, however, don't bother.
Use honey: "You catch more flies with honey than vinegar," the saying goes. That means be firm but not combative or abusive.
Any rapport you develop while talking to a customer service person can only help. You can say something like, "I bet you're an expert in solving these kinds of problems; what would you do in my situation?"
Get organized: Be able to present your problem clearly and have the necessary information and documentation, such as dates and account numbers.
Write it out: You might first try to resolve the problem quickly by phone or casual email or in person. If the company is ignoring you, write a letter. State your problem succinctly. Don't rant.
Consumer Action suggests confining the length to about 250 words. Find sample letters online and in the Consumer Action complaint guide, http://bit.ly/nod7h3, and the Consumer Action Handbook, http://1.usa.gov/n0d35v.
Ask for something: Complaining is the means, not the end. Have in mind exactly what you want from the company, such as a repair or replacement of an item, a refund, an exchange, a credit, a correction of the company's records or payment of damages, Consumer Action says. Consider what compromises would be OK.