For consumers who feel wronged by a company, there’s no shortage of places to complain: In addition to social media outlets such as Facebook and Twitter, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau now welcomes complaints on financial products and many companies have beefed up their social-media teams. But what’s the most effective way to get results?[See 50 Ways to Improve Your Finances.]
The first step is to know what you want. If your new computer keeps crashing, perhaps you want the company to replace it with a new one. If the gift you ordered for your sister’s birthday arrived a week late, maybe a $10 credit toward your next purchase would make up for the belatedness. “Put it in business terms,” advises Ben Popken, former Consumerist.com managing editor and contributor to SmartMoney.com. “You have an expectation of service, and they failed to deliver it, and now you’re expecting x,” he says.
That approach worked for Popken recently, when he rented a car that turned out to be a lemon. It got a flat tire and various service lights lit up as he drove. The rental company offered to send AAA to address the problems, but asked Popken to pay upfront for the cost, or to drive the car to a local airport. “I didn’t have time for that. I said, ‘You can send the AAA truck and pay for it yourself, or call a local manager to open up a local lot so I can exchange it, or you can have someone drive a new car for me from the airport.'”
The rental company representative said she didn’t have the authority to take any of those actions, so Popken said, “I need someone with that power to take responsibility for resolving this situation tonight.” The next person he talked to immediately sent a tow truck and dropped off a new car for him.
Threatening to take your business elsewhere can also get results, says Jon Yates, problem solver at The Chicago Tribune and author of What’s Your Problem? Cut Through Red Tape, Challenge the System, and Get Your Money Back. A few months ago, when his modem broke, Yates called his provider, who told him the replacement would cost $80. He asked the company to replace it for free, and the customer representative said she could not do that.
Yates then told her he wanted to cancel his service. “Suddenly, her tone changed,” he says. She transferred him to a “retention specialist,” who offered to pay for the new modem or provide a $100 credit on his next bill. “Sometimes the threat of taking your business elsewhere is enough to convince a company to do the right thing,” he says.
Just be sure not to give up, even when the resolution takes several rounds of calls and follow-ups. Emily Yellin, author of Your Call Is (not that) Important to Us: Customer Service and What It Reveals About Our World and Our Lives and now customer-service consultant, also recommends persistence, even though she admits that even she gives up sometimes. When her new television wasn’t working properly and she didn’t get anywhere with customer service, she Tweeted her frustration at the company. It quickly responded and left messages for her, but she hasn’t yet returned the calls.
Ready to lodge your own complaint? Here are the three best places to take your problem:
The Executive Suite
If the first customer-service representative you speak with doesn’t have the authority to give you what you want, as was the case with Popken and the car rental company, it’s time to speak to someone else. Yates recommends calling, writing, or emailing the chief executive of the company along with some board members, and attaching all relevant history on the case. “You’d be surprised how often it works,” he says, especially when you copy members of the local media on the letter.
Popken says that if you have trouble tracking down contact information for those top dogs, try to find a sample company email address (press releases are good sources), and model the email address on that. For example, many companies use formats such as [email protected]
The New Watchdog
The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, which was created in 2010, says it solves 4 in 5 complaints that it receives from consumers. It now makes those complaints public in a database, so customers can easily search to see if other people have faced similar problems and how those problems were resolved.
Taking problems to government agencies is best for helping the agency identify trends and clusters of problems, says Popken. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, for example, recently announced that it was requiring Capital One to refund money to customers subject to what the bureau calls “deceptive marketing tactics” related to credit card services such as credit monitoring.
Other government agencies, such as the Federal Trade Commission, also take consumer complaints, along with private organisations such as the Better Business Bureau. If enough people lodge similar complaints, the agency or organisation is more likely to take action against that company, says Popken.
Yates adds that because those complaints are often listed publicly, they offer a resource to other consumers doing research on whether or not to work with a company. “I’m a huge advocate of filing reviews, both good and bad, with review websites so other consumers can use your information to make a good decision on which companies to use,” he says.
The general public can be a receptive audience, especially when you’re complaining about a common cause: During the recent mass power outages in the Washington, D.C., metro area, hundreds of people took to Twitter to express their frustration. The Pepco Twitter team, posting under the @PepcoConnect handle, appeared to respond to almost every Tweet that included their handle, often with information about the Pepco number to call, and apologies for the lengthy outage.
“Especially with large companies that have a Twitter presence, you can now be fairly sure that someone will get back to you and take it seriously,” says Yellin, particularly if you have a large Twitter following.
Popken recommends getting even more creative: Blog posts, creating websites or Facebook pages, and posting videos on YouTube can all help garner attention for your cause. He also suggests getting as many eyeballs on your creation as possible by emailing it to relevant websites, such as Consumerist.com, Reddit.com, or other customer service-focused sites. (And, of course, post it to your own Twitter and Facebook pages.)
Making your complaint public means that it turns up on a Google search, says Yates, and companies constantly monitor what people are saying about them online. “That’s why larger companies and corporations now have employees who work around the clock monitoring Twitter and Facebook for mentions of the company’s name,” he says.
But, says Yates, going public also means that you give up some of your anonymity. That’s why he recommends staying polite and truthful. Also, avoid sharing personal information such as your address or account numbers.
With those strategies in mind, you’re ready to get the response you want from companies that wrong you—just don’t forget to follow up when they reach out to you.