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Heed Me!

Social media and high technology offer aggrieved consumers new weapons for fighting back. But try the old ways first.


(iStockphotos/Hulton Archives/Archive Photos/Frederic Lewis)

Everyone knows the feeling. You’re angry about a miscalculated bill or the wrong order or lousy service. You’re on the phone listening to the endless music and inane repetition of “Thank you for holding. Your call is important to us.” Your blood pressure is rising, and you’ll bite the head off the next human you reach.

Getting a company to respond in a satisfying way to your complaint can be tedious, enraging, and time-consuming. Social media and high technology have given consumers a bully pulpit they never had before to voice their complaints. Assailing a company with e-mails, posting critical reviews on Internet billboards (or threatening to), using Facebook or Twitter to make your disquiet known—these are the new mechanisms of consumer power. Sometimes, posting a negative review on Yelp puts a customer’s leverage a click away.


Still, there are lots of steps you can—and should—take before blasting out your issue to the world. “If you’re a sensible person, you try to correct things one-on-one before putting it out there for popular consumption,” said Adrian Miller, president of Adrian Miller Sales Training. “You should give the organization a chance to make it right. Just because we have the ability to talk to 10 million people doesn’t mean we have to.”

So, she and others suggest, first try customer relations. Yes, that old standby. Phoning is still quicker and usually more effective than e-mail. If you want to skip all the menu options and voice mails, try looking at, a website that keeps lists of what buttons to push on your phone to get to a live person when calling particular companies.

When you do reach a certifiable human and express your problem, don’t begin by yelling—even if you’re frustrated beyond belief, counseled Chris Morran, deputy editor of The Consumerist website, owned by Consumer Reports. Adopt “a sternly polite tone,” he suggests. “We call it ‘parental.’ People don’t respond well to anger and profanity, to being demeaned and insulted, even though it’s a very easy trap to fall into. Kindness and politeness is so rare in customer relations that it actually can be rewarded.”


Another piece of advice: Keep an open mind. “Companies really are not out to get you,” said Kyra Mancine, a copywriter at national catalog company QCI Direct, whose call center handles hundreds of customers a day. “If you call us screaming and rambling, it puts us on the defensive,” she said. “We want to help, but we need you to remain calm so we can understand what the problem is.”

Ask for help instead of demanding a solution. “Appeal to the person—‘If you were in my situation, you’d feel this way,’ ” advised Randi Busse, owner of the Workforce Development Group, which offers customer-service training and coaching. “Remember, she’s a customer herself. Try and separate the person from the company.”

Other tactics to get what you want: Don’t use up valuable time complaining about past problems. Acknowledge that the person you’re talking to probably isn’t responsible for your problem. Offering your own name can make for a friendlier transaction. Be sure to get the customer-service representative’s name at the beginning of the call, not at the end, when the conversation may have deteriorated and your complaint-taker might hang up.

“What used to be a one-on-one transaction is now one-on-many.”

If you’re not getting anywhere with one representative, hang up and try again. “We call it the customer-service lottery,” Morran said. “I’ve had it myself with Time Warner Cable. I was stuck with one representative for 30 minutes, hung up, and then called back to someone else, and it was resolved in five minutes.” You can always ask for a supervisor, who often has considerable leeway to resolve a complaint. Busse, who worked at a Verizon call center for 15 years, suggests asking the customer-service representative to brief the supervisor on your complaint so you don’t have to.

And document, document, document. Keep a written record of the time and date of every phone call and of the customer representatives’ names. “If things go downhill,” Mancine said, “you want that paper trail.” Another option is to record the phone calls—if that is legal in your state. The law in 38 states and the District of Columbia allows you to record a phone call without the other party’s consent.

You have something else in your favor. The company wants to keep you as a customer. “Remember, it is much more expensive to bring in a new customer,” sales trainer Miller explained, “than retain an existing one.”

Of course, be realistic. If you are making demands on your cable company yet are consistently late in paying your bill, you may not get that rate reduction you seek. Don’t expect a $100 voucher if you’re unhappy with a $10 item.

And don’t forget the Better Business Bureau, the venerable corporate-sponsored organization that posts ratings online for more than 4 million companies. For a business, the most important element in earning a high rating is how it has responded to customers’ complaints, spokeswoman Katherine Hutt explained. Unless there’s a pattern of problems, she said, “if they’re willing to work it out with us and a customer, they’ll get a good grade.”

This article appears in the June 9, 2012 edition of National Journal Magazine.

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