Got a gripe? Whether it's a faulty cellphone, a cranky washing machine or a designer dress that falls apart, inevitably something goes wrong with something you've bought. What do you do?
Too many of us just give up or don't bother trying to get the store or company to resolve the problem.
"We live in a buck-up-and-take-it society," said Anthony Giorgianni, associate finance editor for Consumer Reports magazine. "We're not going to plead for anything; we're just going to take it. We have a subconscious feeling that when we speak out, we're viewed as a complainer."
But consumer experts say the old adage is true: Being the proverbial squeaky wheel gets results.
"Not all consumers are treated equally. If you're persistent and know how to complain effectively, you're more likely to get a remedy," said Amy J. Schmitz, a professor at the University of Colorado law school in Boulder and author of an academic study of the "squeaky wheel system."
Typically, says Schmitz, companies have two types of responses to complaining customers: those who get the quick brush-off and the "squeaky wheels" who merit some attention.
Maria Papantoniadis, an office manager for a Sacramento graphic design firm, is definitely the latter. "Most people don't want to spend the time to write a letter or spend the money to ship (an item). I used to give up, give it away or let it sit in a drawer," says the ardent eBay and mall shopper.
Whether it's an Igloo picnic cooler or a Pottery Barn umbrella, Papantoniadis is not shy about pursuing a replacement item or parts when something goes wrong.
About two years ago, a Michael Kors watch that she'd bought on sale at Macy's stopped working, long past the original warranty period. It couldn't be repaired locally, so she went online, looked up the warranty information, found the company's customer service department and called.
At her expense, she shipped the watch to them and Michael Kors sent her a $250 replacement watch, which was more than she had paid for the original.
There's an art to getting good customer service. Here's how:
If you start off angry or arrogant, you'll likely get shut down quickly.
"Don't go in with guns blazing or you give them little incentive to help you," said Giorgianni. "There is less chance the company is going to help you if they feel they've already lost you as a customer."
Instead, make it clear that you like shopping at the particular store or buying the brand of merchandise. Mention that you're a longtime customer or loyal to the brand. Tell them you assume the problem is uncharacteristic of the company's normal customer service.
Don't pick up the phone, go online or write a letter until you have essential details: serial numbers, date of purchase, warranty information, etc. If you're shuffling papers or unsure of details or vague about what you want, you're not going to sound like someone who should be listened to.
Don't stop at "No"
Many consumers give up too easily, especially when they encounter a brusque or unhelpful customer service rep.
"You really should not settle for the first thing you hear, because that person could be having a bad day, they could be mad at their spouse or girlfriend," said Giorgianni. Some customer service reps, he said, can even harbor "subconscious biases" against women or minority callers.
If you don't get a satisfactory answer, "go up the food chain," he advises. Ask to speak to a supervisor or manager. If necessary, take it to the CEO's office.
"You need to appeal any decision you get Companies are not in business to lose customers."
Put it in writing
Often, the most effective way to lodge a complaint is to write a letter.
Do a Google search to find the name and address of the company's customer service office. Don't be afraid to write to the CEO. While it's not likely you'll hear back personally, the CEO's office could hand it over to a consumer response team.
Spell out clearly but not in laborious detail the nature of your problem, what you want resolved, how to reach you and when you expect a reply. Be respectful but firm. (For details, see box.)
Both the state Department of Consumer Affairs (www.dca.ca.gov) and the federal government's website (www.USA.gov) have sample consumer complaint letters that you can use to get started. (Search under "consumer complaint letter.")
Begin with the store where you bought the item. Giorgianni says a local retailer, even if it's a chain, usually wants to treat its customers well. Plus they need to know if a manufacturer's product is causing problems.
Fill out the card
Consumer Reports says you should always fill out the paper warranty card that comes with most major purchases. Even though it's not required to activate the warranty, "Make sure you return those cards so if there is a problem with a product, the company will know where to find you," said Giorgianni.
You can skip all the questions about your shopping and consumer habits, but do fill out the pertinent details on serial numbers and date and place of purchase.
Warranty or not
Even if your warranty has expired, it doesn't mean there's no point in trying. Giorgianni says the legal concept of "implied warranty" means there's a reasonable expectation that a product should be workable and usable. For instance, "No reasonable person would spend $3,000 for a fridge that breaks down in a year."
Do a Web search on the product name and "consumer complaints" or "problems with" to see if others are posting similar gripes, he suggests. It can bolster your request to the company that something isn't right with that blender or flat-screen TV you've purchased.
"A lot of companies have a very strong incentive to build good will by offering you something It's a lot cheaper to keep (current) consumers happy than try to attract new ones," said Schmitz, the law school professor.
Even if the limited warranty is long past or you lost the original receipt, you still might be able to get satisfaction. A few years ago, for instance, Schmitz had a blender that stopped working but she didn't have the original paperwork. Even so, when she called the company, they offered to send her a new blender. Her only cost? The $7 shipping fee.
Tweet it; post it
Social media can be an ally, as well. Many companies have Facebook pages where you can post your beef on a message board. The sites are monitored and you'll often get a reply from a company rep. Same with message boards on the company's website.
If you personally tweet or post on your own Facebook page about your customer service frustrations, it also might catch a company's attention.
And if all else fails, don't be afraid to lodge a complaint with consumer agencies: the Better Business Bureau, your state consumer protection agency or the Federal Trade Commission.
Ultimately, being a squeaky wheel means "not being afraid to ask," said Papantoniadis. "You have to go in with the idea that you don't expect anything. And the worst they can say is 'No.' "
But more often than not, the self-described "queen of returns" has found that companies will reward those with persistence. As with her replacement Michael Kors watch, "If I'm happy, the company knows I'll tell people."
HOW TO COMPLAIN EFFECTIVELY
Knowing how to be an effective griper can get results. Here are some tips:
Start with the store where you purchased the item or the company's toll-free consumer line. If there's no response, write a letter to the company's corporate office.
Keep your cool. The person helping you probably didn't cause the problem.
Don't use an angry, threatening or sarcastic tone.
When writing or talking by phone, don't forget to:
Describe your purchase.
Include the product name and serial number.
Include date and place of purchase.
State your problem. For instance, "I am disappointed that my blender (broke, stopped working, etc.)."
Ask for specific action. Request a repair, refund, replacement item, charge card credit or other resolution.
Enclose copies. Do not send originals but include copies of your original receipt, warranty, model and serial numbers and other pertinent documents.
List your contact information. State how you can be reached, including address, phone and cellphone numbers.
Give a timeline: "I look forward to your reply and will wait until XX date to hear back before contacting the Better Business Bureau or my state's consumer agency."
Keep copies of all letters, faxes, emails and related correspondence.
Use social media, such as posting your complaint on a company's Facebook page or other consumer message boards. Many major companies have staff that monitor public sites and often respond to consumer problems.
Sources: www.USA.gov, state Department of Consumer Affairs
Call The Bee's Claudia Buck, (916) 321-1968. Read her Personal Finance blog, www.sacbee.com/personalfinanceblog.