Be a 'squeaky wheel' with a complaint
By Claudia Buck
Published: Thursday, May 9, 2013, 12:01 a.m.
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, Schmitz says, 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 could not 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:
• Be nice. If you start off angry or arrogant, you'll likely get shut down quickly.
• Be armed. 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.” If you don't get a satisfactory answer, “go up the food chain,” Giorgianni advises. Ask to speak to a supervisor or manager. If necessary, take it to the CEO's office.
• 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.
• 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 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.
Claudia Buck is a writer for The Sacramento Bee.
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