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Learn to be a ‘squeaky wheel’

By Claudia Buck
Sacramento Bee

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.

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.”

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.

“Don’t go in with guns blazing or you give them little incentive to help you,” said Anthony Giorgianni, associate finance editor for Consumer Reports magazine. “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.

Get the details: 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,” Giorgianni said.

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.

The federal government’s website ( www.USA.gov) has sample consumer complaint letters that you can use to get started. (Search under “consumer complaint letter.”)

Start local: 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,” Giorgianni said.

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.

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.

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,” said Schmitz, the law school professor. “It’s a lot cheaper to keep (current) consumers happy than try to attract new ones.”

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