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Have a Complaint for Customer Service?

Before you confront customer service, make sure you can answer yes to these 4 questions

En español | Getting what you want from a corporate customer-service department is a lot like arguing with a teenager. You need to have a plan, stick to the facts, stay calm and know that you might lose.

That being said, the four-point checklist I use when advocating on behalf of AARP members can help you significantly increase your odds of coming out ahead in a product or service dispute.

Even if you've already called customer service and been turned away, all is not lost.

Before you try again, test yourself against my checklist. You should be able to answer yes to all four questions:

1.  Have I been significantly harmed?

This may seem like a "duh" question, but I often hear from consumers who want to fight over "principle" without actually having lost anything of real value. I'm not against having principles, but they just don't carry any currency against a large, faceless corporation. If you're upset over a matter of principle or could hold your total financial loss in spare change, forget about dialing customer service. Write a letter to the editor instead.

2. Do I have a case?

It's rarely enough to just say that the product stopped working or the service was shoddy. No matter how obvious the issue might be to a normal person, convincing a corporation to spend its time and money to help you out involves building a case that proves your point.

If the product is under warranty, you'll need the purchase receipt and warranty agreement. If you can't find the receipt, but registered the product when you bought it, the registration can also establish the warranty coverage.Even if you're not covered, or the agreement says the company accepts warranty claims only in certain circumstances, you likely still have a case if the product or service fell short of what a normal person would expect.

On the other hand, if an 8-year-old refrigerator starts leaking coolant, most people might consider that an acceptable and predictable result of aging — meaning that you don't have a case.

3. Do I have leverage?

Leverage is anything you can use to bolster your claim. One unfortunate fact I've learned in my 20 years as a consumer advocate is that most companies will do something only if it is to their financial advantage. Therefore, the best leverage would be something you could do, or promise to do, that would make it more expensive for the company to ignore you than to take care of you.

For a local firm, letting the owner know that you'll tell all your business associates and personal friends about a bad outcome might be enough to sway things your way. For a national corporation, the idea that you'll share your sad story with their number one competitor might spark them into action. Sometimes, even the simple statement that you'll eat up a substantial amount of their time and effort can be enough to get them to see things your way. (You won't really need to make them your favorite new hobby; they only have to believe that you will.)

4. Is there an acceptable solution?

In other words, "What do you want?" The answer has to be specific and monetary. "I want a full refund" or "Please replace the product" are acceptable statements. "I want a letter of apology" or "I want that guy fired" won't get you anywhere. I'm not saying that apologies aren't important or that the guy who behaved badly doesn't deserve to be fired. But you won't benefit from either of those solutions and most companies wouldn't agree to them anyway. Once you can answer yes to these four questions, you'll be much better prepared to stand toe-to-toe with a customer-service adversary. You may still end up without a truly satisfactory solution, but at least you'll know that you gave it your best shot.

Ron Burley is the author of Unscrewed: The Consumer's Guide to Getting What You Paid For.

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