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The Ultimate 3-Step Guide to Getting Great Customer Service and a Refund

How consumers can beat the system and get what they want

illustration of a brick maze of lost people and a man breaking through to the outside where a customer service person is sitting at a desk

Illustrations: LIAM EISENBERG

En español | Countless books, TV shows and movies present invisibility as a superpower — a powerful gift that enables you to do as you please. But in real life, invisibility is often a handicap, especially when it comes to getting fair treatment. If you're overlooked, if you don't (or if you can't) call attention to yourself, it's harder to get the products and services you're due, and harder to get a fix when something goes wrong.

And with age, you do need to assert yourself more. Research on customer service as experienced by different age groups is surprisingly slim, but lingering stereotypes — that older consumers are generally kinder but less competent — may lead to lower-grade care from service providers, according to Susan Fiske, a professor of psychology at Princeton University.

There is also some evidence that older adults file consumer complaints less often than younger ones, says Newell Wright, a professor at North Dakota State University and the editor of the Journal of Consumer Satisfaction, Dissatisfaction and Complaining Behavior (yes, that's a thing). That suggests we might be more willing to let overcharges slide or to accept less-than-great products or services.

I'm here to help. Based on my decades of experience as a consumer who gets himself noticed — plus advice I've gathered from consumer advocates, behavioral economists and customer service researchers — here is my three-step approach to getting the ultimate in customer care from the retailers, service providers and bureaucracies in your life.

Step 1: Prevent problems

Let's start with the obvious: In a business transaction, you want to get what you paid for, at the price you agreed to, in a timely and pleasant manner, and with ongoing support.

The easiest way to up the odds that you'll get that? Be an assertive and curious consumer from the outset and keep thorough records along the way. And remember that your satisfaction depends on two factors: what you are buying and from whom you are buying. Assessing the quality of both before proceeding is your best path to preventing problems.

Check reputations. Before making a major purchase, look online for reviews of the product and the vendor. (A search for each name alongside “customer reviews” is a good place to start.) If overall ratings are low, you can expect a bad experience, too.

Verify prices. Many stores now provide apps or in-store stations that let you scan a product's bar code to see its price before checking out. Use them! That's better than noticing only after you arrive home that you paid more than the price you saw while shopping. “Every store has items mispriced all the time,” says consumer advocate Clark Howard.

Choose typing over phoning ... Using the internet — and documenting your transaction — is preferable to calling an 800 number. I learned this the hard way once when I applied for a 2 percent cash-back rewards credit card and received a 1 percent cash-back card instead. It took me many hours over several weeks to correct the problem. Had I applied online, I could have taken a screenshot, and there would have been virtually no chance for human error by the credit card company.

... or get a record. If you transact by phone, Howard advises requesting an email or text confirmation — and then reviewing it. For instance, are the dates and prices of your hotel reservation correct? Does the hotel's cancellation policy match what you were told? Whatever you're buying, try to get the employee's name and an order number.

Use a magnifying glass. Yes, I know it's a cliché, but read the fine print, since that's where some companies slip in crucial (and costly) terms such as “This is a six-month introductory price …,” “You authorize us to automatically renew your service …” or “Your CD will renew at the end of the grace period for the same term at the rate then in effect."

Step 2: Weigh your options

No matter how hard you try, things still go wrong from time to time, and you will either be overcharged or receive a subpar product or service. When something like that happens, you can decide whether to let it slide or make an effort to right the wrong. In other words, this is when you can choose to complain — or not.

The word “complain” has a negative connotation. And that's unfortunate, I think. There are some very good reasons to complain, in my opinion: to get what you paid for, to pay no more than you agreed to, and to help others avoid problems that you've encountered. At the same time, I realize people have different degrees of comfort with complaining. Here are some suggestions for deciding whether to proceed.

Consider the economics. One way to look at the issue is to think about the time and money involved, suggests John Huppertz, an associate professor at Clarkson University's Reh School of Business. He suggests taking into account such economic factors as:

  1. How much money are you out?
  2. How much time do you think it will take, and how much time can you spare?
  3. What's the probability of some success?

Let's say, for example, you are out $20 and you think spending 30 minutes has a 50 percent chance of getting your money back. Trying to recover the cash in this situation might be worth it for some people, but not for others. You'll have to decide for yourself.

Pretend you're not complaining. If you're not feeling assertive, Dan Ariely, a professor of behavioral economics at Duke University, has some advice: Imagine that someone is paying you to retrieve the money on his behalf. The task may be easier if you think of it as something you were hired to do. In addition, you can look at your effort as a learning experience to see what tactics work best in getting your desired result. I view getting what's fair as a game-like challenge — something like a crossword puzzle with a prize waiting for me if I can solve it.

Be optimistic. Getting satisfaction may be much easier than you think. Companies understand that resolving a customer service problem easily creates more brand loyalty than if the company never created the problem in the first place. They also know that the internet has made it far easier for you to tell millions of people about your bad experience.

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Step 3: Get your way

OK, you've decided to stand your ground and get what you were promised. I believe strongly that to remedy a problem that involves hard cash, you want to deal with a person rather than a digital system. 

I also believe the old saying that you catch more flies with honey than with vinegar. No matter how frustrated you may be, I've learned you're best off starting the process with honey. There will be time enough for vinegar if your issue doesn't get resolved.

Prepare for a wait. When you're dealing with a large company, chances are your starting point will be a toll-free customer service number — one that a lot of other people are likely to be calling, too. You have a few options for not going crazy as you wait to talk to a human. Try calling Wednesday or Thursday mornings, which typically have the shortest wait times, according to Talkdesk, a provider of contact centers. Many companies now have an auto-callback option: You can choose for them to reach out to you within a stated time frame, without your losing your place in line. If that's not an option, I suggest doing what I do: Put your phone on speaker mode and do something else, like reading a book or watching TV, until someone answers.

Get organized. Be ready to explain your problem as concisely as possible to the customer service representative who takes your call. Have on hand any documentation you might possess related to your transaction — information like the date of your purchase, a product's model number and your order number. You don't want to have to call back and start the queue all over again because you didn't have the info the rep needed. And before making the call, have in mind the resolution you would like for your problem.

Be polite. Customer service reps want to help, Duke's Ariely says. Get them on your side by being respectful and letting them feel your quandary. He suggests saying something like, “I don't know what to do. What would you do if you were me?” Then state the outcome you'd like, such as, “I think it would be fair if I got my $50 back, since the service wasn't what was advertised.” Understand, however, that a rep may not have the authority to grant your request. In that case, avoid the temptation to get angry; instead, say something like, “I'm grateful for all you've done, but could you please forward me to a manager?” If, as has happened to me more than once, it turns out that the problem is your mistake, not the company's, consumer advocate Howard advises making an apology such as, “This was completely my fault. I'm really sorry.” Reps find it refreshing and may still want to help you. At times when I've apologized, an appreciative rep has credited me anyway.

Repay kindness. If you get an easy resolution, reward the company and the rep by leaving a good review on a site like TripAdvisor or Yelp. Singling out the rep by name can earn that rep recognition and reward. Still, try to get some confirmation of the resolution in case the promised solution doesn't come through. And in case you don't get the help you seek, document with whom you spoke, when you called and other relevant details.

Unfortunately, playing nice doesn't always work. When it's time for vinegar, not honey, I have three more-aggressive approaches you can take — simultaneously, if you choose — outside of normal complaint channels.

Post a review online. Howard suggests using brevity and humor rather than posting a long list of grievances. Since most companies monitor their social presence, North Dakota State's Wright says to use a company's Twitter handle to get their attention. So a tweet like “@GargantuanBank yet again charged me a fee by mistake. I still can't reach a rep — when will I learn?” may soon have you hearing from Gargantuan.

Go straight to the top. In most cases, it's not that difficult to find online the email address of a company's CEO or general counsel. (Failing that, try the U.S. mail.) I've found that skipping the chain of command often gets a lot of attention and usually reaches someone who has the authority to resolve an issue.

Contact your credit card issuer. If the problem is with a purchase you made when using a credit card, you can dispute the charge with the issuer if you are unable to settle the matter with the merchant. Be ready to supply as much documentation as you can.

Know when to give up. This falls under the category of “Do as I say, not as I do,” since I've often spent an irrational amount of time seeking remedies. Decide for yourself how much effort you'll expend to resolve an issue and at what point you'll throw in the towel. Over the years, I've learned time is scarcer than money, and I've chosen to give up in certain situations. The only satisfaction I get then is telling others about how poorly a company treats its customers and, if possible, never patronizing it again.

Allan Roth is a practicing financial planner who has taught finance and behavioral finance at three universities and has written for national publications including The Wall Street Journal. Despite his many credentials (CFP, CPA, MBA), he remains confident that he can still keep investing simple.