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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.
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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.