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Consumer Guide: Tips for Getting What You Want from Business

Find out how to deal with situations where businesses take advantage of honest customers.

My wife, Hali, hopped out of her car smiling.

"Don't the tires look great?" she said proudly, pointing to the brand-new set. "I know you told me to get Michelins, but the salesman said these are just as good." I eyed the crummy knockoffs and realized Hali had been duped. These tires were to Michelins what canned tuna is to caviar. So I called Mitch, the manager of the store, and nicely asked him to install the correct ones. "Can't do that once she's left the premises," he said. "It's our policy."

He tossed out the phrase like a grenade, assuming it would scare me away. But after nearly 20 years of working as a consumer reporter and dealing with Mitches, I wasn't going to back down so easily. Policy or no, I knew I was in the right. So it was time to do something that most of us are too tired, too scared, or too uninformed to do. It was time to fight back.

I hung up the phone, went to my study, and cut an ad from the yellow pages. I photocopied it 12 times, stapled a $20 bill to each copy, and put the stack in a Manila folder. Ten minutes later I walked into the tire store and asked for Mitch. A burly guy looked up. "That's me," he said.

I explained who I was and again asked for my tires. Mitch smirked."I'd like to help, but I told you, we have a policy."

"Mitch," I said sweetly, "I'm here with a simple, fair request. If you can't fulfill it"—I pulled out my folder and glanced at the line of waiting customers—"I'll tell all of these people what happened this afternoon. I'll hand each of them a copy of your competitor's ad and ask them if, for 20 bucks, they wouldn't mind going across the street for their tires."

Mitch's mouth dropped open.

"It may cost me a few dollars," I continued pleasantly. "But I'll feel better knowing I saved some folks from getting ripped off."

Mitch looked at the waiting customers.

"So," I said. "Should we see how much business I can hand your competitor today?"

Mitch looked me straight in the eye and smiled thinly. "I'm sorry for the misunderstanding," he said. "Please have your wife pull her car around. We'll take care of her right away."

Years ago I never would have been so bold. I would have dealt with Mitch the way we're taught to deal with consumer issues: by writing a letter or having my attorney write one. Older Americans especially feel shy about speaking up when confronted with consumer injustice. We believe that if we go through the proper channels, our issues will be resolved. It's no wonder: 50 years ago the average household dealt with only a few businesses—the grocery store, the butcher—and most were locally owned with a vested interest in the community. When these companies messed up, they fessed up and solved the problem. Today we deal with cell phone companies, cable providers, health clubs—national chains with no reason to value individual customers. Proof that consumers are increasingly getting the short end of the service stick? In 2005 more than 400,000 fraud-related complaints were filed with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), compared with just 16,500 in 1996.

The good news is, you don't have to play that wimpy role of powerless customer. That incident with the tires was my light bulb moment—now, I give seminars on how to deal with situations where businesses take advantage of honest customers. The better news is, there's a tool kit of simple tips that anyone can use to slice through voice mail, cut through red tape, and get through to guys like Mitch. Here's how you can fight back and get what you deserve.

1. Know when to fight.

Remember this: Your time is money. Resolving a business dispute should never cost more than what the bungled product or the service is worth.

The short answer: if you're in the right, you should never take no for an answer. But it can get more complicated than that. Before you go to the mat, make sure it's worth your time—and I'm talking worth literally, in dollars and cents. For example, I value my free time at $100 an hour (steep, I know, but free time is worth more to me than work time). If I'm going to chase down a $40 mistake on my cable bill, I had better be able to resolve it in less than 25 minutes. Set your own rate, and then stick to it. Also, remember to factor in hidden costs: you may win the war against a $5 bank overcharge, but if the battles cost you $10 in parking meters and gasoline, you actually lose. Time to pay up and consider finding a new bank. But you'll probably find, as I did with Mitch, that if you think outside the box, it won't take hours to get your problem solved. The tire-store incident took less than one hour from start to finish, while letter writing and formal complaints could have taken weeks.

2. Think like a business.

Remember this: Appeal to the company's bottom line by making clear that it will cost more to ignore you than to give you what you want.

To get your due from dishonorable businesses, you must think the same way they do. Corporations don't care that you were delivered the wrong sofa and it doesn't match your carpet—they care about the bottom line. Because of this, your simple task is to convince them that it will be more costly to ignore you than to give you what you deserve. How do you do that? Skip the sob story and cut to the deal.

Let's take a look at what happened with Mitch at the tire store. I didn't complain in typical "customer" fashion, explaining how I felt betrayed or that I'd really been looking forward to my new tires. Mitch was prepared for that—armed with his "It's our policy" line. Instead, I caught him off-guard with a simple business proposition. He could exchange the tires on my car, which would cost him nothing but labor, or he could lose several times the value of the tires in business when I persuaded other customers to go across the street. Rather than pleading with him to treat me nicely or fairly, I gave him the opportunity to make a "wise" business decision. Predictably, Mitch made the choice that was best for his business's bottom line.

3. Channel Dirty Harry.

Remember this: If speaking up makes you nervous, write yourself a script of what you will say to the unscrupulous business.

Picture Clint Eastwood trying to decide whether he'd fired off five shots or six. Do you feel lucky? Do ya? That's the air you want to project when dealing with business bad guys. Chances are, you're not actually going to have to pass out your own $20 bills. But you are counting on your adversary to look you in the eye, understand what's at stake, and believe you have the capacity to get a little Dirty Harry.

This means you have to be willing to up the ante on traditional customer complaints. This is not only more effective; it's also more cost-effective. According to the FTC, the average consumer dispute is over an amount less than $2,000. Factor in lawyer costs and time, and the conventional methods violate the rule of making sure the effort's worth it for you. Plus, many corporations have policies that all legal disputes must be handled in the jurisdiction of the state in which the company was incorporated. Feel like flying to Alaska to get back $30 for a busted CD player? Didn't think so.

So I have several alternative suggestions. I call my Mitch strategy the Town Crier technique. You, a concerned citizen, are willing to pass out flyers (or money) just to make sure no one else has the negative experience you did. Another effective Dirty Harry technique for small businesses: Spokesperson for the Competition. You're so enraged by the lack of customer service that you've written down your horror story and plan to give the business's competitors and the local newspaper permission to publicize it. Be sure to fax a neatly typed account of your mistreatment to the business at fault so it'll know you're serious about following through if it doesn't rectify its mistake.

Whatever plan of action you choose, the stuffed shirt on the other side of the counter must believe that if he or she doesn't give you what you deserve, it will Make Your Day.

4. Don't fear Goliath.

Remember this: If you're getting nowhere with customer service, call investor relations or the sales department. Both are trained to make happy customers, rather than just make them go away.

It's harder to pull a Dirty Harry with a big corporation than it is with a local company. Losing a dozen customers doesn't hugely impact a business that does thousands of transactions every day. You can get what you deserve from a megacorp; it just takes a slightly different approach. Here's one strategy.

My friend Tonya phoned me one afternoon. Her phone company (I'll call it Universal Cellular, or UC) had been hassling her for months over a $200 billing error. She gave me the details, and I said I'd look into it.

I logged on to the Internet, scanned the company's website, and found the investor relations contact info and the stock symbol. Next, I clicked over to my stockbroker's site and purchased ten shares of UC for 60 bucks. Now I was a proud stockholder—an owner—of the company that was giving my friend such a hard time.

I called the UC Investor Relations department. A sparrow-voiced woman named Felicia answered the phone.

I introduced myself, told her about Tonya, and concluded, "As a stockholder, I'm concerned that we treat our customers fairly. I am appalled by problems my friend has had with a simple billing dispute."

"I'm very sorry," she said. "I assure you, we value all members of the UC family, whether stockholder or customer."

"I'm sure you do, Felicia," I said. "However, this has upset me so much that I've decided to exercise my stockholder right to attend the annual meeting, stand at the microphone, and let the chairman of the board know—"

She cut me off.

"That won't be necessary," Felicia said nervously."I'm sure we can fix this. Is there a number where I can reach you in a few minutes?" I hung up, knowing she'd get back to me with good news.

Why was I so confident?

No one in the investor relations department of a major corporation wants a crazed minor stockholder making an appearance at the well-choreographed annual meeting. If an analyst learned that UC's customers were less than happy, it could negatively impact the stock price. I was counting on UC to make the wise business decision—credit the $200 and avoid a scene.

My phone rang ten minutes later. It was Felicia. "Your friend's been taken care of," she said. "Thank you for bringing this to our attention."

I hung up the phone and returned to my brokerage account. UC was up 60 cents on the day. I sold the ten shares. Tonya was straightened out, and I'd made six bucks.

The moral of the story is that even with big business, you can get to the top quickly. If no one responded to your fax to customer service, fax the CEO. As unlikely as it sounds, bigwigs' personal fax numbers are often available on the Web. Type in the executive officer's name, in quotes, and "fax" in the search window. I once found the home-office number of a Fortune 500 president this way. At the top of almost every corporation, there's a guy or gal who wants his or her customers treated fairly and is appalled by the runaround they've been given by the peons in middle management.

5. Make nice with the little guy.

Remember this: When on the phone, get every representative's full name, agent number, and call-center location. Don't believe lines like "I'm the only Mike here."

If you do find yourself stuck on the phone with one of those underpaid, overworked middle managers, use that thankless job to your advantage. Make the person feel as if he or she has the opportunity to be the hero of this tragedy otherwise known as your consumer nightmare. Useful phrases include: "I just know you're the person who can fix this" and "I would love to write your manager to tell her how helpful you've been." Keep a pencil next to your telephone, and be sure to jot down detailed notes from any customer-service conversation. Make sure you get the service representative's name, agent number, and any other personal information that might later be of use. A few years ago an airline made a mistake with some flight reservations to Hawaii that, if uncorrected, would have meant a lost vacation for my entire family. The ticket agent adamantly tried to convince me that the reservations had never been made. But because I was armed with the service representative's name and ID number—and even knew the names of her two daughters—the agent was forced to admit that I must indeed have made the reservations. The vacation was fabulous.

6. Get what you want.

Remember this: If you shout or swear, the biz has an excuse to label you a "problem customer" and not take you seriously.

Getting what you deserve does not involve yelling, threatening, or stomping your feet. It also doesn't involve personal attacks or doing anything illegal. (It never hurts to check with your attorney to confirm that your planned actions are legal. Victory will be fleeting if your extraction of justice is considered to be extortion of funds.) An irate, irrational customer is easy to dismiss. As angry as you may feel, you stand a much better chance of getting your way if you behave in a businesslike manner—calm, reasonable, and simply stating the facts.

When dealing with a business, your goal is not to "get even" or even to get a letter of apology. That's treating the experience like a tiff with a friend, not thinking like a business. Your goal must be measurable in dollars and cents. This can mean getting your money back, having the product replaced, requiring a job to be redone—or any other remedy that can be counted in ounces of gold rather than pounds of flesh. The hotel clerk may offer a thousand apologies for your sleepless night next to the rehearsing Kiss cover band. Until those apologies come with a complimentary night at the hotel, your mission is not complete. Know exactly what you want, and be prepared to repeat it clearly, succinctly, and ad nauseam. "I expect a full refund for my hotel room" works much better than "Gosh, that was noisy. Boy, do I wish there was something you could do. . . ."

One caution: if the fault is yours, meaning that you damaged the product or ordered the wrong thing, don't try to shake down a company. It's not good karma, and you could even find yourself on the wrong end of a lawsuit.

7. Protect yourself.

Remember this: Your credit card company can be your best friend. Ask for a charge to be put "on hold" to give you additional leverage when dealing with a problem company.

In a perfect world you'd never have to confront anyone about bad service, because there would be no unscrupulous businesses. And there are a few things you can do upfront to avoid the customer-service hassle altogether. You are most powerful when the money is still in your pocket. Ask your friends about their experiences with a corporation before you open your wallet. Check a company's record with the Better Business Bureau, and look for filings with the Federal Trade Commission. Enter the company's name in an Internet search engine and see what pops up.

There are also some government agencies that can help you get what you deserve (see "Extra Help"). Some will even enter the fight on your behalf. In many cases, though, these organizations can't move quickly enough to help with situations such as the tire-store incident, so always have a backup plan of your own. If a company has not merely given bad service but has actually committed a crime (fraud, theft), don't waste time negotiating. Call your district attorney's office.

To be fair, most companies still give adequate customer service, and some are absolutely fantastic. I've had terrific experiences with Costco, Starbucks, and Circuit City, to name a few. But if we want all companies to strive for the gold standard of customer service, we all need to learn to settle for nothing less than what we deserve.

Ron Burley is a veteran consumer reporter and author of Unscrewed: The Consumer's Guide to Getting What You Paid For (Ten Speed Press, 2006).

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