Everyone knows the feeling. You're angry about a miscalculated bill or the wrong order or lousy service. You're on the phone listening to the endless music and inane repetition of "Thank you for holding. Your call is important to us." Your blood pressure is rising, and you'll bite the head off the next human you reach.
Getting a company to respond in a satisfying way to your complaint can be tedious, enraging, and time-consuming. Social media and high technology have given consumers a bully pulpit they never had before to voice their complaints. Assailing a company with e-mails, posting critical reviews on Internet billboards (or threatening to), using Facebook or Twitter to make your disquiet known — these are the new mechanisms of consumer power. Sometimes, posting a negative review on Yelp puts a customer's leverage a click away.
Still, there are lots of steps you can — and should — take before blasting out your issue to the world. "If you're a sensible person, you try to correct things one-on-one before putting it out there for popular consumption," said Adrian Miller, president of Adrian Miller Sales Training. "You should give the organization a chance to make it right. Just because we have the ability to talk to 10 million people doesn't mean we have to."
So, she and others suggest, first try customer relations. Yes, that old standby. Phoning is still quicker and usually more effective than e-mail. If you want to skip all the menu options and voice mails, try looking at get2human.com, a website that keeps lists of what buttons to push on your phone to get to a live person when calling particular companies.
When you do reach a certifiable human and express your problem, don't begin by yelling — even if you're frustrated beyond belief, counseled Chris Morran, deputy editor of The Consumerist website, owned by Consumer Reports. Adopt "a sternly polite tone," he suggests. "We call it "˜parental.' People don't respond well to anger and profanity, to being demeaned and insulted, even though it's a very easy trap to fall into. Kindness and politeness is so rare in customer relations that it actually can be rewarded."
Another piece of advice: Keep an open mind. "Companies really are not out to get you," said Kyra Mancine, a copywriter at national catalog company QCI Direct, whose call center handles hundreds of customers a day. "If you call us screaming and rambling, it puts us on the defensive," she said. "We want to help, but we need you to remain calm so we can understand what the problem is."
Ask for help instead of demanding a solution. "Appeal to the person — "˜If you were in my situation, you'd feel this way,'"‰" advised Randi Busse, owner of the Workforce Development Group, which offers customer-service training and coaching. "Remember, she's a customer herself. Try and separate the person from the company."
Other tactics to get what you want: Don't use up valuable time complaining about past problems. Acknowledge that the person you're talking to probably isn't responsible for your problem. Offering your own name can make for a friendlier transaction. Be sure to get the customer-service representative's name at the beginning of the call, not at the end, when the conversation may have deteriorated and your complaint-taker might hang up.
"What used to be a one-on-one transaction is now one-on-many."
If you're not getting anywhere with one representative, hang up and try again. "We call it the customer-service lottery," Morran said. "I've had it myself with Time Warner Cable. I was stuck with one representative for 30 minutes, hung up, and then called back to someone else, and it was resolved in five minutes." You can always ask for a supervisor, who often has considerable leeway to resolve a complaint. Busse, who worked at a Verizon call center for 15 years, suggests asking the customer-service representative to brief the supervisor on your complaint so you don't have to.
And document, document, document. Keep a written record of the time and date of every phone call and of the customer representatives' names. "If things go downhill," Mancine said, "you want that paper trail." Another option is to record the phone calls — if that is legal in your state. The law in 38 states and the District of Columbia allows you to record a phone call without the other party's consent.
You have something else in your favor. The company wants to keep you as a customer. "Remember, it is much more expensive to bring in a new customer," sales trainer Miller explained, "than retain an existing one."
Of course, be realistic. If you are making demands on your cable company yet are consistently late in paying your bill, you may not get that rate reduction you seek. Don't expect a $100 voucher if you're unhappy with a $10 item.
And don't forget the Better Business Bureau, the venerable corporate-sponsored organization that posts ratings online for more than 4 million companies. For a business, the most important element in earning a high rating is how it has responded to customers' complaints, spokeswoman Katherine Hutt explained. Unless there's a pattern of problems, she said, "if they're willing to work it out with us and a customer, they'll get a good grade."
She advises customers to check the Better Business Bureau's ratings before doing business with a company. Still, if you wind up filing a complaint (at www.bbb.org/complain), the bureau will open a dispute. If the company fails to respond within 30 days, the complaint is closed as "nonresponsive," which hurts the company's rating. Fewer than 5 percent of the more than 1 million complaints each year move to mediation or arbitration. The three industries that draw the most complaints: cell-phone service and equipment; new-car dealers; and television by cable or satellite.
If the old-fashioned ways don't bring satisfaction, Consumerist's Morran suggests an "executive e-mail carpet bomb." This entails looking online for as many of the executives' names as possible. "Once you see one e-mail [address] format, it's usually the same for everyone else in the company," he said. "In the e-mail, detail thoroughly in a polite but disappointed tone and send to everyone you can. It doesn't always work, but people have been able to get some very positive responses, sometimes at a very high level."
When, then, is it time to resort to social media? When do you make that YouTube video or blast out your complaint on the company's Facebook page, or on Yelp, or send out scads of tweets? When you're still not getting anywhere. "Social media is a great platform, and one bad experience can end up on the front of a newspaper," Busse said. "You have the potential to damage their brand."
If you're holding too long on the phone, she suggests going on the company's Twitter account or Facebook page and writing, "Tried for an hour to reach customer service." The company might reply with a request for your phone number and an off-line conversation.
Or consider what an unhappy QCI Direct customer did. When her new rugs didn't match the ones she'd bought a decade earlier, the catalog company took them back but wouldn't refund the shipping costs. She posted her displeasure on QCI's Facebook page. "It got our attention fast," Mancine said. And the customer got her full refund. Officials who handle a company's social media are often in different departments than customer services, she pointed out, and "may be able to help you if you are running into a dead end."
There is a dark side, however, to consumers' use of social media to hold businesses accountable. How does anyone know if a complaint or review is from a real customer with a real experience, good or bad? Or that a bribe of some sort hasn't changed hands? Morran was told of a car dealership that offers a free oil change for a positive online review.
Some companies are working on ways to combat such abuses. Expedia, the online travel agency, has announced a policy of allowing only "verified" reviews for hotels. That is, anyone who posts a review needs to have used Expedia to book and pay for the hotel.
"Anyone can go online and put anything up," said Sarah Keeling, an Expedia spokeswoman. "The hotel could put up a false positive review or the competitor a negative one." With the new policy in place, people are submitting more-detailed reviews, she said, and more people are rating the reviews as helpful.
Sometimes you don't even need to actually use social media to get your issue resolved. If you're running into a major roadblock, just the (polite) threat to do so could turn the conversation your way.
After all, as Busse noted, the balance between consumers and businesses has shifted. "What used to be a one-on-one transaction," she said, "is now one-on-many. Customers are very powerful now."
The writer is a business columnist for The New York Times and the author of Better by Mistake. She's at twitter.com/atugend.