Amy J. Schmitz, JD, is the Elwood L. Thomas Missouri Endowed Professor of Law at University of Missouri School of Law, Columbia. Law.Missouri.edu/about/people/schmitz
Bottom Line: Avoid these five common mistakes
The toaster doesn’t toast…the cable company has left you without Internet for days…a flight delay spoils your trip…your doctor is billing you for something that insurance should have covered.
Such things happen to consumers frequently. And if you dread the thought of having to deal with customer service to resolve such problems, that’s exactly the feeling many companies want to inspire. I’ve spent my career studying how businesses handle customer complaints. If companies make it a hassle to get actual service from customer service, many consumers just let it go. That’s why you’re forced to interact with cumbersome automated phone systems, wait on hold again and again, and then reach employees who have little power to help you. Many banks and credit card companies have even created databases that rate how valuable a customer you are. After you enter your account number, your call is routed to either a higher-level service agent who actually might help you…or an “overflow” call center that probably won’t.
Even though the cards are purposely stacked against you, there are things you can do to vastly improve the odds that you will get the resolution you deserve as a consumer. Here are the big mistakes many consumers make when trying to get problems resolved and what to do instead…
Mistake: Giving up quickly. I have found that most consumers with a complaint make only a single phone call and then give up if the problem isn’t resolved—even if they are in the right and have a good case. That’s because they have learned from experience that a first unsuccessful call often leads to a time-sucking series of similar frustrations.
What to do instead: Based on how important the complaint is to you and how much money is involved, decide up front on the amount of time and effort you are willing to put into getting the problem resolved. At least that way, you’ll feel more in control of the situation because you know that your efforts won’t be out of proportion to the amount of harm caused to you. Example: I took a flight in which both the in-flight entertainment and Wi-Fi systems weren’t functioning. So I decided I would spend just a few minutes writing a brief e-mail to the airline customer service department describing the problem and asking for 10,000 frequent-flier miles. I would wait a week, follow up with a quick phone call if necessary, and then stop pursuing it no matter what the outcome. Within a few days, I received an e-mail back from the company awarding me 5,000 frequent-flier miles. It was not as much as I had asked for but worth it for a quick e-mail.
Mistake: Not specifying the compensation you seek. Many consumers are vague about what they want, either because they haven’t thought it through or they don’t want to ask for too much or too little. But I’ve found that if you wait for the company to suggest compensation, the offer likely will be worth less than what you deserve—and even might require you to spend more money if, for instance, the company sends you a coupon for a certain amount off your next purchase.
What to do instead: Decide what compensation/resolution to request before you contact customer service. Example: “I’d like a full refund” or “Please send me a replacement.” Be reasonable, but don’t be apologetic. If the agent you speak to declines your request or tries to negotiate it downward, ask what’s the maximum amount the agent is authorized to give you. You might need to speak to a supervisor or even a higher-level employee to get what you want.
If you reach an impasse over what the resolution/compensation should be, try to think of a creative solution. Example: I bought a blender that arrived with a damaged electrical cord. The merchant’s customer service department agreed to replace the machine but insisted that I pay to ship it back so that the company could verify that the blender really didn’t work. Shipping was going to cost me nearly as much as the blender, but the company wouldn’t budge. So I suggested an alternative that was accepted—I took photos of the blender and the dangerous, damaged cord as proof and e-mailed the photos to customer service.
Mistake: Not getting customer service on your side. Most consumers understand that swearing or being otherwise rude is detrimental to resolving their problems. But it’s not enough just to be civil. For the best chance of success, you need to make the customer service agent an ally and motivate him/her to help you.
How to do that: Before you ever speak to an agent, if a recorded message asks whether you will agree to take a short survey about your upcoming service experience after the phone call, agree to it. The agent most likely will be aware that you opted to take the survey and will be looking to earn a positive review even before he hears your problem.
In every conversation, try to build rapport. Launch the conversation not with a complaint but on a positive note by mentioning your loyalty in specific terms. Example: “I’ve been a satisfied customer for 22 years.” After you calmly explain your issue and what you want, say, “I’m struggling here and would so appreciate it if you would take this on for me.” If you start to get angry or notice yourself starting to rant, tell the agent, “I want to let you know that this situation has upset me, and it has nothing to do with you personally.”
Don’t interrupt when the agent is speaking…and avoid using certain trigger words. A study of transcripts from customer service call centers found that agents were most resistant to helping customers who used aggressive words such as angry, hassle and nightmare…when customers used the second-person pronoun when complaining (as in, “Your product was no good,” rather than, “This product was no good”)…and when customers repeatedly interrupted the agents.
The time at which you call can make a difference. If you can help it, don’t call on Monday morning or during lunch hours anywhere in the country. That’s when customer service typically is deluged with complaints and when agents will have the least time (and patience) to focus on you.
Mistake: Going straight to the CEO with your complaint. Some consumer advocates have told consumers in recent years to skip customer service altogether and go right to the top—generally with an e-mail to the CEO—because the head of a company has the ultimate power to resolve problems. E-mails are so easy to send that this option can sound appealing. But in my experience, writing to (or calling) bigwigs isn’t effective unless you can show that you’ve already worked your way through the company’s customer-grievance process and didn’t get a satisfactory resolution.
What to do instead: As unpleasant as it may be, work your way up the food chain. If your conversation with an initial customer service agent isn’t getting you anywhere, use the “e” word. Say, “I need to escalate my case. Please let me speak to your supervisor.” If the supervisor isn’t helpful, you may need to escalate again and talk to someone in the customer-retention or customer-loyalty department.
Bad-mouthing companies in online venues such as Facebook and Yelp is risky. A scathing comment can harm a company, it’s true—and that’s why numerous businesses have filed defamation lawsuits in reaction to social-media posts.
What to do instead: If you feel compelled to publicly voice your discontent with the company or to warn others, do it in a way that protects you from legal problems. Certainly do not make any false statements, which can be the basis of defamation. Instead, focus on the facts of your experience. Example: Writing online that you got food poisoning after you ate at a restaurant is fine (if it’s true). Writing that the restaurant has made everyone you know sick or that the restaurant staff purposely gave you food poisoning—both claims that I’ve seen made online that were not true—is potentially defamatory.