Go Back Go Ahead

I was robbed. Cheated. Taken to the cleaners."
       Sound familiar? We've all used similar phrases to describe a product or service that doesn't live up to its advertised claims or our expectations. In fact, we might direct our anger at ourselves for being naive enough to believe those claims in the first place. The sense of being taken advantage of gives way to anger with the person or company who "sold us the goods." We vent our frustration on a bewildered store employee, then feel guilty for losing our temper.
       Few people, however, take a logical approach to getting satisfaction. As a matter of fact, according to the Ladies' Home Journal, the National Consumer Survey reports that half of us never complain, no matter how bad the product or service might be.

Time to step back, assess our options, then step up and get full value for our hard-earned dollars. Time to shake off the feeling, when returning a product, that we are the ones who've done something wrong! Time to take charge of the situation.
       Consumer experts agree that most of us don't complain enough. And, they say, when we do complain we're likely to use the wrong tactics. But consumer advocates aren't the only ones urging us to get our money's worth. Smart business people suggest that consumers who call attention to poor products and services are among their most valuable customers. Those customers provide free market research and point out improvements that should be made.
       Your contract with a seller implies--as a matter of law--that a product will perform to certain standards. If it doesn't, you're entitled to seek satisfaction.
       Start by defining for yourself where the product falls short and what specific relief you want from the seller. Then follow through with a plan designed to achieve your objective. Let's look at some of the most common questions consumers ask about how and where to complain, and in the process design a strategy that will bring results.

Where do I start?
Start at the place where you bought the item. Go back to the department store that sold you the poorly sewn sweater, or the auto repair garage that forgot to tighten your oil filter, or the cable TV company that said they'd have a person there on Wednesday but who didn't show up until Friday. Track down the person who sold you the item. Explain what went wrong, and why you believe you deserve satisfaction.
       Be cool. No matter how angry you might be, you're much more likely to be treated well if you treat the seller with respect in your first contact. State what you believe is an acceptable compensation or solution.

Suppose talking to the salesperson doesn't work. What next?
If the salesperson can't or won't help, ask to talk to a manager or supervisor. Front-line employees may not be authorized to give refunds or exchanges, but the department manager usually is. Maintain a friendly, positive approach. Be prepared to explain exactly what you expect the seller to do for you. This will set the parameters for further discussion.

What kind of proof should I take with me?
Take written documentation such as sales receipts, warranty documents, notes you made during telephone conversations, and price tags. If it's a product you're complaining about, take the product with you (assuming it's portable). With the evidence of poor performance in hand, you're more likely to get immediate results.

What if the seller turns me down?
If the merchant won't work with you, go one step further. Contact the manufacturer. Talk to the national headquarters of the company that made the product. To find out where the company is located, check with your library. Almost all libraries have special consumer or business reference sections that include reference materials to help you identify the person to whom you should address complaints. You also might find this kind of information in an owner's manual accompanying the product. (In fact, before complaining, save yourself a trip and perhaps some embarrassment: Check the owner's manual for troubleshooting tips that might solve your problem right away.)
       Look for the "Consumer Sourcebook," published by Gale Resource Company, and the "Consumer's Resource Handbook," from the U. S. Office of Consumer Affairs. You can obtain a free, single copy of the "1997 Consumer's Resource Handbook" from the
Consumer Information Center, Pueblo, CO 81009.

Can the Internet help me air a complaint?
It sure can. It's a relatively new way to research companies and their consumer complaint departments. Most companies now maintain home pages on the World Wide Web, which include information on how to register complaints.
       Use a search engine to look for the company and complaint resolution information on-line.
       The Internet also can be effective in communicating with other consumers. A recent story in The New York Times documented how one consumer used computer bulletin boards to communicate her grievance against a video rental chain. Shortly thereafter, the company apologized in writing, canceled her late fees, and sent her a $20 gift certificate. Sometimes it's easier to get the company's attention by appealing to its potential customers than it is to reach them directly.

Is a written letter of complaint still appropriate?
Yes, it is. We recommend you address your letter to the company president. Explain why you think the company's product does not live up to its claims, and what you expect the company to do about it. Describe what you've done so far to get satisfaction. Send photocopies, not originals, of any supporting documentation.
       This may seem repetitious to you, but it's probably the first time higher-ups at the company are being made aware of your protest. Ask for a response within a specific time period, perhaps two weeks. And let the company know how you can be reached by letter, telephone, fax, and e-mail.

What if I don't get an answer?
If you don't hear from the company within your requested time frame, send a follow-up letter. Forward a second copy of your original letter with a handwritten cover note explaining that if you do not hear from the company you will contact third parties. You also may want to telephone, to let the company know that a follow-up is on its way.
       The goal is to get to an employee with the power to resolve your claim. Once you reach that person, be polite and considerate. Don't give in to the very human urge to take out your frustration on the first available target. Instead, explain what went wrong, whom you've talked to already, and what you expect the company to do to make amends.

Suppose the company still says no. What next?
If you run into the proverbial brick wall even at the highest levels of the company, it's time to get help from a third party.
       Trade associations are an excellent place to start. The American Society of Association Executives estimates there are 16,500 national associations and 400,000 regional, state, and local associations serving a variety of industries from actuaries to zipper makers. A key function of these trade associations is to protect and preserve the reputation of their industry. To achieve that goal, they may be willing to intervene in disputes with their members. You can find trade association addresses and telephone numbers in reference books like the "Consumer's Resource Handbook" and "National Trade and Professional Associations of the United States." These and other reference materials are available at the library, and perhaps on the library's Internet home page.
       You also may want to contact your local
Better Business Bureau or your state's consumer protection office. Most state consumer offices are part of the attorney general's office. Contacting these agencies can be an effective way to gain leverage against companies that produce inferior or defective products.

What is my last resort?
If nothing else works and you're determined to get satisfaction, it's time to take the company to court. If a relatively small amount of money is involved, you may take your case to small claims court. If you've suffered a bigger loss, you'll need to see an attorney.
       No matter how far you take your claim, the important thing to remember is to document every step of the purchase and your complaint trail, so you can prove what you claim to whatever arbiter hears your case. And no matter how great the temptation, don't become abusive--even when you believe you have been abused in return. Honey catches more flies than vinegar, and it's much better to get even than it is to get mad.

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©1997 Credit Union National Association, Inc.