12/20/2011 3:35 PM ET|
Get freebies by complaining
If you got less than you paid for, courtesy and social media can be your friends. Most businesses want to make things right and satisfy customers.
One evening Nicole Canfora Lupo sliced open her finger on a chipped area under a jar lid. After sopping up the blood, she blogged humorously about the misadventure, saying she'd contact the manufacturer.
She didn't have to; the manufacturer contacted her. Alerted by the brand name in the blog post, a company representative sent an apology and a basket of free products and coupons.
Don't assume there's no point in fighting Big Business. These days, it's on Facebook and has a Twitter feed. And as the New Jersey blogger noted in another post, consumers should let companies know about products that flop.
"I usually try to go through the customer-service number or email first. But it seems you get a quicker response if you go through social media," says Lupo, who writes at Rainy Day Saver and The Penny Frugalista.
This is a new channel in an old program: consumer self-advocacy. In the past, we wrote letters or called toll-free phone numbers. We can still do those things, but now our gripes can go public -- and maybe even become permanent on sites such as Angie's List, TripAdvisor and Yelp.
Merchants are listening -- or they should be. Social media can be a company's best friend, according to customer-service specialist Randi Busse.
"Or, it could be their worst nightmare if they don't respond. If they're not listening, (a complaint) can go viral," says Busse, of the Workforce Development Group on Long Island in New York.
So if that new game system malfunctions by lunchtime on Christmas Day, don't take it lying down -- take action. Here's how.
Should you call or write?
In theory, the process is simple: Contact the company, explain the problem and be given a prompt resolution.
In reality? You might face multiple telephone prompts and endless hold times, or wait weeks for a reply to your email. Sometimes it seems that the companies just want you to go away.
This is probably why some people go straight to social media to complain. But Jon Yates, who writes the Chicago Tribune's Problem Solver column, suggests starting off with a phone call.
"Nine times out of 10, that works," says Yates, the author of "What's Your Problem? Cut Through Red Tape, Challenge the System, and Get Your Money Back."
You might get instant results that way. (I have.) But you might get stonewalled or find that the customer-service rep isn't authorized to give you what you want.
It's acceptable to ask to speak to a supervisor -- who also might not be authorized to grant your wish. The same thing might happen with an email complaint.
Where to direct that phone call or email? Check the product label or look for a "contact us" button on a company website. And while you're there, see if your issue is addressed in the FAQ section.
Another online option: consumer forums. The communities at sites such as FatWallet.com or Slickdeals are bristling with savvy consumers. According to Georgetown University marketing professor Simon Blanchard, these folks often have dealt with the same kinds of issues and may have inside information for you.
"Go online and say, 'I have a problem with a company and don't know the best way to reach a representative,'" he says.
A lifetime warranty?
Some companies really do hope you'll just give up and go away. Frank Risalvato of Charlotte, N.C., called and sent emails about a faulty plumbing fixture but received no response. After nearly three months, he contacted a local sales representative, who quickly took care of the problem.
Risalvato wasn't done, though. He emailed the regional sales manager to say that "this outfit is going around selling this product under a lifetime warranty and they have no intention of calling you back."
"We also let them know we were going to post it on Angie's List," Risalvato says.
That said, he's had good luck getting replacements for products as varied as disintegrating shade cloth and a bad garden hose. Risalvato alphabetizes all warranties and receipts in an accordion-style folder.
The big guns
But suppose you're told that you're wrong or that nothing can be done? There's still another step. It's what the Consumerist website calls "the executive email carpet bomb" -- a succinctly worded missive that asks the upper echelon to authorize a solution.
The EECB is a last resort, according to Consumerist Executive Editor Meg Marco. It's effective because it outlines the steps you've already taken to fix the problem.
"You don't want to start with weapons of mass destruction," Marco says. "You want to start with diplomacy first."
John Lewis of Dallas used the EECB in a dispute over frequent-flier miles from an Australia trip. After getting nowhere with a customer-service rep and a supervisor, he emailed the suits.
Within 48 hours, an executive's assistant was in touch. The next day they'd agreed on a deal: Lewis would get 15,000 points for an airline rewards program, which can be cashed in for gift cards, free hotel stays and other premiums. He would have preferred the mileage, but acknowledged that neither side got exactly what it wanted.
"It really is a negotiation. You may not get 100%. But it's better than getting nothing at all," Lewis says.
'No way would I let those people win'
If negotiatiations break down, it might be time to hit social media -- but not with loud lamentations. Instead, use Twitter or Facebook to ask for help, suggests Zack Urlocker of Zendesk, a Web-based customer-service company. Address the person or persons actively responding to tweets or comments.
"You can say, 'I need help with this issue.' Be specific," says Urlocker.
No help? Go ahead and post your specific grievance, because social media can force an industry to pay attention. Urlocker cites two recent examples of consumer outrage: now-abandoned plans by Netflix to split into two companies and by Bank of America to charge a $5-a-month debit card fee.
"For the average consumer, (the goal) is to get the issue resolved rather than start a social movement," Urlocker says.
Resolution could take time -- maybe a long time. It took more than four months for personal finance blogger "J. Money" to beat a $75 airline charge. The company claimed it was a flight-change fee. J. Money sent copies of his receipts and boarding passes to show he hadn't altered his early-August itinerary.
"I always keep (paperwork) for a year in case stupid stuff like this happens," says the Maryland resident, who chronicled the fight on his blog, Budgets Are Sexy.
The airline countered with "proof" -- that is, a screen shot of the flight-change transaction. Except that the screenshot was of a woman flying to Denver, but J. Money is a guy who traveled to San Diego.
"I must have spent at least six hours with United from start to finish: phone calls, writing up things. But there was no way I was going to let those people win," he says.
The money was finally refunded in the second week of December.
Getting their attention
Last summer my daughter and I were kept waiting more than an hour past check-in time at a San Diego hotel. We were told the room hadn't been cleaned yet. I let the desk clerk know that my daughter has a chronic illness. He did not offer a different room or to expedite the cleaning.
Eventually my daughter wobbled over and pleaded with him to do something. He put us in a different room. How long might we have waited if she hadn't insisted?
Once we were settled, I sent a genteelly furious email to a hotel executive. Knowing that the note might get buried by other missives, I went to the chain's Facebook page and requested that someone contact me as soon as possible.
The hotel manager called the next day and said, "This shouldn't have happened." (I agreed.) He promised additional desk-clerk training and offered to comp one of our two nights.
I hadn't asked for anything. In fact, I wouldn't have asked. But he offered, so I thanked him and took it.
Sure, I jumped the gun a little. I could have waited for someone to read my email. But I wanted to make sure someone did. Social media got that someone's attention.
Tips from the pros
The tactic you choose depends on both your personality and your particular problem. Maybe you love a good dust-up and don't mind leaping into the social-media fray. Or maybe you don't want to cause a fuss -- you just want that mystery fee refunded.
No matter which approach you take, improve the odds with these tips:
- Make sure you're right. The warranty might expired have last month. Maybe you never read your utility bill and thus missed the rate-change notice. Oops.
- Gather pertinent paperwork. Dig up the product warranty and the sales receipt. If you're doing this by phone, offer to fax or email images.
- Be concise. Your letter should be no longer than 200 words: "This is my issue; this is what I want to have happen; can you help me today?" If you're planning to phone, write the letter anyway. It will keep you from rambling.
- Remain civil. Insults, hyperbole and raised voices will not help. "Remember there's a person on the other end of that line. Being angry doesn't necessarily get you closer to any resolution," Urlocker says.
- Be organized. Keep copies of all correspondence (including emails). Log the date and time of any phone calls plus the name of everyone with whom you speak.
- Don't expect therapy. The customer-service rep may be working from a script that includes phrases like, "I'm sorry this happened to you." This is not an invitation to explain just how many ways the dead modem inconvenienced you. It's the rep's job to fix the snafu, not your life. Focus on that outcome.
- Suggest a solution. If the new water heater leaks, obviously you need a service tech. If an online merchant sent the wrong product, request a return shipping label and, maybe, free overnight shipping on the correct item.
Sometimes the company will offer compensation without prompting, such as a gift card or a credit to your account. You need to know what you will and won't accept as repayment for your inconvenience.
Or maybe you don't want anything except to be heard. Northeastern University's Fleura Bardhi has studied consumer response to service failures. "People consider them almost like betrayals," says Bardhi, an associate professor of marketing in the College of Business Administration. They expect that a company will care and, more to the point, fix what's broken.
If you don't get a fair shake? Never give that merchant another dime. As a consumer, voting with your wallet is the ultimate weapon.
"Certainly, companies make mistakes," Yates says. "If they're not willing to fix them, it's time to move on."
VIDEO ON MSN MONEY
Although I understand that if a product is faulty you should certainly be able to get your money back or a replacement, I think the title of this article "Get Freebies by Complaining" is a little misleading. I am a customer service professional and every week I deal with many customers calling in to complain about a product just because they want another one free. The company I work for is a small natural products company, and we are more than happy to admit when we're wrong and have sent out a defective product, and will certainly replace that. However, we get email requests where people use different names but the same address to complain about our product to get it free. We have people call and do the same thing. Some people call and say they don't like the fragrance of one of our air fresheners and they expect us to send them a replacement. While I do feel that if you are not satisfied with the way a product has performed, I also feel there are many dishonest people out there that take advantage of small companies.
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