By Herb Weisbaum ConsumerMan
msnbc.com contributor
updated 5/18/2010 2:07:02 PM ET 2010-05-18T18:07:02

Sooner or later, everyone will have a customer service problem. It could be a rude salesperson. It could be a website that doesn’t let you complete an online transaction.  It could be a product that doesn’t live up to its marketing claims.

Even the best company can do something that upsets you. What counts is how the company handles the situation once you complain. Were they defensive and blow you off or did they apologize and try to correct the problem?

Emily Yellin of Memphis, Tenn., had trouble booking a flight using her frequent flier miles. She called the airline and was told it was a problem with her computer. She knew it wasn’t. So she kept calling. After four days and nearly six hours on the phone, someone at customer service finally admitted the problem was with the company’s website.

“It was terribly frustrating,” says Yellin, who wrote a book on customer service, “Your Call Is (not that) Important To Us.”  Added Yellin: “Customers feel that the people answering the phones don’t care. The people who are answering the phones think customers are just crazy and have unrealistic expectations.”

How to successfully deal with a complaint
The following seven tips are based on conversations with three super shoppers: Edgar Dworsky, who runs the website ConsumerWorld.org; Tony Giorgianni, associate editor for money at Consumer Reports, and my wife, Debra, who has mastered the art of returns and service after the sale.

1. Don’t be confrontational: My wife is a big believer in the honey approach. “Be friendly and polite,” she says. “If you’re nice to them, they’ll usually be nice to you.”

Customer service people take a lot of abuse, sometimes for simply enforcing company policy. If you’re nasty and say you’re never going to shop there again, what’s the incentive to help you?

“Companies don’t want to lose customers,” Giorgianni says. “If you’re making a reasonable claim, even if it’s outside the scope of some type of policy, they will often accommodate you if you are friendly.”

2. Tell them what you want: Figure out what will make you happy. Do you want a refund, a new item or a discount because the item went on sale days after you bought it? Keep it concise. State your case and see what they say.

Bring along any paperwork that will help your case, especially the receipt. That can speed up the whole process. For returns, it guarantees you’ll get the full price that was paid for the item.

3. Know the rules: Are you asking for something the company should agree to? For instance, if there’s a 30-day money back guarantee and this is day 25, that’s a no brainer.

“If they are denying you something you have a right to, then you might want to get a little bit more assertive,” Dworsky advises.

But what if you’re making that return on day 32? Then you’re asking the company for a favor, to make an exception to its return policy. The customer service representative may not be authorized to break the rules.

4. Take it to the next level: Don’t give up. Get turned down at the customer service desk and you should ask to speak to the department or store manager. If that doesn’t work, you need to escalate to the executive level.

Write to the president or CEO of the company. You can find the information online. The big boss is not going to read your letter, but it may get passed along to what’s called “executive resolutions.”

“In many cases, things that were impossible to do at the lower level get resolved at the corporate level,” Dworsky says.

If you call the customer service line and get the run-around, ask to speak to a supervisor. These days that does not always work. I’ve found that more often than not, I’m told there is no supervisor who can talk to me. Still, it’s worth asking.

5. Keep records: You want to be able to document everything you’ve done to get your problem resolved. That includes when you called, who you spoke to and what they told you. Keep all correspondence.

6. Complain to a third party: If after all of this, you still can’t things resolved — and you sincerely believe you are being mistreated — file a complaint with the Better Business Bureau and the appropriate government agency. In most cases, that would be your state’s Attorney General or Consumer Protection Office. The Federal Information Center’s Consumer Action site has a long list of agencies and groups that might be able to help.

“Tell them the steps you’ve taken and ask them to do something,” Dworsky advises. “At most companies, separate people seem to handle complaints that go to the AG or the Better Business Bureau, so you may get a fresh ear to hear your complaint.”

Your final option is small claims court. It doesn’t cost much to file and there are no lawyers involved.

“When you send a letter of demand to the legal department of a company alerting them to the court action, you’re going to get their attention,” Giorgianni says. “Most companies don’t want to get into a legal battle over a $25 item.”

7. Make some noise: There’s an old saying in the marketing business: “a happy customer will tell five people, an unhappy customer will tell 10.” That was before the Internet.

“We have the ability to amplify that bad experience and have everybody hear about it if you talk about it online through Twitter or maybe Facebook,” says Yellin. “This has become the one thing that has forced companies to take customer service more seriously. I see that very clearly.”

Just be careful what you say, because you can be sued.  Keep your comments factual and avoid name-calling.

A word to the wise
Smart shoppers check a company’s reputation for customer service before they make a purchase. With the Internet, that’s relatively simple to do. If you find a retailer that seems to have bad return policies or poor customer service, just don’t shop there.

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