David Segal, who writes The Haggler column for The New York Times, offers regular savvy tips for consumers who have a beef. After reading his advice and merging it with the wisdom emanating from the family Sisterhood, I've come up with what I think is the ultimate list for any unhappy consumer who can't afford to be ignored.
- Lesson 1: Be persistent. My husband was shocked when he came home for lunch about a month ago and saw six Bright House Networks cable trucks on my block. He knew I was unhappy after several repair attempts by the local office, my Internet was still slow as molasses, and he even knew that I had phoned the corporate offices in Syracuse, N.Y. But he didn't know that I'd managed to reach the CEO's office and the V.P. for technology had called me back. That worked. The VP dispensed an army of repair techs who finally figured out the problem and fixed it.
- Lesson 2: Keep good records. When the sprinkler system start-up team came to my house yesterday, they told me that the pump system was outdated and needed to be replaced. I pulled their bill from one year ago out of my files and pointed out that their company had installed the pump the previous year. After a brief and reasonably friendly conversation with the home office, the boys decided to install a new, more efficient pump in my system at NO charge.
- Lesson 3: Turn the complaint into a conversation. As Segal points out, one of the simplest and most effective strategies is to ask, "What would you do if you were in my shoes?" When USAirways, in the aftermath of a storm, booked my sister-in-law on a different flight from her husband and her two-year-old, the airline's knee-jerk reaction was, "Sorry, but there is nothing we can do." But after my sister-in-law resolutely explained the problem several times and asked over and over again – "What would you do if you were going to be separated from your baby?" – the ticket agent found an earlier, direct flight with three vacant seats.
- Lesson 4: Be a nice person. Larry, the man behind the meat counter at Busch's market, and I chat pleasantly several times a week as I buy dinner. When the lox I bought for a weekend brunch turned out to smell a little like ammonia, a bad sign in fish, Larry not only replaced them, he doubled my order at no additional charge and told me to enjoy the meal.
- Lesson 5. Patronize companies that routinely do the right thing. When a mysterious $1,700 charge appeared on my American Express bill, I called Amex and they put a hold on the charge – no arguments. After a month-long investigation in which the company that placed the charge failed to respond to Amex's queries, the bill disappeared altogether with no additional effort on my part. That was simply a confirmation of a previous good experience with the company. After my son was robbed at gunpoint in Brazil, Amex froze the card immediately and invited him to come to their office and pick up a replacement and some cash, so he wouldn't be penniless. My son also had a Bank of America credit card that was stolen at the same time. A year later Bank of America was still trying to collect from us for the charges that the crooks put on the card. Guess which credit card we rely on – and which one we canceled?
- Lesson 6: Take it to a higher power. When all else fails, newfangled technology works. Twitter, blog and put your complaint on YouTube.com. These days, it seems like companies have more employees devoted to tracking their names online than they do manning the customer service counter. Better yet, know somebody who is somebody. When we had trouble straightening out a family member's immigration status, the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service carried the paperwork to her office after Sen. Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia interceded.