If you have a problem with a company, your first instinct is probably to reach for the phone.
It probably shouldn’t be. Although the phone remains the most popular method of contacting a company according to several surveys, it is also often the slowest and the greatest source of frustration, according to a 2011 survey by Consumer Reports.
Topping the list of phone-related gripes: The inability to get a person on the line, followed by being stuck in a phone tree and waiting for a long time on “hold.” (Boring “hold” music ranked as well, which is one of my pet peeves.)
Point is, maybe you shouldn’t pick up the phone. I’ve long advised people with complaints who are not on site to put their grievances in writing, as a brief, polite message. I’ve also been on the receiving end of irate messages from customers, who insist it’s easier said than done – that their messages disappear into cyberspace. I’ll get to that problem in a second.
Let’s review the four main written methods of communicating with a company. Before we do, let me state the obvious: The absolute best way to get any kind of customer-service concern addressed is in person, at the store. Nothing comes close to speaking directly with an employee or manager in real time. So, if you’re tempted to wait until you get home to say something about a product or service you’ve just purchased, please don’t.
It may be so 20th century, but email is still highly effective – perhaps the most effective written form of communication. An email establishes a permanent record that can be forwarded to a manager, law enforcement, or to yours truly. What’s more, most corporations assign a tracking number to their outbound customer emails, meaning there’s virtually no chance it will be ignored. Note that many companies require you fill out a web-based form. That’s fine; just keep a copy for yourself. A reputable company will send you an immediate response with a copy of your original message, for your own records. But you can’t be certain of it.
Don’t laugh. Many customers still prefer the postal service. It wouldn’t be my first recommendation, but there are instances where it works better than email. For example, when you have supporting documents, like a receipt or a notarized document like a birth certificate, putting it on paper helps. Many companies don’t accept attachments to email. Also, I’ve seen overnight letters work wonders. A brief, polite paper letter FedExed to a company official can accomplish more than a phone call or email, sometimes. Bottom line: Snail-mail can work for you.
One of the emerging methods of communicating with a company – particularly a larger company – is via IM. A recent survey by the E-tailing Group found that 20 percent of shoppers prefer live chat because they can often get a question answered faster than by email or even by phone. IM may be a good way to get a simple problem resolved, but there are two issues that make me hesitate to give it my full endorsement. First, its not always easy to keep a transcript of your conversation. Once the “conversation” ends, the window disappears and you have no way of proving anything was said or written. Second, many customer service reps on IM rely on scripts to send you an answer, and sometimes hardly bother to read your question. IM is still developing. Use it with caution.
If you can find your company on Facebook, Google+ or Twitter, you may have a secret way of getting fast customer service. Why? Because even in 2012, companies are pouring more resources into social media, monitoring their online reputations, and worried that your grievance could make it lose face. I think it’s just a matter of time before the rest of the world catches on to the fact that it will get special treatment by taking its grievances to social media, and then the jig will be up. But until then, this is a viable and often faster way of reaching your company. (Just remember to keep a copy of everything you send for your own records, including screen shots of your postings.)
Christopher Elliott is a consumer advocate who blogs about getting better customer service at On Your Side. Connect with him on Twitter and Facebook or send him your questions at by email.