The most satisfying cases I handle as a consumer advocate aren’t the ones where I step in to save the day. It’s the times when you, the consumers, fix a problem without any outside help.
In other words, it’s when the system works.
Take what happened to Stacey Larsen’s subscription-TV service. She signed up last December, only to discover that it didn’t work as advertised.
Her TV was plagued by numerous technical glitches that often made it impossible to watch the programs she wanted.
“We have had technician visits on Dec. 24 and 28, January 12, March 13 and May 21,” she explained. “We have had three sets of equipment swapped out over a six-month period and are still having a problem.”
None of the repair visits helped. Her TV service remained on the blink. And that’s when she contacted me, asking for help.
“The equipment they are providing does not meet the level of service in their customer agreement,” she told me. “The early cancellation should be waived. Can you help?”
Here’s where things get interesting.
At about the same time she contacted me, I experienced my own technical glitch.
My initial set of emails made it to her, but the follow-up messages between her, me and the company, were held in unchecked mailbox.
For three months.
What would happen to this case?
Well, surprise! By the time I found Larsen’s follow-up message, she’d convinced the company to void the contract and refund the money, which is exactly what the customer wanted.
Best of all, she did it without my help. “It was not easy,” she says.
So how do you fix your own customer service problem?
Talk to the right people.
Every company has a “chain” that you must climb in order to resolve a dispute. Hers involved a series of tech support calls, visits and follow-ups.
It’s essential to follow a company’s playbook when you’re in trouble, otherwise your requests for help could be ignored. It’s not really fair, but it’s their company, their rules.
Remember your manners.
Larsen’s complaint was successful in large part because of her demeanor.
She wasn’t demanding. She used words like “please” and “thank you” even when she felt like giving the company a piece of her mind.
This is perhaps the most difficult part of the resolution process: keeping your cool. It’s yet another great reason to limit your correspondence to emails.
You can take your time and make sure your request doesn’t sound too shrill. Politeness wins more cases.
Be patient — but not too patient.
Larsen showed remarkable patience when she waited months to let the subscription TV company fix the problem.
You have to give the process some time, but you also have to be mindful of any penalties or termination fees that apply if you wait too long.
A cynical company will drag out the resolution process until your rights to a refund under your contract have expired. Don’t let that happen to you.
File your appeal.
I list the names, email addresses and phone numbers of the executives in charge of customer service on my consumer advocacy site.
I’m fortunate to work with a great team of volunteers who make sure every page is up to date, and much to the chagrin of some executives, the list some direct phone numbers.
I wish that wasn’t necessary, but sometimes it’s the only way to get a company’s attention.
Fish or cut bait.
At some point, when the company refuses to help, forcing you to live with a TV service on the blink, you need to take your appeal to someone who can actually do something.
That should have been me, of course. But it could have also been a credit card (for a dispute) or a court (for a full refund, plus attorney fees).
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 by email.