Financial IQ

Write a Winning Appeal: Secrets For Turning a Company’s “No” Into a “Yes”

“You killed the bird,” the pet-store owner barked, pointing an accusatory finger at me.

“That’s not what the necropsy said,” I replied.

“Yes you did!”

“No I didn’t.”

Around and around we went in circles. But the pet store had my $900 and no intention of returning it. And my beloved African gray parrot named Scarlett, who I had adopted just a few days before, was gone. She’d dropped dead of pneumonia – a condition she probably had when I picked her up from the pet store, according to the vet.

Businesses sell shoddy products all the time, from defective TVs to sick exotic birds. When they do, you have a choice: Accept the “no” or fight it.

I fought it.

And here’s what I learned from that incident, which took place a few years back: You can win. The trick is appealing your denial in the right way, to the right people.

When a company turns you down, you don’t have to take their first “no.” Or even their second or third. Here’s how to successfully appeal a rejection.

Start at the bottom

Give the system a chance to work. If you haven’t already done so, contact the company through its customer-service department. The point of this exercise is to collect evidence that you gave the company an opportunity to make things right. That could be important later if the company tries to blow you off and you need to go to court. If you’re dealing with a sole proprietor or small business, visit the store in person and ask for a refund.

Get a rejection in writing

Don’t accept “no” for an answer by phone. Ask the company to put it into an e-mail or letter. That way, you have something to add to your file. I hope you won’t be rejected, but if you are, you want cold, hard proof that the company gave you a thumbs-down. No worries, you’re not out of options. In fact, you’re just getting started.

Be patient

The typical grievance takes six to eight weeks to resolve. Yes, six to eight weeks. A lot of them are faster, but many routinely test the eight-week limit. There’s no excuse for dragging things out, of course, but patience is a must when dealing large companies. They will almost certainly test yours. (Mine was swift, since I was dealing directly with the owner.)

Appeal to a higher authority

Did you get a form letter politely asking you to take a hike? It’s not over. Every company has a vice president of customer service or a manager who is in charge of dealing with “customer experience.” That’s who needs to hear from you next. These executives go to great lengths to keep their names and contact information from becoming public. But a quick online search will reveal the contact person. I list many of them on my site, On Your Side. This doesn’t apply to small businesses, of course.

Take another deep breath

Don’t overreact. Simply enclose copies of all of the correspondence with a cover letter to the VP, politely asking the company to reconsider its decision. Copy the same group of people. Be pleasant and nonthreatening, but firm.

Take extreme measures

If the company still says “no,” you should consider the “Hail Mary,” a respectful but insistent letter overnighted directly to the chief executive officer along with the disappointing string of “nos” you’ve received. This is a little-known loophole in the system. Something FedExed to the top exec has an excellent chance of being read by that person.

Tell on ‘em

Contact law enforcement or regulatory authorities and ask them to investigate your complaint. A grievance to your state’s insurance commission, local ombudsman or to the Federal Trade Commission can have a truly magical effect .

Dispute the charge on your credit card

This works more often than you’d think. If you believe you have a reasonable case, and the company refuses to entertain your request for a refund or a replacement, you may have no choice than to dispute the purchase. Your rights under U.S. law are spelled out in the Fair Credit Billing Act, but not all disputes are covered. Read up on the law before invoking it.

Go to court

Most consumer issues would be handled by a small-claims court, which doesn’t require that you hire a lawyer. Companies like going to court about as much as the average person does, so filing a complaint may be enough to get the company to see things your way. Occasionally, the company won’t send a lawyer to represent them in which case you’ll win by default.

Go to war

In an age of blogging and social networking, there’s one final court to which you can take your grievance – the court of public opinion. Starting a gripe blog can be therapeutic and can inflict untold damage on an intransigent company in the form of lost business. This should only be considered as a last resort. A gripe-site is a time-consuming and emotionally draining project. But it can also be very rewarding.

How did I get my $900 back? Even though my story reads a little bit like a Monty Python skit, returning Scarlett’s body to the pet store was the longest drive of my life. The store owner took the bird and the cage and even after the necropsy results, offered me nothing – not even a refund on the cage. Every effort to reason with her failed.

I wrote to her and I pleaded with her by phone, to no avail. Finally, I disputed the charge on my credit card. Even though my bank had a policy against accepting disputes involving live animals, it made an exception. I won.

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 On Your Side or by email.