How to rattle a company’s cage

Last reviewed: July 2011
Illustration of typing on a keyboard and the message going to a building
Illustration by Keith Negley

Sixty-one percent of Americans surveyed for an Arizona State University study said that complaining about a product or service was not worthwhile, but George Starr of Covington, Ky., wasn’t among them. When Covington’s seven-year-old rear-projection Sony TV died long after its warranty had expired, he learned that the problem might have been part of a broader problem discussed on a Facebook page called “I have a defective Sony TV.” He e-mailed the company, which quickly sent a technician to investigate, and two weeks later he had a $1,500 replacement 55-inch flat-screen TV free of charge. “I’m a very happy customer,” Starr said.

Consumers have new tools with which to express themselves. Internet forums can turn one person’s headache into a corporate migraine. Companies as different as Samsung and Domino’s Pizza are on social-networking sites so that they can monitor what’s said about them—and they often respond to a concern before it can go viral. Bad news travels fast. According to the ASU study, each dissatisfied complainant spreads the word to an average of about 18 people.

“Twitter has become the go-to brand for customer support,” says Marsha Collier, author of “The Ultimate Online Customer Service Guide” (Wiley, 2011). “I had a question about OnStar, tweeted it out, and got the answer within the hour. Some brands will respond within seconds.”

Many companies use social-media monitoring software to scan Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and blogs constantly for brand references. And those companies have customer-service agents dedicated to those sites, says Jeff Brady, a public-relations expert who works with Working Solutions, a Dallas company that trains service representatives.

In addition, some businesses are giving consumers a wider range of ways to reach them. L.L.Bean, for instance, posts its toll-free phone number on all of its Web pages (a convenience few companies offer) and allows e-mail queries and live chat with agents. You can even leave a message for an agent who will call you back.

User communities are another way to catch a company’s eye. Verizon Wireless, for example, encourages customers to post questions and comments and air grievances about its products and services. Verizon representatives frequently join the discussions.

Dedicated websites like Tello and Yelp, which let customers rate businesses and sound off about experiences (and invite companies to respond), are another option. Here are more ways to solve a problem:

Make your pitch in person

It might not be the favorite way to resolve a problem, but it can be effective. “On the phone, we use only 45 percent of the communication tools we use in person,” customer-service expert Emily Yellin says. Missing are subtleties that break down barriers—a smile or tone of voice. “The opportunity for things to go awry increases when you’re not face-to-face,” Yellin says.

Bypass automated phone menus

Websites such as DialAHuman. com and GetHuman.com list customer-service numbers and tell how to bypass automated prompts to reach a real person. Another free service, LucyPhone, lets you avoid long waits on hold. You enter the company’s name or phone number and give LucyPhone your phone number, and the service calls you back when a live representative is on the line. When we tried a beta version last year, it worked most of the time.

Don’t take things personally

Yours might be one of 100 requests a rep handles in a day, and that person may be frazzled. Getting mad won’t help. If you realize the agent lacks the necessary authority, ask where to go for help.

Keep a record

Note when you called, the name and location of everyone you spoke with, how many times you were put on hold (and how long you waited for someone to pick up), and the responses you received. That way, if you need to follow up, you can say, “I spoke to John in your Chicago office at 12:20 and after a 30-minute wait he said he never heard of anyone who had a problem like mine.”

Take it to the next level

If you get the runaround, tell the agent you want to “escalate” the status of your complaint. That’s a guaranteed attention grabber and a reason for a quick fix because agents can be criticized for bumping too many problems upstairs.

Contact the CEO’s office

“They don’t like getting calls,” says Shep Hyken, a consultant who speaks to corporations about service. “They want the problem solved before it reaches them.” But when top executives (or their assistants) hear from an unhappy consumer, they’ll often be sure that person receives a response.

Be persistent

Speak loudly and often. Repeat your story on social-network sites if necessary. Companies can hide your comments on Facebook but not on Twitter. If you’re using Twitter, use hashtag keywords like “#Sears” and “#custserve” to make them searchable. Proper “netiquette” suggests good manners no matter how annoyed you are.

Give praise

Thank a company for a good outcome, especially if you’ve griped publicly. That way, you won’t be branded a whiner.