We asked career customer-service experts—including Consumer Reports "acquisition" pros, who pose as regular consumers to sign up for services and buy the thousands of products we test—what works for them on the job or at home.
(Read our special report on why company promises and new technology haven't made the customer-service experience much less painful.)
Eighty percent of those who participated in our national survey contacted a company that way. Half of them said it was the most effective way to resolve an issue. Real-time contact is often more efficient than e-mail, where there can be a wait of 24 to 48 hours for an answer, said Sharon Parker-Odom of Carmel, Ind., a Consumer Reports Facebook fan who worked in customer service for 26 years, three of them in call centers. Need a company's number? Look under "investor relations" or "news," or try websites such as Dial a Human and Get Human.
Try a free Web service like Lucy Phone, where you enter a company's name or number, then give the service your phone number. It calls you back when a rep comes on the line.
The old ploy of pressing "0" (with or without the "#" sign) sometimes works. Another option: Forget support entirely and press the prompt for "sales" or "to place an order," when companies are likely to roll out the red carpet. Dealing with a TV provider or telecom company? Leapfrog service and go directly to customer retention, where agents are empowered to negotiate.
Many customer-care reps are low-paid workers subject to poor treatment, and their opinions are rarely sought. If you're in a store, act with sensitivity if you notice one of them being abused by another customer. When making your case, end with the words, "Can you help me?" He or she might not have the authority, so instead of making insults, politely ask to speak with a supervisor. You also might want to say, "Don't you agree?" or "Would you want that done to you?"
We never suggest that you become uncivil, but if you're stuck, be forceful. Companies rely on voice-recognition software to detect anger, sarcasm, and inflammatory phrases like "you people," and will swiftly transfer you to an operator.
The option, if available, is just as effective as using the phone and is often faster. It also results in a transcript for follow-up purposes. Chat reps tend to be more senior than phone reps and have greater decision-making authority, said John Goodman, vice chairman of Customer Care Measurement & Consulting.
You don't have to be a lawyer to get satisfaction, but it helps to think like one. One of our shoppers was recently surprised when Verizon FiOS pulled the Weather Channel from his TV package, replacing it with the company's own version. When he asked why it was removed, the response was a terse, "We're just not doing it anymore." So our shopper went Perry Mason: " I signed a two-year contract; you changed the lineup and altered our agreement. The way I see it, that contract is null and void." The representative ended up giving him a discount on his bill.
Many companies actively monitor social-media sites to intercept problems before they go viral and do greater damage, so you're likely to get a quick response, Goodman said.
Contact the president's or CEO's office and ask to speak with an assistant. Or write the chief executive directly. Less than 2 percent of consumers do that, Goodman said, so executives pay attention.
The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau offers assistance with problems involving financial products and services such as loans, leases, debt collection, credit cards, and banks. File a complaint at consumerfinance.gov/complaint, and the federal agency will forward it to the company and work to get a response within a specified time frame. You can also share your story to help protect other consumers.
Cable companies used to trip over each other trying to snatch a competitor's customers with enticing incentives. These days, they seem to have no qualms about letting you walk. But believe it or not, that can work to your advantage. When the half-price HBO promo ended for one of our shoppers and the cable company refused to extend it, he dropped the package. "Once I quit, they offered it to me again—in the same phone call," he said. Another shopper dropped Cablevision completely when his bill skyrocketed. After he quit, the company was willing to deal to regain his business.
Consumer Reports mystery shoppers posed as ordinary consumers, called a handful of companies, and documented their attempts to get them to answer some simple questions. For comparison, we also phoned the notoriously bureaucratic Internal Revenue Service.
"Why doesn't my laptop battery hold a charge like it used to?" Shoppers found the number for Apple in fewer clicks than those who searched for HP/Compaq. A shopper in New York who called HP/Compaq said: "If you want a number, you must enter all this personal information into their online form and submit it. Then they present you with a number to call. All that to ask a simple question. Even then, I never got a simple answer." (Tip: Tech support couldn't diagnose the problem without model and serial numbers, so be sure you have them.)
"Can I take our small dog on the flight?" Our Texas shopper placed nine calls to Spirit Airlines before she could get past a fast busy signal. She eventually got the information through menu prompts, but when she pressed the touchpad to add a pet to her reservation, she was put on hold for 26 minutes before giving up. At Virgin, transferring to a live rep was usually a bit easier. When a shopper had a lengthier wait, she was given the option of leaving a callback number for a rep to reach her. Another shopper simply said, "taking dog on plane" and was transferred to an agent, who was thorough and cordial.
"My mom lives on her own, and I pay for some of her care. Can I claim her as a dependent on my taxes?" Our shoppers took various routes when calling the IRS, but all hit the same wall. One waded through five options in 3 minutes before getting a real person, who promptly hung up. Others didn't get past automated menus, which said that questions about dependents would be answered by a live person only until tax day, April 15 (shoppers called in June). They were then directed to an interactive online tax assistant before the calls ended with an abrupt disconnect. One shopper said, "I hope everyone who has a tax question has a computer."
This article also appeared in the September 2015 issue of Consumer Reports magazine.