How to rattle a company's cage

Customer service can be frustrating. Here are surefire tips to get a company's attention.

Published: September 02, 2014 06:00 AM

In a recent study by Consumer Reports, we revealed how many businesses are driving a wedge between themselves and their customers by burying phone numbers, vanquishing calls to voicemail, and steering patrons to FAQs or user forums for troubleshooting assistance. Worse, more firms are outsourcing customer service—to their own customers.

When Consumer Reports conducted a major customer-service survey, respondents complained most about the difficulty of getting through to a real person, endless waits on hold, dealing with ill-mannered, uninformed, and unapologetic in-store salespeople, and a lack of help, period.  The frustration ran so high that more than six of 10 people surveyed admitted to hanging up the phone without airing their grievances or bolting from a store before buying anything because service was so awful.

Read more about the most effective ways to complain in our customer service buying guide 

That’s not surprising. According to the 2013 National Consumer Rage study by Arizona State University’s Center for Service Leadership, consumers hate squandering time much more than money when they have a gripe over service or a problem with a product. In previous versions of the study, consumers valued time but not to the extent they did in the latest iteration, says Scott Broetzmann, president of Customer Care Management & Consulting, which partnered with Arizona State on the project.

Data from the 2013 rage study show that 62 percent of consumers cite time lost as the primary damage suffered as a result of a product or service problem or from the dreadful complaint handling that many companies engineer into their “customer care” in the pursuit of lower costs, Broetzmann says. By contrast, half of the respondents cited money lost as the primary fallout.

But technology that makes self-service possible also gives consumers a powerful voice. Internet forums can turn one person's headache into a corporate nightmare. Companies actively patrol social-networking venues such as Facebook and You Tube to monitor what's being said about them—and often respond to a concern before it goes viral. Twitter has become the go-to brand for support. There's even an app, called GripeO, that will take your complaint right to a company's doorstep.

Here are other tips on how to break through a company’s defenses.

  • Though few firms post their toll-free numbers on all of their Web pages, more and more offer live chats with agents. It's faster and more efficient than e-mail because you can have a clear dialogue. Print out or e-mail yourself a transcript of the conversation before signing off.
  • User communities within a firm's site will get you noticed. You can post questions and comments, and air grievances about products and services. Often, a representative will join the fray to put out a fire before word gets out. And bad news spreads fast. According to the ASU study, disgruntled complainants are nearly three times more likely to express their unhappiness than those who have a good experience. Each dissatisfied customer spreads the word to about 28 people.
  • Sidestep automated phone menus. Check out websites such as DialAHuman andGetHuman, which list hard-to-find customer service numbers and advise how to bypass automated prompts to get to a live person. Another site, LucyPhone, lets you avoid long waits on hold. You enter the company's name or phone number, give LucyPhone your number, and the service calls you back when a representative picks up. 
  • Drop the “E” bomb. If you make it through to a person and still feel you are getting the runaround, tell the agent you want to “escalate” the status of your complaint. That’s a surefire attention grabber because agents can be criticized for bumping too many calls “upstairs.”
  • Climb the corporate ladder. Companies discourage direct dialog by forcing customers to submit comments and complaints to a generic inbox via a “contact us” Web page. Responses can take days, if ever. If your comments are ignored, go to the bottom of the website’s home page and sniff around for hyperlinks to “corporate” contacts, “investor relations,” “company information,” and so forth. That’s where you can typically find names and contact information for top management. When executives or their assistants hear from an unhappy customer, they’ll often make sure that person gets a response.

—Tod Marks

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