Got a consumer complaint? Be polite, persistent and assertive

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Ever wonder why some people who complain about a faulty product or service always seem to hit the jackpot, but when you complain, all you get is the brush off?

When your neighbor's flat screen TV broke a month after the warranty expired, she got the manufacturer to send her a new one. Your TV blew up and your only compensation was a curt, "Can't help you, but have a nice day."

Chances are, your neighbor was successful because she understood the right way to complain.

The good news is you can learn to be an effective squeaky wheel, too.

Two of the keys are preparation and persistence, according to Amy Schmitz, a professor at the University of Colorado School of Law and author of the recent study, "Access to Consumer Remedies in the Squeaky Wheel System."

For starters, "It's extremely important to be ready before you call or before you write that [complaint] letter," she said.

Be up front about whether you want a refund, replacement or something else. If you're specific, you'll be more likely to be satisfied and less likely to come away with something less valuable, such as a discount on a future purchase.

It's also important to be nice.

"A huge mistake consumers make is to call up with guns blazing," Ms. Schmitz said. "Calm down."

Human nature dictates that if you offend someone, they'll be less inclined to help you.

Another common mistake is giving up too quickly, she said.

Companies purposely put up roadblocks hoping to discourage complainers. They may make it hard to connect with a live person, ignore emails or set up multiple steps in the complaint process.

It's a calculated move to save money, anticipating you won't have the time, resources or confidence to persist, Ms. Schmitz said.

"Generally speaking, the first response is to make it hard," she said. "But we shouldn't be hassled into submission and just give up."

You also shouldn't make the mistake of thinking a company's first offer is its last, she said. People often can do better if they push.

The insurance industry is a good example, she said. "They think, 'We can keep rates down if we don't pay out on many claims.' So they really make it tough to make a claim. They call it rationing by hassle."

Ms. Schmitz said she had a major insurance claim turned down but took the time to appeal, and won.

Bottom line, persistence pays, she said.

In general, women need more help at being assertive than men, she said. Just like in the workplace where men are better at asking for raises and promotions, men are better at getting what they want in the marketplace.

While women who get the runaround tend to back off because they don't want to sound mean, "Men have more confidence to stand up for themselves," she said. "They have the feeling, 'I deserve it,' rather than, 'It's my fault.' "

Ms. Schmitz offered these additional tips for becoming a better complainer:

• Don't call on Monday mornings. It's simple but sound advice, Ms. Schmitz said, because that's when everyone else is calling.

If, as a customer service representative, Mondays are "complete hell for you, and you are in a bad mood, are you going to help Joe Complainer?"

• Recognize when you are hitting a wall. If someone is being especially unhelpful, hang up and try again with someone else. "No question, I've received different results depending on the person," Ms. Schmitz said.

And don't be afraid to ask for a supervisor.

• Don't overlook outside help. Not enough people take advantage of the Better Business Bureau, Ms. Schmitz said, which can step in on a consumer's behalf.

The Federal Trade Commission and a state's attorney general's office also can help people understand their consumer rights.

If you made a purchase with a credit card, consider opening a dispute with your card issuer, which will withhold payment while mediating a resolution with the merchant.

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Patricia Sabatini: psabatini@post-gazette.com or 412-263-3066.


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