Consumer Reports: How to complain and get action

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You're having a problem with a product or service, and the company says you're out of luck. Consumer Reports Money Adviser notes that if you simply walk away -- and companies hope you'll do just that -- you've failed the squeaky wheel test. But if you complain effectively, you could be among those who get satisfaction no matter what the fine print or customer service rep says.

Many companies have two approaches to customer service: one for the majority of customers, who retreat after a quick brushoff, and another for the "squeaky wheels" -- consumers who know their rights and the power their wallets yield.

Companies know most complaints won't go very far. They figure you probably won't have the time, patience or know-how to pursue the issue. The runaround that you often get when you have a complaint is deliberate.

Here's what you should do to become a squeaky wheel:

• Examine the details. Your first step to resolving a problem comes before there even is one -- when making a purchase. Review the terms, looking beyond the price, warranty or other basics. Companies often make the fine print long and difficult to read, a technique that is known as "shrouding." But don't give in if companies try to use some bit of the fine print to brush off your complaints.

• Understand your rights. The more informed you are, the harder it is for a company to slip one past you. If you have an issue or question, use the Web to find legal resources. Try government sites, such as the Federal Trade Commission (ftc.gov) or your state attorney general or consumer protection department (usa.gov/directory/state consumer/index.shtml).

• Try complaining nicely. Be specific about what you want -- a refund, a replacement or something else. A company is more likely to try to satisfy good customers, Consumer Reports Money Adviser says, so let it know that you and your family are frequent shoppers. If you go in guns blazing, the company might figure it has already lost you as a customer.

• Be persistent. Don't be discouraged if the first person you contact is unsympathetic or unwilling to help. Ask to speak with a supervisor or retention specialist, or write the chief executive officer (search the Web to find the person's name). Some companies have teams that respond to persistent complainers. And some have "good will" programs to placate squeaky wheels with expired warranties.

• Get serious. If you're still being rebuffed, let the company know that you're upset and will tell others -- in person and online -- of your dissatisfaction. Businesses don't want you bad-mouthing them, whether it's to friends and relatives in person or strangers on the Internet.

• Don't settle. Businesses might offer a morsel -- perhaps a discount on another product -- instead of fixing or replacing the item you're dissatisfied with. Don't assume a mediocre offer is the best they'll do.

• Enforce your rights. Follow through with postings on Facebook, message boards and elsewhere, as well as with complaints to government agencies and other third parties, such as the Better Business Bureau. If all else fails and you still think the law is on your side, send a certified demand letter threatening legal action. Be prepared to follow through with a lawsuit in small-claims court. If a lot of money is at stake, contact a consumer attorney.

• Report it anyway. Don't let a positive outcome buy your silence or turn you into a gushy corporate groupie. Post the issue on product review pages or elsewhere online, including details about how you got the company to acquiesce.

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