How to submit a complaint and get results
Taking a complaint to customer service can be maddening. No one wants to deal with endless phone trees, outsourced representatives reading from inflexible scripts, automated responses or chatbots.
“Despite saying they provide more ways than ever to contact them, companies are building fortresses around themselves so that no one has to interact with you,” said Christopher Elliott of Elliott Advocacy, a nonprofit consumer group.
To breach the walls and successfully resolve your complaint, Elliott said, use the three Ps: patience, persistence and politeness.
Don’t expect an instant fix; give the company’s complaint process time to work. Be prepared to tell your tale repeatedly, taking your complaint up the chain of command if necessary.
And even if you’re frustrated and furious, make nice. Being polite will help your complaint go to the top of the pile and get you a better response every time.
Here are steps you can take to get the results you want:
Document everything. It’s still called a paper trail, even though much of the information may be digital. For any product or service for which you pay a sizable sum, keep copies of your order confirmations, receipts, contracts, work orders, warranties, service agreements and billing statements.
If you opt to get a receipt by email or text, save it. Before you dispose of product packaging, remove enclosed paperwork that may include a warranty, customer-service phone number or even a bar code, which you may need to obtain a replacement item.
Keep copies of emails and take screenshots of online chats. In your first exchange with customer service, write down the reference number if one is assigned to your case.
Recording the call would be ideal. But if you can’t, take notes, including the date, time, name of the person with whom you spoke, the substance of your conversation and any promises made.
Make your point. It pays to complain as soon as you know you have a problem.
The more recent your experience, the greater the weight your complaint will carry. Plus, memories fade, records get buried, and staff changes, said Nelson Santiago of Consumer Action, a nonprofit consumer advocacy group.
A face-to-face visit with a local seller may quickly fix your problem. But if you’re dealing with an online retailer or a corporate office, you usually must follow its complaint process.
Go to the next level. If you’re not getting results, take your complaint up the corporate ladder. Ask a customer-service rep, “If you can’t help me, who can I call or write who has the authority to help?”
Visit company websites or LinkedIn to search for contacts. Try clicking on “about us,” “terms and conditions” or “privacy statement.”
On the website of the Better Business Bureau, search by the company name and look for contact information for owners and executives under “Business Details.”
To bypass corporate phone trees, go to gethuman.com and search by company for phone numbers and shortcuts to reach a real person.
Keep all communication brief, professional and unemotional. Avoid including too much detail or shouting (which includes writing in all caps), Santiago said.
Limit a letter to 250 words or four short paragraphs. Clearly state what you want, and keep your request reasonable.
Ask yourself: What solution would be acceptable, even if it isn’t ideal? Don’t inflate your demands. For example, if you stayed five nights at a hotel and didn’t have air conditioning for one night, you can’t expect a refund for five nights.
Give the recipient a deadline to respond. Ten business days is a reasonable length of time, Santiago said. Let the business know that you’ll pursue other solutions if you don’t hear back by then.
Attach only copies or scans of relevant documents, not the originals, and send your letter by certified mail. (Go to consumer-action.org for a sample letter and email and a free guide titled How to Complain.)
Try social media. Should you apply leverage by complaining on social media, also known as “Twitter shaming” or “Yelp blackmail”?
It’s worth a shot, especially if the company is worried about its reputation. At a minimum, you may feel better by airing your complaint or commiserating with other aggrieved consumers.
To avoid exposing yourself to accusations of defamation and a potential lawsuit, be completely honest, don’t exaggerate, and back up your assertions with documentation.
If your efforts don’t get results, file your complaint with an intermediary that can assist or advise you, such as the BBB, Consumer Action or Elliott Advocacy.
As a last resort, you could sue a business in small-claims court. States set different rules and dollar limits (see Nolo.com’s 50-State Chart of Small Claims Court Dollar Limits).
However, many companies insert arbitration clauses in their contracts, which may require you to take a dispute to a third party for resolution rather than going to court.
If all else fails
If you’ve hit a wall with customer service, contact an intermediary. Some groups will intervene on your behalf; others collect complaints to spot trends and combat fraud for all consumers.
— Contact your state’s consumer protection office or regulatory agency (search by state at usa.gov/state-consumer).
— If you’re dealing with a licensed professional or tradesperson, you can complain to the state or local licensing board with jurisdiction over the person.
— If you think you’ve been the victim of fraud or deceptive practices, complain to your state’s attorney general, your district attorney or the fraud division of a local law enforcement agency.
— Ask for help from the feds. Look for complaint strategies for specific categories of products and services with third-party contact information at usa.gov/complaints-by-product.
— At the federal level, you can also complain to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau about a financial product or service; the Federal Communications Commission about a telecom billing or service issue; the Federal Trade Commission about fraud or an unfair business practice; Medicare about your Medicare health plan or prescription-drug plan; and the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission about problems with brokers, brokerage firms, investment advisers and other market participants.
© 2019 The Kiplinger Washington Editors, Inc. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.