Customer service: How to get it and save

Customer service: How to get it and save

Sometimes, getting good customer service is just a tweet away.

After purchasing a rollout garage floor on SkyMall's Web site, Matt Kucharski immediately had second thoughts and called to cancel the shipment. The first representative was polite, but said she couldn't help since the order wasn't in the customer-service system yet.

Frustrated, Kucharski, a 41-year-old public relations counselor in Minneapolis, did what a lot of people would do. "I told my friends about it — 300 of them on Twitter." To his surprise, another SkyMall representative tweeted back that day and got him on the phone with someone new.

They concluded that the delivery couldn't be stopped, but that Kucharski could make a return at no cost. Happy to not feel at a dead-end again, he decided to keep the floor.

While it's grating to have to pay for shabby service or defective products when money is scarce, there are ways to get your complaints heard without getting upset or losing your cool.

Here are some strategies for getting results.

The odds of hearing back from a company by posting your complaint online get better each day.

Such posts could turn up in searches by potential customers, so more companies are going online to scrub the Web clean of any negative references.

The cable TV company Comcast Corp., for instance, uses a program to track mentions of itself on blogs. The company's "digital customer care" team sorts through an average of 10,000 mentions a day.

"A lot of it isn't about anger. It's people who need assistance," said Frank Eliason, who heads the unit.

Comcast also is one of a growing number of companies with a presence on social media sites.

Out of 100 major retailers, 59 had Facebook accounts in September 2008. That was almost double the number just four months earlier, according to Rosetta, a market-research firm based in Princeton, N.J.

It's not only large companies that monitor the Web, either. Many smaller businesses use social networking as a low-cost way to bring in business.

You also don't have to be a celebrity blogger or have hundreds of Twitter and Facebook friends to get attention. Consider posting on consumer sites or simply search for the company's name on Google. You might unearth an online community of disgruntled customers.

If twittering isn't part of your makeup, there's nothing wrong with picking up the phone.

Before you start dialing, jot down the timeline of events so you can articulate your experience and what exactly you want fixed.

Think of yourself as a lawyer arguing a case. Start by collecting any evidence you'll need such as bills, credit-card numbers and receipts. The exercise will help organize what you want to say.

Have a pen and paper ready to take notes when you're ready to call. When you get someone on the line, resist the temptation to speak condescendingly or rant. The goal is to get people on your side.

"Use progressive firmness. Nasty doesn't get you anywhere," said Steve Cohn, a consultant at Customer Focus, a customer-service-training company based in Alpharetta, Ga.

One reason customer-service calls can be so frustrating is that the person on the line isn't in a position to help you. This might lead to the perception that the representative is being willfully difficult.

To avoid getting worked up, begin the call by stating your situation and how exactly you want it fixed. Then ask if it's a matter they can remedy.

"If the call center person doesn't have power to fix it, all the yelling won't get you anywhere," Cohn said.

Trot out the magic phrase — "Can I talk to a supervisor?" — only once you determine the person can't help you.

If the representative claims there isn't a supervisor — or that you're speaking to her — ask politely for the name and contact information for someone who can help.

Don't despair if you're stonewalled.

Assuming the company is legitimate, there should be all sorts of information online. Go to the company's Web site and click on the "About" section. It shouldn't be hard to find the names of key executives.

Even if their contact information isn't listed, search the Web for their names and "e-mail." If you can find the e-mail address of one employee, you can probably use that formula to figure out the e-mail addresses of others.

When writing to customer service or company executives, don't ramble or use all caps to emphasize your rage.

Be concise about what happened and state what you're asking for up high. Ask for something equal to what the problem is. If you ask for outrageous compensation, you'll likely be ignored.

For the same reason, resist the urge to be nasty and sarcastic.

"Ask yourself if you were reading this letter, would you be offended?" said Cohn.

Letters and e-mails to companies' customer-service department usually get some type of response, Cohn said. Even if you only get a generic reply, use that contact name and e-mail address to keep the conversation going.

If you're not getting anywhere with the company and believe your treatment was unethical, bring in a third party.

One option is the Better Business Bureau, which lets consumers submit complaints on its Web site,

The agency gives companies time to resolve complaints before complaints are noted on their public files.

The BBB isn't a government or regulatory agency, and companies aren't required to resolve disputes. But the agency says about three-quarters of the 892,000 complaints filed last year in the U.S. and Canada were settled.

For situations where you think fraud is involved, consider lodging a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission, or your state's attorney general or consumer-protection board.

Complaints filed with the FTC are entered into a national database and 3,000 law-enforcement agencies across the country have access to it. While the FTC doesn't mediate individual grievances, enough complaints about a particular business could trigger the agency to open an investigation.

Simply alerting a business that you plan to file a complaint also could bring about results.

"They might give you a refund because they don't want you to come to us," said Steve Baker, director of the FTC's midwest region.

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