Complain & Win
You get stuck with a crappy hotel room, service suck? Bad airline service? Just an overall crappy experience? Follow some of the guidelines below for an excellent win rate for valid complaints.
THE HAGGLER asked readers to send their favorite techniques and stratagems for prevailing in consumer disputes, and let’s just say you came through. Loud and clear. And in very large numbers, with some rather novel ideas.
If anything, a few of these ideas were a little too — what is the word? — proactive for the Haggler. Several of you recommended suing in small claims court, which turns out to be a pretty effective way to get the attention of just about any corporation. Apparently, they tend to surrender once the case is filed, or skip the court date. Max Davies of Orlando, Fla., reports that he still gets a thrill remembering the day he called an airline he’d sued to say that a county sheriff would “impound one of their jets” if the company didn’t pay the $800 judgment he’d won in court. (He was bluffing, but it worked.)
Another reader claims occasional success screaming a vivid and succinct obscenity at the automated voice in phone trees. (“It sounds as though you would like to speak to a representative now,” the robo-voice replied.) Well, the Haggler is reluctant to endorse any dispute resolution methods that involve four-letter words or litigation, as effective as they might be. So here are some G-rated ideas that don’t require legal forms, presented in no particular order.
USE YOUR CAMERA Suzanne Barchers of Stanford, Calif., always photographs any unpleasant surprises in hotel rooms, using her handy digital camera. Of a recent trip to Las Vegas hotel she writes, “When asked upon checkout how my stay was, I simply said, ‘Let me show you.’ ” The images included some dingy towels, broken shelves and a view that was less than promised and paid for. “My bill was cut in half without any prompting.”
REQUEST A PRIVATE CHAT Another hotel technique. Whenever Rich Vettel of Winthrop, Mass., complains, he asks the manager to step out from behind the counter. “This sets a tone of importance and mystery,” he writes. “Usually the conversation is moved to the lounge area. I usually speak in a low voice as if to ensure that other guests do not overhear. The manager is usually grateful that I didn’t just start screaming.”
BE PASSIVE AGGRESSIVE, PART 1 Generally speaking, the Haggler disapproves of passive aggressive behavior, but the one place it might belong is in a consumer confrontation. A friend of the Haggler’s, who requested anonymity — look, some people don’t like to see their name in the newspaper, O.K.? — has succeeded in a number of on-the-spot negotiations in hotels and restaurants by simply recounting the flaws in the experience and their unhappy effect on him and his family. He never lies or exaggerates. He states the facts, calmly. When the manager inevitably asks, “Well, what can we do to make this right?” he shrugs and says “I don’t know,” then restates the facts and their effect on him and his family.
Round and round it goes until the manager finally makes a settlement offer, which very often exceeds what this friend would have had the nerve to request.
TRY TO REVERSE THE CHARGE You can skip direct negotiations entirely and call your credit or charge card company. If you can provide compelling evidence that you’ve been snookered, the maker of your plastic will first suspend the charge while it looks into the matter, and then reverse it if your version of events wins the day. American Express gets especially high marks in this department.
BE PASSIVE AGGRESSIVE, PART 2 Several readers note that when you’re talking to a phone rep, time is on your side for two reasons. The first is that phone reps are often timed and expected to churn through a certain number of calls per hour. The second is that nearly all are prohibited from hanging up on you. So the longer you’re willing to stay on the phone and repeat that you are not satisfied, and do not want to end the call, the better your chances of getting what you want.
ASK THIS SIMPLE QUESTION More than a few readers said that when stymied by phone reps, they simply ask, “What would you do if you were in my situation?” “Amazingly, they’ll often pass along an effective tip about how to get the desired result,” writes Frank Scalpone of Antioch, Calif.
CALL THE C.E.O. Lots of variations on this theme. Through Google or Hoovers.com, find the name and phone number of headquarters then, “Call that number and ask for ‘Mr./Ms. X’s office,’ ” writes Eytan Hammerman of White Plains. “Don’t say, ‘I’d like to speak to Mr./Ms. X’ — that’s usually a tip-off to the operator that you are a crank.” Mr. Hammerman typically gets through to the executive assistant of the chief executive and then explains why he’s calling. Then he asks for suggestions about what he should do. “I’ve most often been passed on to the V.P. (or some such title) of product management,” he writes.
WRITE THE C.E.O. Lots of readers recounted success sending letters to the C.E.O., or chief auditor, or any combination of higher-ups — the more the merrier, it seems. Some readers stress a restrained tone, others plump for repeated use of the word “fraud.” Send it registered mail for added gravity and while you’re at it, note that you’ve sent a copy of the letter to a government agency, like the Federal Trade Commission.