SMART BUYING


How to Complain and Get Results

Derek Torrey had wound his way through Comcast's automated phone system and waited on hold for 15 minutes by the time a customer-service rep finally took his call. Already frustrated that his newly installed, high-definition cable box would only flash a "loading" message repeatedly and then shut off, his irritation ballooned when the rep denied that the problem was Comcast's fault. There must be a cable glitch in Torrey's apartment building, the rep said, because a technician had installed the box just the day before.

"I could see the box turning off and on as though it was possessed," says Torrey, of Washington, D.C. "I paid for the installation and the service, and I just wanted it to work."

When he called the customer-service line, it didn't matter whether he was pleasant, irate or asked for a supervisor. "It was always a dead end," he says. So Torrey, who had heard that Comcast handled customer complaints better on Twitter, directed a tweet to the company that Labor Day evening. Within ten minutes, he says, a representative responded -- and later confirmed that the box was the problem. The next day, Comcast installed a new box.

With social media in the picture, you have a powerful new weapon for getting satisfaction when a merchant wrongs you -- as well as new ways to prevent a problem from happening. That's not to say that getting good customer service by dialing or e-mailing is a dying art. We'll share tactics for getting results using all approaches. But we'll start with social media, which can move your private conversation to a public forum, thereby bringing peer pressure to get a quick response from a business. The power you wield: A vast network of people could see the full account of your poor customer service online and decide to take their business elsewhere.

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How tweet it is

Customers should receive good service no matter the medium they use to air complaints, says Jenni Moyer, Comcast's senior director of corporate communications for network and operations. But businesses know that tweets from an angry or frustrated customer are visible to people who "follow" his or her feed -- and potentially to many more Twitter users if the customer's followers "retweet" the comments (that is, copy and post them for their own followers to see). Plus, anyone who searches for a company's name on Twitter will see comments that people with public Twitter accounts post. So the sooner a business stamps out small fires online, the less likely it'll have to extinguish a conflagration later. About ten employees on Comcast's Digital Media Outreach team troll for and respond to customer complaints online, including on Twitter, Facebook and blogs. Other businesses, big and small, are catching on, too.

If you know that a business has a strong presence on Twitter -- and especially if you've heard success stories from other customers -- you may save time by going straight to Twitter with a problem. Or, as in Torrey's case, tweeting about it may be step two if you're unhappy with how a business has handled your complaint using other channels. Search for the company's name at Twitter.com, and address your tweets to the business's account. (If your search turns up a page designated for customer service, send your messages to that account.) Specify your problem, and don't be surprised if the rep asks you to switch to a conversation using direct messages, which are private. Still, you don't have to forgo the advantage of a public spotlight -- you can continue to tweet your dissatisfaction if the private exchange proves to be fruitless.

Don't send anyone sensitive information, such as credit card or account numbers, on Twitter or other Web sites that aren't secure. If such information is required, you should move to a phone call.

Going online has other advantages. For example, when Continental Airlines canceled several flights because of bad weather in December 2010, its general customer-service line was jammed with calls from stranded passengers, who waited on hold for hours to rebook their flights. But those who searched Twitter for conversations about Continental were able to save a lot of time: Some customers had posted an alternative phone number. The rep answered calls quickly and was willing to rebook flights for anyone who needed help.

The influence you wield on social networks could affect how a business treats you, says Joe Fernandez, chief executive of Klout. Klout scores the influence of individuals on social media based on several factors, such as how far a user's messages spread across Twitter and how effectively his or her posts generate responses from others.

Some Las Vegas hotels have the scores built into their reservation systems, he says. They know which guests could cause the most painful public headache were they to broadcast complaints to their online networks -- or generate the most positive publicity if they told everyone about their outstanding service. Fernandez cites the example of someone he knows who sends the tweet "I like but don't love my room" to a hotel after checking in -- and about half the time, he says, the guest gets an upgrade to a better room.

Some call centers also use the scoring system to route calls so that people with the most online influence get priority service. When Fernandez had trouble redeeming a flight voucher after calling and e-mailing Delta, he tweeted to his followers, "This is why I never fly Delta." Delta saw it, responded quickly to resolve the issue and told Fernandez that if the airline had previously realized how much "clout" he had, it would have been more helpful from the start.

But, says Fernandez, "every person deserves great customer service. A particularly bad experience could go viral regardless of who it happens to." Exhibit A: Dave Carroll's video United Breaks Guitars. Carroll was incensed that his Taylor six-string was damaged by rough baggage handling after a United Airlines flight from Halifax, Nova Scotia, to Chicago -- and that despite a nine-month fight with customer service, the airline refused to pay for repairs. So the singer penned a country tune and produced a video to go with it, which has had more than 10.3 million views on YouTube since its debut two years ago. United finally offered compensation, but Carroll turned down the money and suggested that it go to charity.

The career boost and the attention he brought to the airline's poor service were enough for him.

Dial up service

Social media has its benefits, but an old-fashioned phone call, or the more modern live chat on the Web, may get the job done. A Web chat comes with a bonus: an automatic text record of the interaction. To boost your odds of a good experience, prepare yourself. Check your service contract and search the business's Web site for rules related to your issue. If your cable and Internet service bill shot up because a promotional deal ended, for example, you could be out of luck (although you may still be able to negotiate a lower price). Fliers should look up an airline's contract of carriage (enter "contract of carriage+[airline's name]" in a search engine) and read the section pertaining to the issue, says Kate Hanni, founder of FlyersRights.org, a nonprofit advocacy group.

Then gather relevant information to keep at your fingertips -- the account, reference, flight or serial numbers, for example -- to avoid shuffling through a pile of papers during a call or chat. And decide what your goal is. Saying "Your lawnmowers are lousy" may get you an apology but little else. Identify a goal and express it clearly, such as "I'd like a full refund" or "Please send me a replacement."

Once you've connected to an operator, be firm and direct without being combative. Swearing won't help, and the company may use rudeness as an excuse not to deal with your issue. Quickly specify your problem and ask the representative, "Can you help me?" That should get you transferred to the correct department if you're talking to the wrong person, says Rosanne D'Ausilio, president of Human Technologies Global, a customer-service consulting firm.

Record the names of all the people who help you, as well as any relevant information they provide or promises they make. D'Ausilio suggests asking representatives what they're authorized to give you to remedy your complaint. If you're not happy with the response, ask for more -- often, she says, they have more leeway than they first let on. Request a supervisor if you're still not getting what you want. But if you get great service, be sure to thank the rep -- people who deal with unhappy customers all day will appreciate it, and they may be inspired to expedite your compensation.

Hillary Ryland of Charlotte, N.C., doesn't hesitate to ask for compensation when she isn't satisfied. For example, when she and her family moved from a 750-square-foot New York City apartment to their 5,000-square-foot house, she filled the space with furniture and other items she purchased on eBay. If products arrived late or didn't meet her expectations, she called the merchants to say so. Much of the time, she was reimbursed for shipping; she even received a full refund on some smaller purchases.

And when she went out to an anniversary dinner in New York with her husband, she sent a bottle of bad wine back to the kitchen, then rejected the replacement bottle when it didn't measure up. She ended up getting a more-expensive wine for the same price as the first one. "If you know you're dealing with reputable services, getting satisfaction is a whole lot easier," Ryland says. "They want to maintain their reputations, manage their clients' expectations and deliver -- or overdeliver."

Make your case

Snags that disrupt your day-to-day life -- such as Torrey's faulty cable box -- call for quick attention. But other issues, such as chronic problems with poor service or products, and unmet demands for a refund, could turn your quest into a drawn-out affair as you move through the customer-service chain. If you've given the initial service contacts a couple of days to take action but you haven't seen them follow through, e-mail a letter to the company's headquarters or consumer-affairs office. Address it to the president or owner -- you want someone with authority to take notice. Copying several executive-level officers may get you a speedier reply (if you can find one employee's e-mail address, you can probably figure out the formula for everyone else's -- for example, firstnamelastname@company.com).

Much of the same advice for placing a call goes for composing an effective letter: Be specific about the problem and the result that you expect, use a neutral tone, include any relevant account numbers or other information, and highlight any good or bad service you received. Note the date and time of incidents or phone calls, include names of contacts, and attach evidence that may boost your case, such as copies of records and receipts.

If you're a longtime customer of a business, mentioning your loyalty doesn't hurt. And set a deadline -- two weeks is standard -- for the company to reply before you report the issue to a consumer or federal agency. Sometimes the mere threat of action by a government agency is enough to catch a business's attention. (Go to www.consumeraction.gov to see a sample complaint letter.)

But swift justice is sweet, and getting it may be as easy as a simple tweet. Consider again Comcast customer Derek Torrey. A year and a half after his box debacle, Torrey noticed that many of his cable channels were no longer available. He called Comcast and was told that he would have to pay extra to have the channels reinstated. But when he took the issue to Twitter, he got all of his channels back at no charge -- plus six months of HBO free in return for the mix-up.

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