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How to Complain and Be Successful

Taking a complaint to customer service can be maddening as you deal with outsourced representatives working from inflexible scripts or automated responses.

"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," says Christopher Elliott, of Elliott Advocacy, a nonprofit consumer group.

To breach the walls and successfully resolve your complaint, says Elliott, you must be patient, persistent and polite. Don't expect an instant fix, and give the company's complaint process time to work. Patricia Mertz Esswein, Kiplinger’s Personal Finance, suggests the following 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 and billing statements.

In your first exchange with customer service, write down the reference number if one is assigned to your case. 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. 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 to search for contacts.

On the website of the Better Business Bureau (www.bbb.org), search by the company name and look for contact information for owners and executives under "Business Details." To bypass corporate phone trees, go to www.gethuman.com and search by company for phone numbers and shortcuts to reach a real person.

Elliott Advocacy (www.elliott.org) also posts the names and contact information of executives responsible for customer service at major companies.

Keep all communication brief, professional and unemotional. Clearly state what you want, and keep your request reasonable. Give the recipient a deadline to respond. Ten business days is a reasonable length of time, says Nelson Santiago, of Consumer Action. Let the business know that you'll pursue other available remedies if you don't hear back by then. Mark the date on your calendar as a reminder when to follow up if you haven't heard back.

Try social media. Should you apply leverage by complaining on social media, also known as Twitter shaming or Yelp (or Facebook) blackmail? It's worth a shot, especially if the company has recently experienced bad publicity and is worried about its reputation, says Amy Schmitz, a law professor at the University of Missouri.

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.

Editor’s Note: Patricia Mertz Esswein is an associate editor at Kiplinger's Personal Finance magazine, www.Kiplinger.com.

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