How to Complain Effectively and Get Your Money Back

If you've got a gripe -- and what consumer doesn't? -- the key to getting a refund (and an apology) is knowing when and how to fight back.

By Cynthia Hanson


We've all got horror stories about a rude salesperson, a new appliance that broke after a week, or an online order that never arrived. And lately those stories seem to be proliferating, thanks to recession-related cost-cutting that includes the shrinking of workforces and more outsourcing of customer call centers. It can feel like a small miracle just to get an actual service representative on the phone -- after navigating a complicated phone tree and waiting on hold for 20 minutes, of course.

What remains unchanged is the fact that as a consumer, you have very little protection against shoddy service or faulty products. Now more than ever it's up to you to make things right -- and that means mastering the art of effective complaining. By stating your case calmly and logically, you can turn that salesperson, waiter, or customer rep into an ally and resolve most common consumer problems. We asked experts for the tactics that get results.


The Situation: The dry cleaner lost or ruined your favorite dress.

Need to Know: Many dry cleaners will reimburse you if they're clearly at fault; their insurance may even cover it. For best results, talk directly with the owner, advises Marilyn Suttle, coauthor of Who's Your Gladys? How to Turn Even the Most Difficult Customer into Your Biggest Fan. If he refuses to repay you for the damaged or missing item, ask if he follows the guidelines of the Drycleaning & Laundry Institute International, an industry trade association. Few dry cleaners want to admit that they don't.

Speak Your Mind: "You lost my dress, and I'd like to be reimbursed. I wore it a few times, so I don't expect full price." This last phrase demonstrates that you're reasonable. You may need to provide some proof of the dress's value, such as a receipt (if you still have one) or a Web site printout showing the price of a similar item.

Bite Your Tongue: An ultimatum, like "Replace my dress at full price or I'll talk to an attorney," is perceived as a fairly empty threat because a lawsuit would consume time, effort, and more money on your part than the dress is probably worth.


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The Situation: You made your credit-card payment after 5:00 p.m. on the day it was due but it didn't get posted until the next day -- so you got slapped with a $39 late fee.

Need to Know: Many credit-card issuers let call-center representatives waive late fees for customers who generally pay their bills on time, says Curtis Arnold, founder of Cardratings.com. "The dirty little secret of the credit-card industry is that it costs $200 to $250 in marketing fees to replace every customer it loses," adds Arnold. "The industry has been hit hard in this credit crunch, so it's good business to keep customers happy."

Speak Your Mind: Call the 800 number on the back of your card and say, "I paid this bill after office hours on its due date. I have always been on time in the past. Can you remove this late fee?" This will rarely be a tough sell; the representative can verify your payment history while you're on the phone. But if the rep can't help you, ask to speak to a supervisor, and if that doesn't budge her, say, "This is unacceptable. Other credit-card companies waive late fees; I'll start using one of their cards if you won't help me."

Bite Your Tongue: Telling the representative that you'll stop using your card is one thing, but actually closing your account is the wrong move. "It can hurt your credit score," warns Arnold.

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Need to Know: Room requests are just that; hotels will try to honor them but cannot make guarantees. Most hotels, however, will move you if rooms are available; some might even upgrade you to a VIP room for the same price. "The hospitality industry is highly competitive, and what differentiates one hotel from another is service," says Holly Stiel, a San Francisco-based consultant who trains hotel staff worldwide. "Hotels want loyal customers who say good things." And they don't want bad reviews plastered all over the Internet, where millions of potential customers could read them.

Speak Your Mind: Before you even unpack, go in person to the front desk and ask, "Is the hotel sold out tonight?" That way you'll know whether switching rooms is even possible. If it's not sold out, say, "I know you didn't take the reservation, but I requested a room away from the elevator. I'm a light sleeper, and I need to get up early tomorrow." Acknowledging that the person you're speaking to is not responsible will make him an ally, says Stiel. If the hotel is sold out, say, "I'm really disappointed. Is there anything you can do to improve my stay here?"
Bite Your Tongue: Accusations ("I think I'll sue") and threats ("I'll never stay here again") are rarely productive.

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The Situation: The seared tuna you ordered arrived well done instead of rare, as requested.

Need to Know: Timing is everything. Don't wait until you're halfway through your meal to complain about bad food. And don't suffer in silence, eat it, and then stiff the waiter with a poor tip. Most restaurant staff will do their best to make you happy if you speak up. The industry is dependent on good word of mouth, and managers don't want disappointed customers.

Speak Your Mind: "I asked for this tuna rare, and it's well done. I was wondering if you could please redo it?" You're being direct yet unemotional, and you're also assuming goodwill -- an approach that will motivate your waiter to help you, says Michael Kaufman, past chairman of the board of the National Restaurant Association.

Bite Your Tongue: Don't say, "You messed up my order." You're blaming the server for what was probably a mistake in the kitchen.

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The Situation: A new pair of pants labeled machine-washable shrank the first time you washed them.

Need to Know: Some retailers will refund your money for defective products. Find the terms on the store's Web site, then call the service line or go back to the store with the pants (and the receipt if you still have it) to ask for a replacement or full refund. Chain retailers with their own clothing put a premium on the quality of their goods as well as their customer service, so they may be more likely to accept a return than department stores, which sell a wide variety of brands.

Speak Your Mind: A polite, direct request will go a long way to winning over the salesperson, who often has considerable leeway in interpreting the return policy to keep customers satisfied: "I love these pants, but I can't wear them now because they shrank when I washed them. Can you take them back and recommend another style?" If the store won't honor your request, write to the clothing's manufacturer and include a picture of the shrunken garment.

Bite Your Tongue: Saying "If you won't help me, I'll report you to your manager" can backfire. Not only does such a statement breed hostility, but most staff members also know that they have their manager's full support in dealing with customers.


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The Situation: A small appliance such as a toaster or coffeemaker stopped working after only two or three months.

Need to Know: Few of us actually fill out or keep warranty cards, especially when the product isn't a major purchase, so it's often unclear whether an item is still under warranty. Some manufacturers will repair or replace a product for free even if you didn't fill out the card, but they don't advertise this on their Web site. It's worth contacting customer service to find out.

Speak Your Mind: Call the service center and say, "Your products usually last a long time, so I was surprised that the motor on this blender gave out so soon. What's your policy for appliances that break?" This wording signals your awareness that every company has a different system to resolve problems, says Lori Jo Vest, the other coauthor of Who's Your Gladys? How to Turn Even the Most Difficult Customer into Your Biggest Fan.

Bite Your Tongue: Telling the representative "This is the last time I buy one of your products" shuts down communication.

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